What London looked like in the Swinging Sixties

A woman named Celia is photographed on Frank Habicht’s rooftop in London.

Editor‘s note: This story includes a photograph containing nudity. Viewer discretion is advised.

If you ask German photographer Frank Habicht, the ‘60s didn’t end on December 31, 1969.

“The ‘60s, in my opinion, they went on ’71, ’72, ’73,” the 80-year-old said on the phone from his home in New Zealand. “The ‘60s really started late — those visual ‘60s — for me and also for others.”

I’m inclined to take his word for it. Habicht, now 80, spent most of the decade in London, photographing the city’s youth — many of them his stylish friends — as they worked, partied and created art in the British capital. His practice would take him from protests to private parties, from markets to mansions, from film sets to festivals and back again, as he captured the zeitgeist for magazines around the world.

This image was rejected for a beer advertising campaign in 1969.

“Habicht finds not the clothes but the men and women who wear them; not the places, but those who live and work within the city,” Valerie Mendes wrote in a 1969 article for Metropolis Magazine. “In the contrasting textures of skin and water, trees and hair, soft body curves against metal and stone, he traces an intricate pattern of the London heart and its restlessness.”

Now, Habicht is sharing his memories of the city in “As It Was,” a collection of mostly unseen photos from the ‘60s. It’s his third book on the subject, after 1969’s out-of-print “Young London: Permissive Paradise” and 1998’s “In the Sixties.”

Celebrity couple Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg

Habicht’s fifth-floor rooftop in London’s SW5 district served as his “favorite open-air studio” and “was a melting place for exuberant parties on mild summer nights,” he writes in his book.

Habicht first moved to London in the late ‘50s at the urging of his father. After completing a hotel management course in his native Hamburg, he briefly studied at the now-closed City of London College. He returned to Hamburg in 1962 to attend the city’s School of Photography, but wouldn’t stay home for long.

“(I) returned to London because I felt this city was caressing me, and I became a new human being with all these visual experiences I had in London,” he said. “Young people were finding new ways of expressing themselves with peace and an easygoing life — you know, “make love not war.”

(Having grown up in Germany during World War II, Habicht said, “Peace has always been my priority in life, to manage conflict with no violence.”)

Actress Vanessa Redgrave carries a poster during an anti-war protest.

In the years that followed, he would shoot aspiring Playboy models and musicians like the Rolling Stones, Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg, and actors including Christopher Lee and Vanessa Redgrave.

But his most enduring images are his shots of everyday people, and he knows it. Indeed, rather than choosing an image of the Stones for his book cover, Habicht chose an image of an anonymous woman with sequins glued around her eyes, smiling at him from under the brim of her hat at one of their concerts.

A young woman smiles at Habicht during a Rolling Stones concert.

A cheeky photo from King’s Road.

When he first moved to London, Habicht said he focused on kids in London’s impoverished East End (“Now high rises are there and nothing probably remains of the slums in London”) before venturing out into the rest of the city. Most of his shots were taken on the streets, but he also staged shoots in more compelling locales — a church bombed by the Nazis during the Blitz; or the rooftop of his terraced flat in West London, where he would shoot models in clothes inherited from his grandfather (or nothing at all).

His approach, he says, “was an easy one and not intimidating.” He would carry a lightweight Leicaflex camera with a few lenses, and a compact Rolleiflex, and shoot what he saw.

A woman named Renee rides a motorcycle on Westminster Bridge.

“I felt I was not born for studio photography,” he explained. “My studio was the outdoors. … This really was my life working the way I wanted it, and not the way I would have been directed by art directors from companies.”

As the decade came to a close, so too did Habicht’s time in London. In the early ‘70s he and his wife Christine, an Austrian he met in London in 1969, moved to Berlin and started a family. In 1981, Habicht moved to New Zealand’s Bay of Islands, again at his father’s suggestion. (“He said, ‘Christine and Frank, it’s much safer to live and to bring up your children, Florian and Sebastian, in New Zealand than in Berlin.’ ”)

Tina holds flowers in 1969.

A man checks his watch.

He travelled to London occasionally after that, most recently in 2016 for the opening of the Barbican’s “Strange and Familiar” exhibition highlighting international photographers’ views of Britain. But even now, the Swinging London is still very much alive for the photographer.

“I have a little gallery in my house with images from the ‘60s, and after the news, I listen to ‘60s music. That means I’m still mesmerized by that time,” he said. “It’s not gone. I’m still in that bubble somehow.”

People shop at the Portobello Road market.

Frank Habicht is a German photographer living in New Zealand. His book “As It Was” is available through Hatje Cantz.

Photo editors: Clint Alwahab and Brett Roegiers

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