Bob Shell: Letters From Prison #7

Smithsonian Institute. Washington, DC

Letters From Prison: Part 7, 2018


Letters by Bob Shell, Copyright 2018


I lived in Washington, DC, in the mid to late 60s while working for the Smithsonian. I never worked in the buildings on the National Mall. Our division was housed in a big old building on Lamont Street that said “Sunshine Arcade Laundry” on the facade. (The museum has dozens of buildings all over DC, Maryland, and Virginia.). I shared an apartment with a friend a few blocks from DuPont Circle in one direction and Georgetown in the other. Those were the early days of the psychedelic revolution and I found myself right in the middle of it all. Some friends and I went up to NYC when I was between jobs and saw The Grateful Dead at a little club called The Bitter End. Also saw and met Frank Zappa and the Mothers at a really rundown old theater, where he spent most of the set insulting the audience because we all wanted to hear things from the album. He had a cymbal stand with a black leather glove on it, so that when he pumped the pedal it gave the audience the finger, and used it a lot. My best memory of that time in NYC was seeing The Velvet Underground at a club called Max’s Kansas City and falling madly in love with the ice princess Nico. I’m still a big VU fan and have a lot of their music on my MP3 player here.

Back in DC some people had bought an old theater called the Ambassador Theater and brought groups like Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Vanilla Fudge, The Byrds, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Iron Butterfly, The United States of America, Mandrake Memorial, Stone Poneys, etc. The best rock groups of the day played there with very elaborate light shows behind them. In those days and well into the 70s there were no prohibitions against bringing cameras into concerts, so I took my somewhat battered Nikon F (no light meter, much less autofocus. In those days we felt real photographers didn’t use built-in meters!). I only had one lens, a 50mm f/1.4, so I had to get very close, shoot with the lens wide open, and push the hell out of the film. In spite of all that, I did get some decent photos. I think some were used in the “Freep” the underground newspaper, The Washington. Free Press. I was also doing drawings for them, Beardsley-esque pen and ink nudes. In school I’d taken “life drawing” classes, so nudity was no big deal to me. Working with nude models was just natural. Also, during those heady days in the 60s I joined a group known as the Washington Sexual Freedom League and attended their meetings, where some very interesting people would show up. One time Richard Alpert, Tim Leary’s research associate at Harvard, was there (he later became. Baba Ram Dass, and I read last year that he’s now considered one of the 100 most spiritually influential people in the world.). At another meeting Bill Stanley, Owsley’s cousin, was there from San Francisco, bearing gifts from “The Bear,” including a reel to reel tape of an unreleased Doors album. It was at one of those meetings, I think, that I first heard Procol Harum, for my money the best musical group to come out of the 60s. We had a lot of fun at those meetings, all legal back then.

But all good things must come to an end and I ran out of money because Congress kept cutting the museum’s research budget. One year they appropriated money for salaries but no research funds. Basically everyone sat around their offices and did nothing until the next fiscal year. Well, that’s. not completely true since some continued their work, funding it out of their own pockets. Yes, the government makes sense! Anyway my museum jobs ended and I worked odd jobs for a while, even working in a “head shop” called Yonder’s Wall or a while and a picture framing shop for a bit. But with no real jobs to be had I reluctantly left DC and moved to Richmond, Virginia where my cousin was attending art school. That move led to my first experience with the American ” Justice” System. That story next time……


About The Author: Bob Shell is a professional photographer, author and former editor in chief of Shutterbug Magazine. He is currently serving a 35 year sentence at Pocahontas State Correctional Center, Pocahontas, Virginia for involuntary manslaughter for the death of Marion Franklin, one of his former models. Mr. Shell is serving the 11th year of his sentence. To read more letters from prison by Bob Shell, click here


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