Unforgettable photos of psychedelia and debauchery from the golden age of LSD

By Thomas Page, CNN http://edition.cnn.com/2016/11/02/arts/electric-kool-aid-acid-test-revisited-lawrence-schiller-tom-wolfe-taschen/

2 nov. / 2016 



Images from Schiller and fellow photographer Ted Streshinsky capture the hedonism and idealism of the age, when still-legal LSD was being produced by master chemist Owsley Stanley III and spreading from coast to coast.

(CNN) One night in 1960s LA, photographer Lawrence Schiller woke with a start. He heard noises in the garden, laughing and splashing. Schiller's wife left to quiet their three young children, while he set out to discover who these intruders were.

In his pool were a bunch of "heads," acid grins on their faces, tripping out of their skulls. The Merry Pranksters, author Ken Kesey's notorious troupe of counter-cultural jesters, had decided to pay the photographer an unsolicited visit.
"I don't think I stripped naked," Schiller, now 80, recalls, "but I jumped right in with them, I can tell you that!"

Lawrence Schiller 

Fifty-one years later, he chuckles remembering how upset his wife was at the time. These sort of hijinks were exactly how the Pranksters got their name. And after all, he had given them his address: he was one of few photographers they trusted to document their unique way of life.
Romping across the US years before the Summer of Love, The Pranksters can lay claim -- at least in part -- to birthing the hippie movement as we know it. Their infamous Acid Tests, parties full of color, experimental music and light shows -- along with Kool-Aid laced with still-legal LSD -- became their calling card.

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October 31 marked the 50th anniversary of the troupe's Acid Test Graduation, the LSD party to end all LSD parties. Now Schiller is revisiting the era through a Taschen edition that combines his most memorable photos of the era with an abridged version of Tom Wolfe's New Journalism classic "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," the seminal text on The Merry Pranksters.

Capturing counter-culture
Schiller first met the Pranksters in November 1965 at an Acid Test 50 yards from his studio on Sunset Boulevard. The photographer, who had already covered the first forays into acid by Berkeley University students, knew The Pranksters presented an opportunity to show a different side of LSD.

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"The people I photographed in Berkeley and LA didn't have a sense of proportion," he explains. "They were truly risking certain things. They had no way of knowing whether the pill that they were dropping would be harmful or not. They were adventurers for various reasons; young adolescents that ended up with full-blown psychoses because they had unsupervised trips.

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"Whereas the Merry Pranksters, (founder and author Ken Kesey) and that group, came from an educational point of view ... experimenting with LSD under controlled situations."
That night at the Acid Test, Schiller invited the Pranksters to his studio, dangling the possibility of a Life magazine cover. Their shoot -- "a little too posed," he remembers -- cemented Schiller as a man the Pranksters could trust.

Pranksters at a shoot in Schiller's studio

The 1960s LSD movement was captured by Lawrence Schiller in all its psychedelic forms -- from student bedsits at the University of Berkeley to Acid Tests run by the Merry Pranksters.
A loose group devoted to the exploration of LSD, the Pranksters, led by author Ken Kesey, were the subject of Tom Wolfe's trailblazing "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."
Wolfe and Schiller have come together to release a new Taschen special edition pairing Wolfe's New Journalism text with some of the era's most iconic photos.

Over the next five months Schiller lived on the periphery of Kesey's clique, dipping into a whirlwind that sucked in Hell's Angels, Beat poet Alan Ginsberg and groupies, while never adopting the Prankster lifestyle.

"I was an observer," he says of the Tests. "I don't have to be a participant to understand. I want to be a sponge on the outside that absorbs what's going on."
The changing times

Schiller's Life essay, dated March 25, 1966, was an eyeopener, revealing a new world that most would never experience themselves.
But would the story be possible today?
"I couldn't exist in today's media," Schiller admits. "To do a job well, you used to have to ingratiate yourself into people's lives. You had to point out to them that you weren't there with a preconceived idea; you weren't coming to judge them or to already have a conclusion."
"(Journalism has) become not a 100-yard dash, but a 50-yard dash. Everybody's racing for the finish line -- who's going to get out there first? That type of journalism, of the '60s and '70s, into the '80s, doesn't really exist anymore."

The collector's edition of "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" by Tom Wolfe, with photos Lawrence Schiller and Ted Streshinsky, is out now.


The Merry Pranksters barreled around the US on a modified 1939 school bus nicknamed "Further." Painted -- and frequently repainted -- with vibrant psychedelic imagery, the bus crossed the country to the New York World's Fair in 1966, before returning. After that it would be used for West Coast adventures, to Beatles concerts for example, with Pranksters jamming on the roof as they drove. 


One of the era's most iconic shots was taken by Schiller at an Acid Test in Hollywood, 1966. Called "Me and My Shadow," it shows a reveler dancing with himself mid-trip. The image was subsequently used by the Flaming Lips for the cover of "The Soft Bulletin."

The height of Kesey's efforts was the Acid Test Graduation, which took place on October 31, 1966. Kesey (center, shirtless) was entangled with legal proceedings against him for marijuana possession and faked suicide, and wanted to go out in a moment in triumph. The test was ostensibly to "go beyond acid," to reach its heightened state sober. In reality everyone took acid with television cameras rolling -- Kesey's last prank with the Pranksters.


A first-timer in the throes of a bad trip. "I experienced the desire to die, but not actual death," she later said, "very strongly the desire to rip my skin off and pull my hair out and pull my face off."
As the first national photojournalist to capture the American acid scene from the inside, Lawrence Schiller began with a single contact in Berkeley, California, and built a large network of young, receptive subjects who allowed him to document their private experiences with LSD.

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