Pubdate: Mon, 07 Jul 2003
Source: Vancouver Courier (CN BC)
Copyright: 2003 Vancouver Courier
Author: Barry Link


"So, Are You Experienced? Have You Ever Been Experienced? Well I Have."

- -Jimi Hendrix, "Are You Experienced"

Karl Ferris is fussing with his computer. A trim, friendly man just over 60,
he wants to show a visitor to his tidy West End apartment a slide
presentation of his photos. But he can't get the sound accompanying the
presentation to work, and he's not happy about it.

Why the fuss? The photos are shots of Jimi Hendrix that Ferris took in
London in the late '60s, and the soundtrack is made up of Hendrix songs.
Ferris knows them well-he was there when they were first performed.

With large glasses, a full head of black hair and a quick conversational
style, Ferris looks and acts like a groovy older uncle, but four decades
ago, he was the photographer to rock and pop gods, including Hendrix,
Donovan, the Hollies and Eric Clapton. He not only heard the music; he gave
it a startling new image.

The sound never does show up, but Ferris runs the presentation anyway. It
includes some famous images: iconic shots of Hendrix that graced the covers
of Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland, the three
albums the Seattle-born guitarist put out in his brief career, which ended
with his death in 1970. They also represent some of the high points in
Ferris' work. In the age of vinyl, before the tiny real estate of CD cases
destroyed real album art, the images on albums meant something.

Ferris experimented relentlessly with film, filters and content, and the
Hendrix shots serve as examples of some of the earliest psychedelic
photographic art of the time. Or as Ferris puts it, they're part of history.

This week, Ferris' work goes on display at the Exhibition Gallery, with the
majority of the shots focusing on Hendrix and Donovan. It will be the
images' first public showing in 35 years.

Ferris was a war baby raised in Hastings, England, where as a boy, he cycled
around the castle-filled countryside and fantasized about medieval battles
and pageantry. After graduating from school, he travelled to India, served a
stint in the Royal Air Force, then emigrated to Vancouver with his parents
in 1960.

He learned photography in Vancouver from a professional shooter named Harry
Nygard, became interested in fashion and photographed girlfriends and models
for portfolios. But Ferris knew there wasn't much for him in Canada. "It was
very quiet here in Vancouver," he says.

He'd fallen into Beat culture, hanging out in coffee bars and attending
poetry readings, and felt the urge to create. A friend from England told him
about the emerging music scene in London, and of a rising band called The
Beatles that Ferris had first seen perform in Liverpool years before.

He got working passage aboard a Norwegian freighter, arrived in England via
the Panama Canal and promptly used his ship's pay to buy a Triumph Spitfire.
He was 22, living in London and it was 1964.

He found work shooting fashion assignments for teen magazines like 19, and
later, for Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, French Mode and Marie Claire. He gained a
reputation for his work, and took trips to Paris, Morocco and the Spanish
island of Ibiza for fashion shoots.

He also met Beatles photographer Robert Freeman, who had just shot the album
art for Rubber Soul. "We spoke about doing different things with
photography," Ferris remembers. "He'd been doing that hard, '60s photographs
with shadow on one side very strongly. The classic, very high-class Beatles
[image]. So that was like a little seed put there that I was going to try to
do something a little different with photography."

During his second trip to Ibiza in 1966, Ferris met The Fool, a Dutch
artists' collective that consisted of two artists known as Simon and

Ibiza, known now for its discos and raves, was an artists' haven and the
locus of an emerging counterculture breaking free from the constraints of
the '50s and the mod culture of the early '60s. Part of the scene involved
experimentation to achieve new levels of consciousness, as preached by
American acid guru Timothy Leary.

Everyone in the counterculture did LSD, says Ferris. Eager to experiment, so
did he.

"It was a medicine, it was a serious medicine," he says. "It wasn't a
recreational drug." LSD, he says, was for "mind expansion."

"It would like take down your regular sort of defence mechanism barriers
that every human being sets up. It would like sort of blow those things away
so that you would look at things different, more stuff would come at you,
you'd see things. Like you'd look at a flower, and it wouldn't just look
like a flower, but you'd actually see the details of the flower, see the dew
drops on the flower, see the shadowing on the flower, see the light moving
around the flower. So you become much more aware of everything."

The artists and musicians who took LSD invariably became more creative as
they tried to recreate the experience, he says. "Everyone tried to create in
their art what they had seen in their minds and their fantasies."

The Fool produced art, posters and colourful, flowery clothing that were
like nothing Ferris had seen before. "They were like totally already into
the psychedelic trip, they'd been doing it for a long time," Ferris says. "I
would say they were some of the innovators of psychedelic art."

Ferris photographed The Fool's designs on models and sent his shots back to
London, where they appeared in the London Times and created a sensation.
"They really went nuts on those." Offers for more work poured in. Ferris
took the Fool back to London and together, they opened a studio, with the
Dutch artists producing clothes and art and Ferris pursuing photography.
They pushed their creativity to the limits.

"We tried to out-psychedelicize each other."

Ferris continued to meet musicians, artists and designers through his studio
in London. He began to work on "happening shows" combining painting,
fashions and slides of liquid colour projected over free-form dancers.

"I started experimenting with filtration, exposure, changing the actual
colours of the film ... make them unreal."

Rock stars Paul McCartney, Graham Nash, Eric Clapton, John Lennon and Pink
Floyd, dropped in and contributed their music to the shows. The Fool went on
to collaborate with the Beatles, creating the colourful clothes band members
wore for their 1967 All You Need Is Love television appearance.

Graham Nash of the Hollies-and later of Crosby, Stills and Nash invited
Ferris to take PR shots of the band, liked what he did and asked him to do
posters. "Then they said, we want you to do our next album cover," Ferris

That cover, for the 1966 album Evolution, became perhaps the first
psychedelic album art, predating the Beatles Sgt. Pepper cover. It featured
the Hollies wearing colourful clothes, designed by The Fool, and peering
into the camera, with one band member extending a finger toward a clear,
organic membrane suspended between the band and the viewer.

It was a hit and established Ferris' reputation. But Ferris wanted to do

Two things happened. First, he was approached by Kodak in London, which was
impressed by the film it was processing for him.

The company also made formerly top secret infrared film that had been used
for U2 spy plane flights. It wanted to find a commercial use for the film
and gave Ferris several cases of it to see what he could do. He went right
to work.

"I thought that would be interesting. I'd shoot people in front of trees and
foliage, which turns all kind of red and glowy. And let's see what it does
to their skins."

Ferris relied on his previous experiments with filtration to refine the use
of infrared. "In the end I got a pleasing background. The leaves and that
they went all beautiful, and the people looked semi-normal." Ferris began
applying the film in his commercial work, producing a variety of colours and
textures. Red pants, for example, turned yellow, depending on the filter

The second significant event was Ferris' meeting with Hendrix. Through Nash,
Ferris got involved with Mayfair, then London's hottest publicity firm,
which had contracts with The Beatles and other major artists. Mayfair
introduced Ferris to artists like folk ingenue Donovan, for whom he did the
photography for the 1967 album A Gift from a Flower to the Garden. The cover
shot was taken in the Hastings countryside, where Ferris grew up and had
boyhood fantasies about the Middle Ages. To him, Donovan represented a
Celtic-medieval poet, so he dressed the musician accordingly in
medieval-like robe (actually a Jordanian robe belonging to Donovan's
girlfriend) and shot him with a castle in the background.

"I would get inspiration from the music, and whatever their music said to
me, it gave me the image for the album cover," says Ferris.

The musicians liked the images Ferris created for them, and so did their PR
agents. Soon, they were using the same images in their live concerts. Ferris
realized he was creating images not only for the albums, but for the
artists' performing personas. "They would have their record [image], and
then they would go out looking that way.

"We were like the innovators and pioneers of this stuff, the people I worked
with, we kind of invented this stuff."

Through Mayfair, in 1967 Ferris met Hendrix, who had moved to London and was
creating a sensation with his live performances. With only a guitar, amp,
wah-wah pedal and feedback, Hendrix was creating sounds and accomplishing
technical feats no one had heard before. (According to Ferris, Clapton was
so cowed by Hendrix's ability that he gave up guitar for several months
until Ferris and Clapton's wife talked him back into performing again.)

All the other musicians Ferris knew were still largely performing
blues-based music, Ferris says. "And then Jimi came along, and he was also
playing the blues, but he was playing psychedelic blues, it was unbelievable
stuff. I thought wow, this is like so far out it's like outer space."

Hendrix and Ferris instantly got along, an association helped by the fact
that both had previously lived in Vancouver, where Hendrix spent part of his
school years. Hendrix wanted Ferris to shoot the album art for the U.S.
version of his album Are You Experienced. He hated the conventional photo
that had gone on the UK cover-he wanted it psychedelic. "You're doing with
photography what I'm doing with music," Ferris says Hendrix told him.

Ferris picked up on the outer space theme and created an album photo in
which Hendrix and his band, shot through Ferris' filtered infrared process
using a huge fish eye lens, are travelling through space within a sphere,
surrounded by bubbles. He says the record company opted for the cheap route,
using yellow ink as the base instead of the metallic gold foil Ferris had
asked for, but the image of Hendrix and his band mates became an icon among
Hendrix fans.

Ferris shot photos for Hendrix's two following albums, Axis: Bold As Love
and Electric Ladyland. For the last album, Ferris used a head shot of
Hendrix photographed at Brian Epstein's Saville Theatre in London.

Ferris was in demand, and the work took its toll. He did nine album covers
in 1967, shot posters for Epstein's Saville and continued to turn out
psychedelic fashion photography. He also produced his own line of
medieval-type clothes. "I was the hot photographer then," he says. But by
the early '70s, "I was maxed out." Mayfair had shut down and Ferris became
increasingly frustrated at the cutthroat nature of the music business and
getting "ripped off" on contracts.

Even the impact of LSD became tame. "Everybody just took it for a trip and
to get high and stuff," says Ferris. "You know, I hope some of them got
their mind expanded, too, but a lot of them didn't. It just became a fad."

He had married a German model and she became pregnant. Searching for a
quiet, free life, Ferris took the large amount of money he had made, bought
a home in Ibiza and lived there "kind of semi-retired" until 1976, raising
his young family.

Later, Ferris moved to San Francisco, where he and his first wife divorced,
then to Los Angeles, where he worked for a record company and the film and
television industry. He met his second wife, Melonie Haller, a one-time
Sweathog on the sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter and a former Playmate. They had
a daughter and moved to Europe.

Ten years ago, Ferris moved his family back to Vancouver so he could be
closer to his parents. He also wanted a quieter city where he and his wife
could raise their daughter. They now live in a tidy, unpretentious apartment
on Thurlow Street. Aside from a small lava lamp and Hendrix and Donovan
posters he created in the '60s discreetly mounted on the dining room wall,
his home space is more IKEA or Caban than Summer of Love.

The show at the Exhibition Gallery came about when Exhibition owner Simon
Gunn heard about Ferris over dinner with a mutual friend several months ago.
Gunn had been a music promoter in the 1980s, working with bands such as the
b-Sides and helping bring in artists such as k.d. lang and the Red Hot Chili
Peppers. He'd also promoted Donovan tours and knew Ferris' name and work
from the Donovan albums. Reference books he consulted also rated the Hendrix
Are You Experienced? Fisheye shot among the top rock album covers in

Gunn opened his gallery at the beginning of June and wanted to feature
eclectic and interesting work. He particularly wanted to showcase
photography, which he considers a sadly underrated art form. When Gunn heard
that Ferris was living in Vancouver, he approached him with the idea of an
exhibit. "I was riveted by the opportunity to do work with Karl."

Gunn calls Ferris' work "exciting and powerful, arguing it captures a
feeling that's distinct from other album photography. "Karl seemed to have
an ability to work closely with the artists and make them feel more than
comfortable," Gunn says. "I think there's real charm and grace in those
shots. I'm sure they were charmed by him. He became an invisible presence in
the room."

Despite his quiet lifestyle, Ferris continues to be busy. "I'm doing so many
things, it's incredible," he says.

He occasionally travels to Los Angeles to shoot publicity and CD cover
photos for the music industry. He's working on a coffee table book of his
Hendrix photos, and plans to accompany the shots with observations about
Hendrix from rock celebrities. He's hoping to produce a boxed CD set of
Donovan songs, focusing on the lesser-known medieval-Celtic rock tunes, and
he's also writing out extensive biographical material for a proposed
dramatic film based on his life. (For good measure, he's written an
action-adventure script he's hoping to sell.)

In the meantime, he sells reprints through his web site and will put on a
future show with Exhibition Gallery of pinup glamour photography, much of it
done in psychedelic style. He's stunned by the revival of '70s fashion in
clothes when he goes into a clothing store with his wife or daughter. "I
have the same [style of] blouses hanging on my wall in my work."

While he's happy and busy, and enjoying the rediscovery of his work nearly
four decades after it was produced, he retains some nostalgia for the era in
which he made his name, conscious that nothing has since matched it.

This is a man who remembers hanging out with The Beatles and the Rolling
Stones, riding around in Bentleys and wearing goofy clothes. "Nothing was as
fun as that," he says. "That was the scene, it was the fun scene. But like
all good things, it passes. I got older and things changed."

The Karl Ferris Experience runs at the Exhibition Gallery from July 10 to
31, 3762 W. 10th Ave. Call 604-224-4866.

Ferris' work can be seen on-line at .
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