The artist Bruce Liddil said last Thursday he thought his photography career commenced in fifth grade.
“I had a teacher named Mr. Wall; he was a photographer from New York City,” began Liddil, who was born in Saudi Arabia but grew up in Goodyear and Avondale in the 1960s. “There was an empty classroom, and Mr. Wall brought in his darkroom equipment. I had a Brownie Hawkeye camera. It just all came together. That was about the same time I also picked up a clarinet. And those became the two things in my life after that: photography and music.”
Some of Liddil’s black-and-white and color images are collected in "Time Fades Away: The 1970s Tempe Photographs of Bruce Liddil," now on display at the Tempe History Museum. The exhibition collects dozens of Liddil’s photographs of east Valley hippie culture, student life, and parched street scenes shot in and around Tempe in the 1970s and 1980s.
In high school, Liddil divided his time between yearbook and newspaper photographer and marching band, then headed to ASU in the mid-'70s for a fine arts degree. It was a move, he said, that saved his life.
“Growing up on the west side, I was a freaking fish out of water,” sighs Liddil of the conservative kids in his neck of the woods. “I moved to Phoenix when I was 6 years old, and I looked around and went, ‘What?’ It didn’t help that I’ve been 6 foot 2 since I was 5. Also, I wasn’t the most masculine kid. I was a target for every kind of abuse.”
Tempe was different, Liddil remembered. In the '70s and '80s, the town didn’t feel like part of Phoenix. “Holy cow, it was like Haight Ashbury. I loved the hippies and the weirdness and the drugs. I had a hippie hovel on Fifth Street, and I might still be living there if I hadn’t met my wife.”
After a couple of years pursuing a career in art, he said, he knew the gallery scene wasn’t a good fit.
“It wasn’t my bag,” he said with a chuckle. “I was always getting in trouble, because I thought my stuff was creative, but everything I did pissed someone off.” At ASU, he got a lousy grade on a faked-up commercial for a company called Johnny’s Rent-a-Punk. “I scored it with a punk rock song,” he said. “I got a D because it was in poor taste.”
After college, Liddil took a left turn and for the next 15 years worked as an engineer at a recording studio he co-founded with school chum Jack Miller. “My 15 minutes of fame was I produced Killer Pussy’s ‘Teenage Enema Nurses in Bondage,’” Liddil said. After years of corporate video work, he retired and moved to Boise, Idaho. Old images of long-ago Tempe began calling to him.
“Winters in Idaho are long and gloomy,” Liddil said. “Last winter, I dragged out my old negatives and started cleaning them up.” A call to Josh Roffler, the senior curator of collections at the Tempe History Museum, landed Liddil his current show.
The exhibit documents a Tempe that no longer exists. Liddil’s moment-in-time photographs capture a snoozy drug culture in pieces like “Hippie House, 1976,” depicting a young couple, she in sequins, he in long johns and scruffy beard. And “Memorial Union,” a color-saturated snapshot of blues legend Taj Mahal, performing an acoustic set for a small crowd of cross-legged teens. And “U-Totem,” a darkly evocative detail of a convenience store parking lot.
“I would just photograph everything,” Liddil said of his early pursuit. “I had a Nikon F that I used to load with Tri-X film from 100-foot rolls. I could get as many as 50 exposures that way. I was stealing chemicals from ASU; I lived on $2,000 a year in those days. My idea — and I know this sounds like a stoner idea now, I was smoking a lot of weed at the time — was that I was inventing a new language. The images I took were supposed to be iconic photos of common objects. The rule was ‘Photograph everything, no matter how mundane.’”
Some of the images, like the Taj Mahal photo and one from 1980 titled “Filming a Commercial,” look like staged film stills. Others are more journalistic, like a series from 1976 called “Campus Preacher” that depicts itinerant evangelist Brother Jed Smock bellowing gospel on ASU’s grassy quad.
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Back then Liddil was, he said, “a hick kid with a camera.” His aesthetic was informed by images he’d seen by Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, and Alfred Stieglitz. “The breakthrough for me was realizing that my photographs didn’t have to have a function; they didn’t have to represent anything,” he remembered. “They could just be beautiful; they could just be things unto themselves.”
The text that accompanies each image in Liddil’s museum exhibit are themselves a series of local history lessons.
“I wrote them myself,” he admitted. “Josh, the curator, deleted the expletives and the slang.” Some of the images Liddil submitted for consideration were also excised. “The City Council meets sometimes in the museum,” he said. “So, my show got family-friendly-ized. Images of people eating peyote and guys breaking up a pound of weed got jettisoned. Apparently, they don’t want anyone taking a picture of Mayor Mitchell with a photograph of a bong in the background. Which shows you how much Tempe has changed.”
Liddil sometimes tells his wife that the Tempe he misses doesn’t exist any longer. He still loves the Arizona landscape, the desert plants, the history, he confessed. “But Tempe has become a magnet for conservative weirdoes. It used to be that Phoenix was like that, and I thought Tempe was different. It turns out it isn’t. It’s nuts.”