Lee Sims captured the early 1970s

03/10/2016

Photographs at the Jack Mason Museum of West Marin History this month make the past 45 years evaporate for visitors soaking in 60 masterfully composed, executed and curated pictures taken at a mercurial time in West Marin. The images shot by Lee Sims, photographer and compositor for the Point Reyes Light from 1971 to 1974, elicit long moments of remembrance and appreciation for good and bad, high and low, inspiring and fearsome moments of that time. “Lee Sims: An Eye from the Light” continues until April 9.

As you enter the museum, which is tucked into the Inverness Library, photographs on your left unveil the inner workings of the old Light office under Michael and Annabelle Gahagan’s ownership: a staff photo; an oblique view of the ancient Goss printer; disembodied hands setting up the form that held the type; very young Gillian Grisman, Louis Ptak, Elena Elson, Loam Disher, Cedar Nordbye and “Rabbit” on a playgroup fieldtrip. I found myself remembering the day I held my 1-year-old, Giya, up to the Light’s window to show her the behemoth printer spewing out newspapers in long sheets. 

Sims donated his pictures, kept as scrupulously cataloged negatives, to the museum in a slow process that began two years ago at a reunion party for the paper. Sims mentioned to historian Dewey Livingston that he planned to donate all 7,000 negatives from his years in West Marin. The conversation led to countless trips between Inverness and Half Moon Bay, where Sims, now retired, lives with his wife, Bonnie. 

A self-taught photographer, Sims establishes his innate sense of both motion and emotion in the next two pictures along the wall. The first is a heart-stopping image of Mark Boyes, 14, poised to leap off the top rail of the Green Bridge. In the background, three boys can be seen climbing the dangerous girders under the bridge. In the next, somewhat reassuring photo, Mark, Tom Baty and Clayton Schmidt hold hands mid-splash as mounting grey rivulets and droplets rise above them and they sink into the creek.

Curating such a massive donation involved many hours of work by Sims, Livingston and Gayanne Enquist, who worked for the Light in the late 70s. Sims digitally scanned each negative in low resolution and Livingston reviewed them all. Once the selection was winnowed down to about 200 images, Enquist helped choose the final 60. Letting go of the discards was difficult. “We’d say, ‘Oh my, we have to let this one go,’” Livingston sighed.

Enquist helped identify many of the subjects and the trio created intriguing, informative and at times enigmatic captions before setting up the show. The exhibit also includes a few poems, like one by Michael Sykes set next to a photo of a lone fisherman on a foggy day in Lagunitas Creek. 

While Sims was putting his sleeping bag down in tight spaces above the Marshall Tavern and in the Light office, iconoclastic youth in West Marin were turning Shell Beach II into a de facto nude beach, maintaining a free box in the eclectic Punto de los Reyes bookstore, building outlaw cabins and outhouses from scavenged parts of soon-to-be-demolished homes in the seashore and transforming the old Point Reyes Emporium into hippie pads and a community theater. 

Following a spark of imagination when the 1966 counterculture film "Blow-Up" made photography sexy, Sims purchased a Nikormat camera and a variety of lenses, and started shooting nature pictures. Most of the photos in today’s exhibit reveal local faces: Sims’s tavern photos include three people paying careful attention to antiwar activist David Harris, shots of the nearly empty bar and dining room, New Year’s Eve celebrants, Carla Steinberg and Ed Halley at a wedding, and two exterior shots—one of which caught Steinberg’s car and the other showing Sims precariously kicking back with three friends just inches from Highway 1. Sims captured the emotion of the fire the night the hotel burned down, turning the charred ruins into a work of art through the magic of his lens. 

One Rockwellian photo, my favorite, nearly didn’t make the final cut. The picture tells so many stories in just one shot: a young girl and her father in intimate conversation, an incongruent duck catching light from the window, a distracted silhouetted woman and two fishing boats tossing in Tomales Bay. Sims was always framing and composing through his viewfinder. “I realized after Dewey made his selection that we never had to crop,” he commented.

Although Sims often shot portraits for the Light, he never neglected the scenery beyond. It is present in photographic memories of celebrations, barbecues, a parade, a Hog Island picnic, a Bear Valley scofflaw dog and Cheda’s Market. 

The exhibit holds some surprises, too. At 11 years old, Kevin Lunny was winning shooting contests—once shooting 100 out of 100 clay pigeons with his dad’s old shotgun. Lunny’s secret weapon is not disclosed in the caption below his photo—but I will tell it now. “Sharpie,” as he was known, had a blind eye at birth and developed an unmatched level of sharpshooting accuracy. A scout from Harrah’s even tried to recruit him for a traveling show, but his mother would have nothing of it. 

In an awkward group photo, Bob Giacomini points excitedly to some unseen object on his ranch, but Michael Wornum, Judith Weston, Robert Roumiguiere, Bob Borello, Gary Giacomini and Judy Ainsworth look in other directions while registering looks of disgust and indifference—or was it ennui? Maybe they had just stepped in something.

All was not utopian in the '70s. Looking at the last grouping, an uneasy feeling rose from my stomach up into my throat. I felt we had dodged a bullet. There it was: the mass wedding at Synanon, uniformed marching adherents (singing an a cappella version of “Shenandoah”), Synanon observers in turn-of-the century clothes and Light reporter Tom Yarish spoofing in a stockade. 

But the last story is one of triumph. The Rocca home in Marshall, its beauty captured both inside and out by Sims, was saved from condemnation by the failed cult—and it is still here. 

Sims doesn’t come to West Marin very often now—and doesn’t shoot pictures, either. “I stopped taking pictures years ago because there was very little money in it,” he said. “I’ve stopped framing every time I’m out in nature. It took me a long time to get over the habit, but now my experience is completely different.” 

 

The Jack Mason Museum of West Marin History is located in the Gables, at 15 Park Avenue, in Inverness. It is open during the regular hours of the Inverness Library. A reception for the exhibit will be held from 2 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, April 2, and the exhibit will close a week later. 

 

Peggy Day rode the crest of the Berkeley diaspora to Inverness in 1973. She lives in Point Reyes Station.