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Walter Armstrong Walter Armstrong

Video: Ken Brown, 70, Wins Acclaim for Amazing Psychedelic Films He Made at 23 (and Forgot About)

4 Substance

Ken Brown is an illustrator and photographer in New York City. In 2007, when he was at a show at the Whitney Museum called  “The Summer of Love and The Art of the Psychedelic Era,” he saw a “trippy” lightshow display and then recalled his own 8 mm films from that same era.

In 1967 Brown was a 23-year-old college graduate in Boston with a Fujica Single-8, a camera that enabled him to rewind film so that he could get multi-exposures. He was hired by the Boston Tea Party, a legendary rock music hall, to make “lightfilms”—very short silent films to be projected with liquid-light effects during the performances. Brown’s triple exposures and trippy technique enabled him to capture the fluid, hallucinatory imagery that was the trademark effect of LSD, the happening drug.

For the next few years Brown projected his lightfilms during shows by Jimi Hendrix, the Who, the Velvet Underground, Sly and Family Stone and Santana. But by 1971 the scene had ended, gone big business. Rock stars were performing in big stadiums, the Boston Tea Party closed down, and Brown’s projectors were stolen by the Hell’s Angels. He moved on.

Flash-forward to 2007 and Brown’s flashback at the Whitney lightshow. He retrieved his old reels of film, dusted them off and digitized them, condensing several years’ footage into a 55-minute anthology. Although he thought of the results as merely artifacts, not art, the response from critics and audiences has been intensely favorable. Brown’s “Psychedelic Cinema” is making the rounds of museums and alternative-film stops.

“In its original state, I meant for [the footage] to be shown in little clips done in random ways and hardly ever sustained in any way,” Brown said. He insists that music accompany the film at screenings. “I love the fact that it’s a silent film that mutates to the music. Or the music mutates to it.”