Harold Adler has been a talent agent, poet, movie studio proprietor and event promoter, although he is better known for his photography of the 1960s counterculture in the Bay Area. Today he runs Art House Gallery and Culture Center in Berkeley, a combination art gallery, event space and time machine.
J.: How did Art House get started? What do you do there?
Harold Adler: It started as a photography studio about 15 years ago. I had a lot of studio work back then. My landlord moved out, and I took over as property manager of the building. I redid the place so people could have events and parties and exhibits. [Today] I rent out the rest of the building to artists. And it’s my photography gallery. My focus is to have events dealing with the legacy of the ’60s — art, music, poetry, activism.
J.: Your photography from the 1960s captures a historical moment in the Bay Area. In particular, you shot a number of images of Allen Ginsburg. How did that come about?
HA: In 1971, [an activist performance] group from New York was in jail in Brazil. I took two cameras and shot film of Allen Ginsburg in Union Square protesting the arrests. Before that, I had produced events for Berkeley Free Clinic and groups like that and wanted to do a bigger benefit for Living Theatre.
Allen Ginsburg was staying with some friends in Berkeley. I walked up a stepladder into someone’s attic, and there he is smoking a joint. I had photographed him but hadn’t met him. He said he would read at the event. I said who else, so he gave me Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s number and a few others. It was $2 admission, and we raised about $2,000. I sent it to their legal fund, and they got out of jail.
J.: You’ve had a lot of ventures over the years. What kinds of businesses have you been involved with?
HA: In 1969 to ’71 I ran Studio 841 on Gilman Street in Berkeley. It was a full movie studio — rehearsal space, recording studio, soundstages, everything. That was my focus, but it never really came to fruition because of conflicts with my partner.
I was also shooting photos for the Berkeley Barb, an underground paper, of all the activism and art that was going on at the time. From time to time I also did some photos for the Oakland Tribune, UPI, AP. I’d only shoot photos I thought were important. I opened Adler theatrical agency working with models and actors and others; Danny Glover was the biggest [name] I worked with.
I also worked for the Jewish Welfare Federation as a printer. I would print their newsletters and envelopes — but I’d moonlight after work and do books of poetry, which was fine as long as I brought my own paper.
I also worked for the Magnes in Berkeley. I helped [founder] Seymour Fromer. I was one of the first employees. I was kind of like a handyman. I did painting, all kinds of part-time work.
J.: What do you think will be your main legacy?
HA: I’m becoming known as proprietor of Art House, but my legacy will be photography. My photos are in Getty Archives and at California State Library in Sacramento; they’re going to inherit my collection when I pass away, and most of my negatives are there already. The Bancroft has a collection of my work as well, the Oakland Museum of California, too.
In 1991, when the Oakland Hills firestorm hit, I took some pretty powerful black-and-white photos. That opened a tremendous number of doors for me as a serious photojournalist. Then everyone wanted all my photos from the ’60s.
J.: You also sell books and records at Art House, right?
HA: Anything! I’ll sell anything people want to buy. I’m getting old, I might as well sell it all. I have ’60s books, photojournalism books and history books about the ‘60s, all for sale. I have some rare early Rolling Stone magazines, some early psychedelic newspapers, some stuff from the San Francisco Oracle, a Haight-Ashbury hippie newspaper. I sell, books, photos, records.
J.: The décor is a throwback — psychedelic posters, a wall of lava lamps. Is it an exaggeration, or is that style really representative of your experiences in the ’60s?
HA: It’s kind of both. It’s a slice of my life, present and past. It’s where my focus is, where my head is, where my stuff is. Detail is important. Décor is important. I want to bring people back to a time when music and art were just incredible. The bands are long gone, but the musicians are still around. I often have them playing there.
Have you read “Howl” [by Allen Ginsburg]? It’s about the best minds of my generation. That poem brings it all together for me. We should learn from history and always be at the forefront of social justice and activism. I want to let people know that we did speak out and stand up and sit in. We did everything we could to say enough war, enough Vietnam, enough persecution.
J.: And you have one room in particular that’s super far out.
HA: The “1968 Room.” It’s pretty trippy. I decided this would be my green room or band room for performances. I put bamboo curtains and bamboo around the edges, black light posters, black lights. It’s like a room you’d trip in. I did a lot of psychedelic light shows during the ’90s rave scene. The kids now would call it a chill room. It’s like where you would smoke weed, meditate and go to sleep. The room is dedicated to sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. I don’t know if anyone’s had sex in there, but it is lockable.
HA: I don’t focus on Jewish events, I’m open to anything.
Jews want to make a better world. We want to make sure something like Hitler never happens again. All the social protest movements of the ’60s and ’70s: a lot of Jews. Our legacy from the ’60s was to make the world better. I think we did.