In the late 19th century, Southern California attracted misfits, idealists, and entrepreneurs with few ties to anyone or anything. Swamis, spiritualists, and other self-proclaimed religious authorities quickly made their way out West to forge new faiths. Independent book publishers, motivational speakers, and metaphysical-minded artists and writers then became part of the Los Angeles landscape. City of the Seekers examines how the legacy of this spiritual freedom enables artists to make creative work as part of their practices.
Anyone nostalgic for LA's recent history will find a trip through the back issues of the Los Angeles Free Press a suitable substitute for a time machine. "The Freep," as it was affectionately called, regularly chronicled underground culture in the City of Angels from 1964 through 1978, and continues to maintain a presence today. But back in its heyday, the weekly print publication was largely a passion project put together by volunteers. Now, more than half a century later, archivist J.J. Englender's enthusiasm for pop-culture history and collecting has led to his own labor of love: assembling an online collection of images culled from the pages of the LA Free Press, which became known for its radical politics almost as much as for its listings of events and other "happenings" that helped forge LA's reputation as a hotbed of hippies.
What's most remarkable about viewing past editions of the LA Free Press is not so much the radical editorial content, but the raw, psychedelic, DIY-style advertising that illustrates just how many of today's seemingly innovative LA events are rooted in the nearly-forgotten cultural history unearthed through Englender's collection. Long before events such as Monsterpalooza and ScareLA, the great Monster Halloween Freak-Off of 1966 delivered an "optical psychedelic-symphonic nerve spasm." Before the Occult LA film series took over the Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre, a venue named Cinemateque 16 presented a program called "Black Magick Sex & Witchcraft in the Underground Cinema." And presaging the sawed-off tour vans and hop-on/hop-off double-decker sightseeing buses, not to mention LA's alternative tour bus company Esotouric or San Francisco's Magic Bus, the Psychedelic Fun-In For Adults billed itself as the "world's only psychedelic and high-camp tour." Ads for head shops, craft fairs, indie music shows, and adult nightclubs further illustrate how the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The youngest of three children, J.J. Englender was born in North London, dropping out of school at 16 to work for an antiques dealer for two years while simultaneously developing an interest in film and memorabilia collecting. Englender joined the Video Department at Tower Records in 1987, where he met Channel Four's late-night talkshow host Jonathan Ross, which then led to Englender's brief stint as a researcher on the The Incredibly Strange Film Show on the Discovery Channel.
In 1991, Englender left Tower Records and moved to the U.S. with a friend. "My mind imagined a romanticized version of Midnight Cowboy meets Easy Rider, by way of Route 66, with dusty towns and interesting people," he tells Creators. "After living in Venice for a year and going absolutely nowhere, my friend returned to the U.K. and I remained." While Englender attributes his permanent relocation to "idealized film fantasies," he admits he "definitely felt a closeness to the city and its history," which is a biggest reason why he stayed.
Meanwhile, Englender's growing collection of movie posters gained him some attention in the mid-90s, just when he made the transition into a career as a graphic designer, working at Hustler magazine for the next decade. He began putting together an online library archive in 2004, and after getting laid off from Hustler, Englender returned to collecting, archiving, and researching, and is now hoping to find work in a related field.
A year ago, Englender began collecting issues of the Los Angeles Free Press as "part of an educational/academic project," reproducing the images in their current condition online after acquiring the papers at flea markets, through private sellers, and on eBay. "The project was intended as purely visual—just put up the ads—but natural curiosity set in, and after researching and writing a piece on the first one, I figured I should do it for all of them," he says. 45 issues later, Englender admits he's "always looking for more" editions of the LA Free Press.
After laboriously digitizing the contents of the paper, Englender began the process of sorting the archives into categories such as film, music, and events. "Whilst curating the finished content, I was fascinated to learn which places existed," he says. "It was incredible to have addresses on most of the ads, which prompted me to discover everything I could on all the ads. Having lived here for 25 years and feeling somewhat familiar with the geographical locations I was reading about [has] made me that much more interested in writing the essays. I've always had a nostalgic feel for certain time periods in history and wished I could jump through a photograph."
A film and music buff, Englender was drawn primarily to the paper's eye-popping advertising, which was a big reason why he began acquiring them in the first place. As a curator, he avoided any dry social or political angles, and instead allowed himself to enjoy discovering which movies or bands played in which theaters. He quickly recognized that the print issues were worth preserving. "The deeper I got in this project, the more I saw the value in preserving as much as I could," he says. "I viewed it as an accessible window into the past."
Englender believes it's important that people of all ages learn about LA's recent history, just as he fully realized his passion for collecting and research through assembling the archive itself. "I've been slaving away at the archive [...] and while it's done nothing for me financially, it's my calling card. I continue to expand it, as I can't imagine doing anything else."
View and read more of the archives of the LA Free Press here.