Hippie Freaks, Rampant Punks!

Eileen Polk isn’t just a photographer of punk and hippie cultures — she’s a member, too.

Red White and Blue Dancer: The ‘Mud People,’ 1991 at Oregon Country Fair by Eileen Polk

Eileen Polk Photography: 20th Century Subculture – Hippie Freaks, Rampant Punks! will be on display at Sam Bond’s Garage through June. Sam Bond’s is a music venue, not an art gallery, but that makes it perfect for Polk. Her career as a photographer began in the 1970s when as a young adult she took pictures of New York City’s punk music scene as it was unfolding.

Thirty photographs will be on display and for sale. Many of them will have subjects you recognize from the ’70s and ’80s, like the Ramones, Cheech Marin, Jerry Rubin (1938 – 1994) and Timothy Leary (1920 – 1996). Into the ’90s, closer to Eugene, pictures depict fewer famous folks — those are the “freaks.”

Though Polk was first a punk then a hippie, she identifies with both subcultures. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for her financially in either one, but she says, “I am rich in life experience.”

That richness is greatly reflected in her photographs.

A picture she took of Marin, anti-war activist Rubin and psychedelic advocate Leary relates to a story that could serve as a script for a Cheech and Chong movie, and in fact, includes both Cheech and Chong. In 1988 she was invited to take pictures on the set of Rude Awakenings, which starred Marin, by her friend David Peel — a musician who played with John Lennon in the ’70s and was an extra in the film.  

Polk arrived on set in East Village’s St. Mark’s Place, and Peel introduced her as his publicist, which is how she was allowed to photograph. “I had no idea how to shoot on a set,” says Polk, because they had rules she didn’t know about. But she brought the pictures she took to John Holmstrom, who was then editor at High Times. She had freelanced for Holmstrom in the ’70s, as he was the founding editor of Punk magazine. 

He couldn’t give her a cover story though because High Times preferred images of people with pot on its covers, which Polk didn’t have. Enter Tommy Chong into the picture. Long story short, she went to California to meet Chong at Moonfire Ranch, a 60-acre property in Topanga Canyon, and stayed for about a month, eventually getting an interview with Chong and taking a photograph of him wearing a “crown of thorns made with pot.” 

Her story, which she authored, too, made the cover in 1989 and was reprinted in 2021 by High Times in honor of Chong’s 83rd birthday.

Speaking of the photographs that Polk took of musicians in the ’70s, she says she knew what she was doing was important, even if the mainstream music press wasn’t interested then. She worked with Nikon cameras because she thought they were the strongest and “could take any punishment, like the mosh pit and getting knocked on the floor,” and she carried two cameras, one camera for black and white and the other for color.

Her favorite band was the Ramones, who in 2002 were named by Spin magazine to be the second-best band of all time, after The Beatles. She photographed them more than other musicians, and there are pictures of the Ramones in this exhibit that have never been shown before.    

Dee Dee Ramone (1951 – 2002) and her were “together” for a while. “If you can call ‘together’ going out with a guy in a band,” Polk says.

Her picture of him in the show, wearing an “I kill Moonies” T-shirt, was taken at the “Blitz Benefit” in 1978 at CBGBs, a benefit for Johnny Blitz, drummer of the band Dead Boys, who had been hospitalized after being attacked in the street.  

Polk didn’t know Eugene existed until 1991, which is when she made a fortuitous stop on Highway 126 about 13 miles west of town. On a road trip out West with a friend,  she saw some “interesting people” and pulled over, then followed them to an entrance where she paid $8 at the door to get in — you can’t pay at the door to get into the Oregon Country Fair anymore. 

She remembers the experience as “a magical thing.” 

The exhibit at Sam Bond’s features photographs of that first visit, her introduction to the Oregon Country Fair, especially of the “Mud People” that greatly impressed her and inspired her move, some 33 years ago, to Eugene. The opening on May 31 will start around 6 pm and Polk will be in attendance. I suggest if you see her talking about any of her pictures, to go over and listen as well as look. 

Eileen Polk Photography: 20th Century Subculture – Hippie Freaks, Rampant Punks!, is  on display through the end of June at Sam Bond’s Garage, 407 Blair Boulevard. Regular hours are 4 pm to midnight.