Kin

The Family Acid

A California family’s personal photographic archive provides a kaleidoscopic view of the past.

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words by sophie mancini, creative directed by andrew zuckerman

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words by carvell wallace, illustration by nigel van wieck

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Picking Up the Thread

words by nina renata aron, directed by Ben Severance, Timber and Frame

OVER THE PAST two years, I found that what gave succor better than any stiff cocktail was a full-on retreat into the warm, gauzy reaches of my past. I exhumed my old NES and finally rescued the mermaid at the end of “Goonies 2” (the internet helped a lot). I watched my favorite movies from childhood, and I’m sad to say “Mannequin” did not hold up well in the cold light of 2020, even if Starship’s theme song really does. By the way, it’s probably clear by now that I’m not an essential worker. I realize I’m also fortunate enough to have a past into which I enjoy retreating.

But what about those whose idea of utopia ended before they were born? For a large chunk of Instagram users, one account featuring photos mostly from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s provided not only a pleasurable escape into nostalgia by proxy, but also an inspiring historical model for the kind of activist reckoning that has been exploding over the last two-plus years. The account (and accompanying monographs, gallery shows, and other forthcoming spin-offs) is called The Family Acid, and it’s the ongoing collaboration among the California-based Steffens family — parents Mary and Roger and their adult children Kate and Devon. They graciously admitted me into their inner sanctum recently via a group FaceTime to discuss how their project has evolved since its launch in 2013, as well as their working dynamic, and what it’s taught them about family, memory, and whether the ’60s really were that much cooler than today.

MOST READ ARTS

Future

Architecting the Future

words by sophie mancini, creative directed by andrew zuckerman

Giving

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

words by carvell wallace, illustration by nigel van wieck

Giving

Picking Up the Thread

words by nina renata aron, directed by Ben Severance, Timber and Frame

Roger and Mary Steffens didn’t set out to birth a family art collective. They did apparently first meet while on LSD, in anticipation of the moniker that that collective would take on decades later. But back in the early ’60s, Roger had already committed himself to exhaustive documentation of his life, he tells me, in order to record all these sure-to-be-seminal moments and soon-to-be-famous faces he (and later he and Mary together) encountered. This was thanks to a Forrest Gump–ian knack for tending to be around for what are now seen as important cultural flashpoints (he was even an extra in “Forrest Gump”!). In New York City, California, Jamaica, and especially when Roger was deployed to Vietnam as a member of PsyOps, he was diligent in documenting what he was experiencing. As Roger told me, “[I] realized that this was a moment of great historic significance, so as soon as I got to Saigon, I bought a Canon FT in the PX; a couple months later the Tet Offensive broke out, the whole city went up in flames around us, and I was right in the heart of it.”

Mary, too, had a front-row seat to the ’60s counter-cultural revolution before she and Roger met, thanks to her time at Berkeley, which is exactly where anyone with even a shred of reverence for that period would want to be. She now laments not carrying her own camera, but thankfully this was just the beginning of her wild ride, and soon enough she had Roger and his trusty Canon by her side. When Roger moved to California and started his post-Vietnam life with Mary (who is both a social worker and librarian by trade), their extended milieu was the stuff of all-time fantasy dinner parties — including Timothy Leary, Nina Simone, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, a young John Ritter, and many more. Despite perhaps being best known as a photographer today, Roger was first widely recognized for his work as a radio DJ and preeminent reggae authority. In fact, he still possesses one of the world’s largest archives of Bob Marley ephemera.

Roger and Mary’s daughter Kate and son Devon (middle name Marley) came along in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but parenthood didn’t seem to dampen Mary and Roger’s thirst for transcendent experiences — now they had two more compelling reasons to live strange and interesting lives. Though it probably sounds like a dream childhood to some, it wasn’t always easy for Kate and Devon growing up with such far-out parental units, whom Devon describes with obvious affection as “the most embarrassing.” Social pressure can drive kids to be fairly conventional, and though it doesn’t seem like Kate and Devon truly resented their parents’ freewheeling lifestyle, they sometimes felt a bit sheepish bringing friends over for fear of opening the door to a Cheech and Chong–worthy cloud of marijuana smoke (for instance).

But with age came a new appreciation for their colorful upbringing, as well as for Roger and Mary’s pre-parenthood adventures. Kate and Devon knew that they were sitting on a trove of cultural significance in the form of their dad’s 40,000+ photo archive. As Instagram was emerging as a popular platform, Devon got to work painstakingly scanning everything and Kate began sharing their fascinating family history, one post at a time. 55,000 followers later, the world is richer for it, because we now have access to never-before-seen perspectives on a justifiably romanticized cultural epoch, along with Roger’s mind-bending double-exposure work that reinforces the hallucinogenic undercurrents of the project.


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In talking about the project with the Steffenses, I was curious about their relationship to the work as an artistic and public endeavor versus a deeply nostalgic and personal artifact of their shared lives. Mary has found it “fascinating, how often we get remarks from children or grandchildren of hippies, who want to know more about that late ’60s and early ’70s era, to kind of get a little keener insight into their own parents’ lives.” And Kate acknowledges that they never expected the fanfare they received. How could they? So she does hold some more personal material back, and she’s had to institute a few guardrails to not transform her family’s memories into something corny or crass, despite the natural temptation to lean into forced topicality as their project gained viral momentum. Some topicality didn’t need to be forced, due to the ingrained ethos of The Family Acid, e.g. posts in support of the Black Lives Matter uprising of 2020 (in which Devon was heavily engaged), and denouncements of voter suppression surrounding the 2020 elections. But, as Kate puts it, the project could also easily “turn into us wishing people happy birthday, and [posting] every time we know somebody who’s passed away,” resurfacing that famous, departed face just because the algorithm craves it. But that’s where Kate draws the line, and her curatorial instincts have clearly played a key role in the project’s continued relevance and longevity (though her mother does worry about Kate bearing “a lot on [her] shoulders” these days, in addition to her full-time job as an archivist).

At a certain point, I likened Roger’s initial impetus for photographing to our reliance on smartphones as external hard drives for our brains. This struck a nerve with Mary, but led our FaceTime down an interesting path. She’s not a huge fan of our dependence on screens today (to say the least), and though she remarks that the project has been “a thrill for us, to see that other people are enjoying a glimpse into our lives,” her shutterbug husband’s incessant snapping used to be a bit of a pet peeve along the same lines, which I found hilarious and surprising in this context — though it made sense. I guess he was one of those people we all know (and if we don’t, we are those people), who has been accused of “spoil[ing] the moment,” in Mary’s words, or too often experiencing life as mediated through a device.

I really enjoyed this conversational detour because it suddenly collapsed the distinction that we tend to make between contemporary society and these “good old days,” and led to a deeper examination of the romanticization that seems to saturate these images and inform the reception to them. The family is united in their more nuanced perspective on this era, one fraught with turbulent and painful times for so many — it wasn’t all life-affirming love-ins, primo drugs, and epic music festivals. As Devon put it, “I don't have the same nostalgia that some people have, like, ‘Oh I want to go back to the ’60s,’ because there were a lot of problems.” And to underscore her son’s point, Mary recounts “watch[ing] the police deliberately tear-gas people.”

Reflecting on this disconnect brought to Roger’s mind another critique they’ve received since the project took off, mirroring a common gripe about Instagram today. Some have complained that his photos just show groovy, happy people living their best lives, surrounded by famous figures who probably never experienced an ounce of FOMO, given that they were at the center of the known universe. To this, Mary interjected, “Of course — we were sensible enough not to show the other side [of our lives]!”

Fair enough. I don’t feel remotely guilty sharing a flattering #TBT shot or a shot of my gorgeous dogs. Isn’t that what it’s all about? Though, I also think it’s safe to say no teen will be developing dysmorphia as a result of either The Family Acid or my own, humbler feed.

Another complicated dynamic that has emerged around the project in recent years is the dissonance between the spirit and subject matter of the work and the specter of Big Tech — the realities of essentially lining Mark Zuckerberg’s pockets and subsidizing a pretty nefarious outfit with the fruits of a family’s passion project. It’s definitely a relatable bind.

I asked if the project had implications in how the family regarded their own present, with the flip side of romanticization being a sadness that’s literally baked into the etymology of “nostalgia.” As someone who flagrantly dwells in my own past and sometimes feels bad about it, I was happy to discover how flush the Steffenses are with rewarding pursuits firmly rooted in their current realities. Kate has her career as an archivist at a California university, which she balances with her considerable purview as chief curator of The Family Acid. Devon is a visual artist and musician, and credits his dad’s double exposures with “open[ing] me up to those possibilities. And now I do quite a lot of that with my own visual art.” Mary has dedicated her life to social justice, environmentalism, and gardening, both at home and in service of the community, and according to the rest of the family, she remains the official and “most accurate” arbiter of stories and names when it comes to the familial collaboration on-screen and off. Roger continues to photograph and hold reverence for his role as documentarian — he has over 500,000 digital photos that have yet to see the light of day, along with more than 60,000 prints that he took from the early ’90s through 2006. He remains keenly aware of the power of photography, and tells me he wants to be very careful to create images that will last, and capture the moments that he’s still experiencing. To paraphrase that old curse: We do live in interesting times, after all.


Header image: Double exposure of midwives Sharon, on left, and Sheila, on right. Sheila introduced Mary and Roger, and was the midwife when Kate and Devon were born at home. Big Sur, CA, July 1978.

Things to Feed Your Head

Music, Movies, and Literature Recommendations from The Family Acid

From Devon, The Family Acid son

  • Van Morrison, Veedon Fleece

    I found this LP in my dad’s collection in my mid-teens. A mystical, deep, and rewarding record that is the spiritual sibling to “Astral Weeks.” The first side of this LP goes perfectly with rainy days, a packed bowl, and nag champa.

  • Journeys Out of the Body

    I was turned on to these writers by my sister, who had found them in our parent’s library. Certain books were key to my parents’ philosophies and became central to my own development and thought. Still amazing all these years later.

  • Rockers

    One of the greatest music movies of all time, “Rockers” captures a moment in Jamaican music history like no other document. If you want a feel for what it was like growing up in the Steffens house in the early ’80s, this will scratch that itch.

  • Van Morrison, Veedon Fleece

    I found this LP in my dad’s collection in my mid-teens. A mystical, deep, and rewarding record that is the spiritual sibling to “Astral Weeks.” The first side of this LP goes perfectly with rainy days, a packed bowl, and nag champa.

  • Rockers

    One of the greatest music movies of all time, “Rockers” captures a moment in Jamaican music history like no other document. If you want a feel for what it was like growing up in the Steffens house in the early ’80s, this will scratch that itch.

  • Journeys Out of the Body

    I was turned on to these writers by my sister, who had found them in our parent’s library. Certain books were key to my parents’ philosophies and became central to my own development and thought. Still amazing all these years later.

From Mary, The Family Acid mother

  • The Overstory

    You no doubt noticed that many Family Acid photos are of nature. I am most at home there and am always seeking human creations that highlight our natural world and ways to guide humans within it. In that vein, this book comes to mind.

  • Justin Hinds

    Rock steady is my beat. Justin Hinds is my favorite reggae musician, but I dance to pretty much anything.

  • The Overstory

    You no doubt noticed that many Family Acid photos are of nature. I am most at home there and am always seeking human creations that highlight our natural world and ways to guide humans within it. In that vein, this book comes to mind.

  • My Octopus Teacher

    In the movie world, I go to "My Octopus Teacher" from recent times.

  • Justin Hinds

    Rock steady is my beat. Justin Hinds is my favorite reggae musician, but I dance to pretty much anything.

From Roger, The Family Acid father

  • The Reggae Nation: The Global Legacy of Bob Marley & the Wailers

    I'd like to recommend a new book for which I wrote the intro, "The Reggae Nation: The Global Legacy of Bob Marley & the Wailers" by Martijn Huisman. It's filled with gorgeous color photographs and wonderful paintings from dozens of different countries that have embraced Rasta culture.

  • The Reggae Nation: The Global Legacy of Bob Marley & the Wailers

    I'd like to recommend a new book for which I wrote the intro, "The Reggae Nation: The Global Legacy of Bob Marley & the Wailers" by Martijn Huisman. It's filled with gorgeous color photographs and wonderful paintings from dozens of different countries that have embraced Rasta culture.

From Kate, The Family Acid daughter

  • A Dangerously Curious Eye by Barry Shapiro

    Barry Shapiro was a Bay Area photographer whose family hired me to digitize his archive before it was acquired by UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. His black-and-white images of the Black community of Hunters Point and the Fillmore District in the 1970s are an important document of a much-changed part of the Bay Area.

  • Kali Ltd. Ed.

    Joan Archibald was a housewife who walked out on her family and life and escaped to Southern California. There, she took up photography and used her swimming pool as a giant tank with which to experiment with dyeing and painting her photographs. The results were psychedelically colored portraits of friends and fauna, along with many double exposures. Similar to my dad’s photos, her images have not been seen by anyone outside of her family until recently.

  • Circus of Books

    Rachel Mason directed this documentary look at life growing up around her family’s LGBTQ+ adult bookstore, Circus of Books. I was born in an apartment a few blocks away from this store, and it was a cultural touchstone for many of us from the Silver Lake area. Rachel’s insight into growing up in a heavily counterculture atmosphere struck a familiar chord with me.

  • Soul. R&B. Funk. Photographs by Bruce Talamon 1972–1982

    Dad and Bruce previously collaborated on a book of photographs and text about Bob Marley, and this is his newest release — an incredible compendium of photographs of the stars of the soul, funk, and R&B worlds.

  • Rag Theater

    A compendium of photographs taken on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue from 1969–1973. Both alone and with us, my dad has spent many years photographing and exploring the streets of Berkeley, California. Nacio Jan Brown’s photographs capture the waning end of the hippie heyday and its effect on Berkeley's street culture.

  • Harold and Maude

    My all-time favorite movie, written and directed by a Higgins (my mother’s maiden name), “Harold and Maude” takes place in many of the areas of Northern California that my dad was photographing during the same time period.

  • A Dangerously Curious Eye by Barry Shapiro

    Barry Shapiro was a Bay Area photographer whose family hired me to digitize his archive before it was acquired by UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. His black-and-white images of the Black community of Hunters Point and the Fillmore District in the 1970s are an important document of a much-changed part of the Bay Area.

  • Soul. R&B. Funk. Photographs by Bruce Talamon 1972–1982

    Dad and Bruce previously collaborated on a book of photographs and text about Bob Marley, and this is his newest release — an incredible compendium of photographs of the stars of the soul, funk, and R&B worlds.

  • Kali Ltd. Ed.

    Joan Archibald was a housewife who walked out on her family and life and escaped to Southern California. There, she took up photography and used her swimming pool as a giant tank with which to experiment with dyeing and painting her photographs. The results were psychedelically colored portraits of friends and fauna, along with many double exposures. Similar to my dad’s photos, her images have not been seen by anyone outside of her family until recently.

  • Rag Theater

    A compendium of photographs taken on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue from 1969–1973. Both alone and with us, my dad has spent many years photographing and exploring the streets of Berkeley, California. Nacio Jan Brown’s photographs capture the waning end of the hippie heyday and its effect on Berkeley's street culture.

  • Circus of Books

    Rachel Mason directed this documentary look at life growing up around her family’s LGBTQ+ adult bookstore, Circus of Books. I was born in an apartment a few blocks away from this store, and it was a cultural touchstone for many of us from the Silver Lake area. Rachel’s insight into growing up in a heavily counterculture atmosphere struck a familiar chord with me.

  • Harold and Maude

    My all-time favorite movie, written and directed by a Higgins (my mother’s maiden name), “Harold and Maude” takes place in many of the areas of Northern California that my dad was photographing during the same time period.

Our Contributors

Shaw Bowman Writer

Shaw Bowman is a writer and Emmy-winning producer. He’s held senior digital roles at Comedy Central and Netflix, and most recently served as head of creative at the national political organizations Swing Left and Vote Forward. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his partner David Benjamin Sherry and their border collies Wizard and Magic.

Libby Gray Photographer

Libby is a Detroit native who spent over a decade living in New York before moving to Los Angeles in 2018. She started taking film photographs while working in the fashion industry in 2010 and has been passionately dedicated to it ever since. She is best known for her intimate style and natural sensibility. She is also an executive producer currently working in the beauty industry.

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