Legendary Cannabis Gallery: Mel Frank’s Photography 

By Todd Mccormick

With legalization, cannabis culture is becoming more and more mainstream. What was once activity that was hidden from view is now coming out of the shadows and into the light with an esteemed reverence for those brave enough to have broken the law, and in doing so, brought us the progress in cannabis policy that we have today.

Starting in 1971, Mel Frank began writing about cannabis and teaching the world how to cultivate cannabis. In doing so, he opened up a culture to the opportunity to grow their own. I took a tour of Mel Frank’s cannabis cultivation history through the lens of his camera, and asked him to narrate the show for those of us who could not attend in person. 

Todd: Mel Frank, please tell us about the show.

Mel Frank: This spring, M+B Photo in Hollywood presented the first gallery showing of archival film marijuana shots. The show ran from April 28 through June 16. All shots were taken in natural light with Kodachrome or Ektachrome slide film between 1976 and 1998.

Since the context of what, at the time, was hidden criminal activity, we decided to give attendees a sense of what growing marijuana was like during these dangerous times, so the first room used six images to give a sense of marijuana growing where I photographed 20 to 40 years ago.

As you entered the gallery, the first image was of a young man and a smiling woman standing proudly in the doorway of a makeshift greenhouse filled with marijuana. However, even these happy growers made an effort to hide their faces. This was 1977 in Sonoma County, and many California growers were still somewhat cavalier about their growing. Unfortunately, that feeling was dramatically changing. By 1978, authorities had become more funded, organized, monetarily motivated, and determined to arrest growers and destroy their crops. Hidden faces would become the theme for the next 40 years. This motif continues in the image of a man where in one hand he holds branches of harvested marijuana, while his other hand pulls his knitted cap down to cover his face (1978). Helicopters became a grower’s nightmare, especially in California.

Contrasted with the greenhouse grow is a small plant, grown with window light on a ground floor apartment on a busy street in San Francisco (1981). The grower carefully pruned and tied down her plant’s branches so that it couldn’t be seen by passersby from the sidewalk. Next to this modest growing attempt is Trichome Technologies’ professional electric light grow (1998) (voted “Best Indoor Grow in 25 Years”, High Times),  which shows the sophistication of the growing industry as it evolved, moving indoors in response to authorities’ pressure on outdoor crops.

In the ’70s, city youth were buying their rural 40 acres, trying to return to the land and live on revenue from growing marijuana. Entering the next room we see such, and the motif resumes where a man stands behind a potted outdoor plant, wearing no more than a loincloth, his face just outside the picture’s frame (1976). On the opposing wall, a woman stands among giant plants where leaves obscure her face. “Freedom is the Issue” is the caption on her t-shirt (1979). 

By the late ’70s, pressure from authorities forced West Coast growers to hide their plants by growing them below tree canopies or mixing them among native vegetation. Contrasted here are images from New York in 1982, where the plants were grown in open stands and small fields. Local authorities had yet to realize the extent of native growing and weren’t actively looking. The fields shown yielded better than 500 pounds of high-quality sinsemilla. 

The gallery’s main room is devoted to marijuana buds, the exalted product of the cannabis plant. Unless you are a grower, the dried buds seen at dispensaries are visually unremarkable, but we who grow admire their fresh or dried beauty and distinctiveness as displayed in three live buds, a South Indian, a Colombian, and a Nigerian 1979-1980) in all their 30×50 inch glory. And we see unique qualities between dried buds as well in Purple Colombian (1979) and California Redhead (1996).

These buds, and a row of five live buds 13×20 inch (1979-1997) on another wall, proved to be the most popular, as their aesthetics, with contrasting colors, forms, light and shadows, engage even the naive viewer.  

Photomicrographs of resin glands were taken in the late 1970s to illustrate resin production in a book I was currently writing (Marijuana Grower’s Guide Deluxe, 1978, Frank and Rosenthal). I began photographing marijuana and continued for four decades to illustrate books and articles I would write. But reflecting on the process, photography became more and more a means to help educate myself as I looked closer and more studied with my efforts to better know this remarkable plant. My perception of the plant’s aesthetic evolved as I better understood light in the photographic medium.  

Todd: Thank you Mel Frank! I appreciate all you have done to further the knowledge of cannabis cultivation and also to preserve the history of our culture. In addition to the 30 images hung for the show, 15 other prints are also available, for example, Morning Mist, New York, 1982.

Although the show has closed, all prints can be seen online at:  mbphoto.com/artists/567-mel-frank/series/other-works/ 

And better yet, the prints can still be seen in person at: 

M+B Photo Gallery 
1050 N. Cahuenga Blvd. 
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10:00 am – 6:00 pm 

When We Were Criminals travels to New York, opening September 14, 2018 at

Benrubi Gallery
521 W 26th St, Floor 2, 
New York, NY 10001