Story by Heather Riske. Photos courtesy of Dennis Staffne.
The summer of 1969 is certainly notorious in the minds of many Americans. The Beatles had their last concert on a rooftop in London, the first man walked on the moon and the legendary Woodstock festival celebrated three days of peace and music.
That summer, an 18-year-old Dennis Staffne set out to photograph his hometown of St. Louis, focusing primarily on Forest Park. He had just bought his first camera, a 35mm Nikon F, and had never taken a single photography lesson. What he ended up with is a series of iconic images chronicling the arts, music and culture found in the park almost every day.
At an artist talk for “Forest Park, 1969” at SOHA Studio + Gallery last week, I had the chance to view the photos for myself and to hear Staffne recount his memories of taking each one.
On August 10, 1968, Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company performed at the old World’s Fair Pavilion in Forest Park. Having recently been shortchanged during their concert at Kiel Auditorium, they decided to hold a free concert at the pavilion. This, Staffne says, inspired local bands to play their own free concerts, which took place almost daily during the summer of 1969. Concerts weren’t announced ahead of time—everyone just showed up. And although the venue costs upwards of $1,000 to rent today, in 1969 “people would just show up and plug in their amps.”
Staffne had relatively no experience when he began photographing people that summer. He didn’t follow many photographers, and cites “LIFE,” “Look” and the “Saturday Evening Post” as his early visual influences. As he roamed the park, he was primarily looking for human interest, humor and personal connections—there’s hardly a photograph in the exhibit without someone in it.
Looking back, he says, it was a good thing he was so naïve. Although he didn’t think much of it at the time, he would never be able to take these photographs today. That entire summer, not a single person ever objected to being photographed. Today, however, people are much more opposed to having their picture taken and there are more restrictions on photographers.
Dennis believes that his photos show a sense of inclusiveness in Forest Park that’s still found there today. In addition to the huge crowds that turned up for impromptu concerts, he’d often find people lounging in the park without much of an agenda. His images captured the spirit of that summer, and help to remind those of us who weren’t there that Forest Park was alive and well in the ’60s.
“There was so much hype around Woodstock,” Staffne says, “but we had our own. Forest Park had that type of atmosphere every day.”
Forest Park, 1969 is on exhibit at SOHA Studio + Gallery until July 26.
Originally from St. Louis, Staffne earned his BFA and MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Now, he teaches photography at Northern Michigan University and works as a freelance photographer.