August 7, 2019

Princeton Resident Shares Photos, Recollections in “Woodstock 50: A Look Back”

“FIVE FRIENDS HANGING OUT”: This photo by Princeton resident Ilene Levine is featured in “Woodstock 50: A Look Back,” on view at Princeton Public Library through September 1. The exhibit highlights Levine’s photos and memories from the historic 1969 concert.

By Wendy Greenberg

There are those too young to remember a summer music festival called Woodstock, and there are those who saw the crowds on the news or have a story about a friend going. And there are those like Princeton’s Ilene Levine, who not only was there, but took photographs to document the generation-defining concert held in Bethel, N.Y., August 15 to 18, 1969.

Levine’s photographs and recollections are shared in the Princeton Public Library’s “Woodstock 50: A Look Back,” and bring to life her experience navigating crowds in the sun and the soaking rain while listening to the likes of Joan Baez; Arlo Guthrie; Santana; Crosby, Still, Nash, and Young; Janis Joplin; and others.

The intimate exhibit, which runs through September 1, is part of a commemoration that includes the showing of the film Woodstock on the 50th anniversary of its opening day, August 15, at 6 p.m. in the Community Room of the library. The three-hour film is presented in partnership with the Princeton Garden Theatre and Princeton Record Exchange.

Another event, a Woodstock 50th Anniversary Tribute Concert featuring local bands and singers from the Einstein Alley Musician’s Collaborative, will be held on August 17, at 5 p.m. at the Community Park North Amphitheater. Lawn chairs and picnic dinners are welcome. The event is co-sponsored by the library, Princeton Record Exchange, the Princeton Recreation Department, and the Einstein Alley Musician’s Collaborative. In case of rain, the concert will be moved into the library’s Community Room.

Viewing the display, 50 years ago at once seems like yesterday, and also distant, as teens seek guidance on using the record player. The library is adding a book on Woodstock, and a jigsaw puzzle for visitors to work on.

Janie Hermann, library adult programming manager, explained that the exhibit origins were serendipitous. She and Susan Conlon, the head of youth services, realized that this summer would see significant event anniversaries (the library also held events commemorating the July 20, 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing). They had screened the film Woodstock for its 40th anniversary and wanted to do that again. “From there, things just took off,” Hermann said.

They set up a listening station with the Woodstock vinyl record album and several other albums from Woodstock performers. Then, Levine offered her photos. “It was a happy coincidence,” said Hermann.

Levine, a retired teacher living in Princeton, was a 19-year-old student at Harpur College (at Binghamton University, State University of New York), home in Long Island for the summer when she heard about Woodstock and decided to attend. An avid rock music fan, she knew “that was the place to be.”

Her father, who was an amateur photographer, had taught her darkroom skills, and she always had a camera with her. Looking at her photos brought it all back for her – the 400,000 people and also the community spirit. “What I tried to do with the photos was piece together my experience,” said Levine.

She recalled that The Hog Farm collective was giving out food, and remembered that she slept in a tent. “A stranger offered me a space in a tent. I felt lucky to have a place to sleep since it was rainy and wet outside,” she wrote in a small book that accompanies the exhibit. “I was alone but I felt comfortable and safe. I walked around taking pictures and listening to music.”

She had gotten a ride from college friends who were going to the Monticello Race Track and dropped her off in Bethel, N.Y., where the concert was being held on a local farm. “We never experienced the traffic we heard about,” she said. “We took back roads in fact, and stopped for cows crossing the road.”

Some of the photos depict a message board and message tree, with tacked-on paper notes. “Without cell phones, this is how people at the festival messaged each other,” she wrote.

“For me, the importance of Woodstock was that not only were there so many talented musical performers and amazing performances occurring in one place, but it represented the best of the ‘hippie era’ and a time when a generation was united by music, peace, and love,” she said. 

Levine has donated her negatives to the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, and last month recreated her journey in Bethel. “The message tree is still there,” she said. The people in Bethel “were very welcoming and excited about my photos and negatives and some other ’60s memorabilia that I donated,” she said, adding that the photos would be archived so that others would be able to see them.  “I felt really happy about finding this great home for them.”

But she also wanted to “do something locally.” “This is a big one,” she said of the 50th anniversary. “It was now or never. I would like people to see the photos. The Public Library is the best place.”

Levine hopes viewers will see the photo collection as a documentary, informing them as seeing the photos again triggered her own memory.

“What I like,” said the library’s Hermann about the exhibit and upcoming movie and tribute concert, “is that the community is getting together. We are sharing photos, and musicians are donating their time. We are joining together in the same spirit.”