Kali Archibald Was a Prolific '60s Photographer No One Knew About—Until Now

Photo credit: Courtesy Staley-Wise Gallery

The story begins in 1964. A Long Island housewife named Joan Archibald loads up her old Studebaker and takes off for the West Coast, leaving behind two children and a soon-to-be ex-husband, never to return. She ends up in Malibu, where for a time she lives out of her car, and she soon falls in with the Holly­wood hippie crowd, becoming best friends with the actor Richard Chamberlain, deflecting advances from Frank Sinatra, and taking up photography—Southern California providing a revolving door of beautiful young muses. She also changes her name to Kali Archibald.

Very little else is known about the woman who is now the subject of a four-volume monograph, Kali, which catalogs a sweeping cache of never-­before-seen photographs and prints that she kept hidden her entire life. (Archibald, in a self-portrait, above, died in 2019 after a two-year battle with dementia.)

Photo credit: Courtesy Staley-Wise Gallery

It wasn’t until her daughter Susan Oddo began packing up Archibald’s house in 2017 that the immense trove was found. Oddo shared the discovery with her ex-husband, the photographer Len Prince, who spent the next few years meticulously organizing the archive, which amounted to about 100,000 images. “I kept saying, ‘We have to put a light on her, she has to be recognized for the life she lived and the extraordinary talent she had,’ ” he says. “She was the real deal.”

The book, published this month by PowerHouse, is divided into the three distinct periods that comprise Archibald’s oeuvre: Portraits & Landscapes, Polaroids, and Outer Space, each of which is characterized by a coherent aesthetic and point of view, one so unique that she gave her own style a name: Artography. “Her intentions were incredibly obscure. She made a logo, which has a kind of Warholian lust for fame, and yet was so assiduously private,” says the filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer, who wrote the introduction. “It’s half mad, half genius.”

Photo credit: Courtesy Staley-Wise Gallery

What would Archibald, who likely swore her daughter to secrecy about her work, think of this book—and the posthumous fame that is sure to follow? “She would still be herself,” Len Prince says. “She would create, she would be a recluse, she would be difficult. And she would be brilliant.”

This story appears in the October 2021 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW

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