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Robert Altman, photographer who captured 1960s counterculture scene in San Francisco, dies

Robert Altman poses with an image from his book 'The Sixties: Photographs.'
Robert Altman poses with an image from his book “The Sixties: Photographs,” which was published in 2007.
(Robert Altman / Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley)

Robert Altman, a photojournalist who captured San Francisco’s burgeoning counterculture scenes of the late 1960s and became an early staff photographer at Rolling Stone magazine, has died at 76.

Altman was found dead in his San Francisco home on Sept. 24 after a long battle with esophageal cancer, Felicia McRee, the executor of his estate, said Tuesday. A cause of death is pending.

Born in New York City in 1944, Altman studied photography with Ansel Adams before heading west to San Francisco in 1968, where he became a fixture in the city’s arts community, easily making friends and photographing hippies, protesters, revolutionaries and rock ’n’ roll artists.

“Robert was a wonderful and loveable mensch and friend,” said Frankie Ann, a film director who is working on a documentary about Altman’s life and work. “As one of the lead Rolling Stone photographers, Altman’s exquisitely candid shots capture the historic moments that have come to define the ’60s.”

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The first photographs he snapped in San Francisco — hippies frolicking in Golden Gate Park — were published in an underground weekly called Good Times, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Hippies frolic in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.
(Robert Altman / Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley)

“They gave me the front page and the full back cover and an inside spread. I was up all night waiting for the paper to come out,” Altman told rock journalist Ben Fong-Torres, who wrote the introduction to “The Sixties: Photographs,” a book Altman published in 2007.

The book included iconic images of Tina Turner, Dave Crosby and Keith Richards that were covers of Rolling Stone magazine and many other photographs of rock and roll concerts and stars he shot while at the magazine from 1970 to 1973.

Music critic Joel Selvin said Altman’s porfolio was singular.

“Robert Altman has left us with some indelible images from a time and place that will ring through the ages as an enduring American archetype, The San Francisco Hippie,” Selvin wrote.

During his career, Altman captured more than 30,000 images, visually documenting everything, including Jim Morrison performing live, the Rolling Stones’ recording sessions for their “Let It Bleed” album, the ’60s counterculture and the world of fashion.

Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richard is photographed in 1969.
(Robert Altman / Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley)

UC Berkeley acquired Altman’s work to form the Robert Altman Photograph Archive, which is housed at the university’s Bancroft Library.

McRee, who Altman befriended while both were on an upstate New York bus in 1996, said the deal paid him enough to retire.

McRee said the archive was moved to the university over several years and when the last box was picked up in May 2019, Altman left her a voice message.

“It’s done,” he said. “The nest is empty. I don’t know how I’ll fill it.”

A Times staff writer contributed to this report.


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