HENRY DILTZ: LIFE THROUGH A LENS
It was in 1979 that Henry Diltz experienced the true power of an amplified guitar in a big venue. He’d been hired as the photographer for a tour by The New Barbarians, Ronnie Wood’s shortlived solo supergroup with Keith Richards on guitar, Bobby Keys on saxophone, Stanley Clarke on bass, Ziggy Modeliste on drums, and Ian McLagan on keys.
“We got on the private plane,” Henry says, speaking by phone today from his house in the Hollywood Hills. “We flew to a city, got in the limos, went to the hotel. I’m hanging out with them, taking a few pictures and stuff.”
Next afternoon, they found themselves at the initial venue, in Toronto, and it’s soundcheck time. “The first music I heard was Keith, way up on stage—I was out in the back of the empty auditorium—and he played one chord on his guitar: worangggg! It completely filled the room. It was like when a bass drum passes in a parade and that boom, boom hits you in the chest. It was like an avalanche. And I thought to myself that one chord just says Rolling Stones. It was so loud, yet so warm—and not annoyingly loud, because it kind of went inside of you. And oh my god, it just blew my mind.”
Back in 1966, Henry had been in his late twenties when he first picked up a camera. Before that, he was the banjo player in the Modern Folk Quartet, and he had plenty of musical friends in and around Los Angeles. That first camera was a cheap Japanese model he’d come across in a secondhand shop, and soon he moved on to a better Pentax. He enjoyed putting on slideshows to show his transparencies at parties, and the response was good.
Gradually he was becoming A Photographer, although his recollection is that he didn’t particularly consider himself as such, and that he got into it by accident. “It’s not a job, and I don’t feel like I’m even a photographer,” he reckons. “People would see me with a camera and say, ‘Oh, you’re a photographer—are you a professional?’ I’d say no, not really—and this was even when my pictures started to turn into album covers. You English have the phrase ‘up the front’, and when you’ve got a camera at a gig, you get to go up the front. My Chinese zodiac animal is a tiger, and tigers like to hide in the bushes, get close to other animals, and watch them, observe them. That’s what I feel like I’m doing. I’m just watching and waiting for the right picture, you know?”
Every moment can be a picture, he says. “If you’re on tour with a group, and say you’re in the dressing room, you want to be judicious. If you’re just snapping at everything, it’s going to be annoying. I like the art of framing. That’s the point for me.”
We talk about one of Henry’s most famous pictures-that-became-an-album-cover. Crosby Stills & Nash hadn’t been together long when Henry got a call in 1969 to shoot some publicity pictures for the new trio. “They were making their first album and they hadn’t had any pictures taken. They were just thrilled to be singing together—they’d come over to somebody’s house and sing ‘Blackbird’ in three-part harmony. It was so freakin’ beautiful that everybody would fall down. But they didn’t have any pictures to even say these guys are now singing together. So we spent the day driving around West Hollywood.”
Graham Nash had earmarked an abandoned house, and there out front was an old couch. “They plopped down on it,” Henry says, “and this was a great example of the importance of framing I mentioned. A couch is a rectangular piece of furniture, you get the edge of the couch on each side of the frame, their heads go right to the top of the frame, and their feet are on the bottom. It frames horizontally just so tightly and perfectly. But we weren’t shooting a cover, we were shooting publicity photos. Or at least that’s what the mission was. But my partner in these things, the graphic artist Gary Burden, saw the possibility of a cover there. Very often it’s kind of an accident. The accidental album cover!”
Henry was snapping away, and that frame of three guys on a couch he describes is what most people would call to mind if they think of the front cover of CS&N’s first album. And, of course, we would peer closer at Steve Stills’s rather nice-looking Martin. “But Gary would always say to me: ‘Back up, back up!’ And in this case: ‘Get the whole house!’ I’d back up, and back up, and he’d be: ‘Back up some more!’ Well, I ended up across the street,” he recalls, still amused by the memory. “And even though the cover is the tightly framed shot of them on that couch, it wraps around to the back and you see a door and a chair there to the left.”
A similar thing happened to one of Henry’s shoots that ended up supplying the cover for the following year’s Doors album Morrison Hotel. “I was up close shooting kind of sideways, down the window, and the four of them were looking up at me,” Henry recalls. “It was a funny shot, and again Gary said to me, ‘Back up, back up! Get the whole window!’ And once again I went all the way across the street. I always like to move in and frame tightly. He always saw the big picture. And he was right. It taught me—he was my teacher—that it’s good to also get a nice wide shot and show what else is going on.”
There’s a photograph from the ’79 Ronnie Wood tour that shows the value of a wide shot and Henry’s ability to leap from the metaphorical bushes to capture a moment. “There are like eight limousines pulled up around the airplane after we touch down,” he says. “We walk down the steps, and everyone starts looking for their limo. The road manager’s saying: ‘OK Woody, you’re over here with Keith, Bobby in that one over there… .’ Keith Richards is walking through it all, and I turn around, have a real wide-angle lens on, and just snap a picture on the fly.”
He didn’t take much notice of it when he went though the shots later. “And you know what? That’s one of the only pictures of mine that ever got cropped. On the proof sheet, there’s a whole lot of space on the left, and a lot of sky above Keith. It sat on that proof sheet for years and years, until about 2010, when an artist wanted to do some artistic posters with my photos. I said OK, but not the iconic ones—you have to find ones on the proof sheets I’ve never used. He went straight to that one! So we cropped it in from the left and from the top, and I had to admit it looked great. And to this day, that’s one of our best-selling photos at the Morrison Hotel Gallery, which I started some years ago with friends.”
You’ll find hundreds of classic shots at the Gallery—morrisonhotelgallery.com—from Joni Mitchell to Jerry Garcia, The Monkees to the Eagles, Lou Reed to Bruce Springsteen, and much in between. One that Henry counts among his personal favourites is another almost casually captured photograph that would end up on an album cover.
Peter Asher had been one half of the pop duo Peter & Gordon, but by 1969 he was managing and producing James Taylor. “Peter called me one day, asked if I could come over and shoot some black-and-white publicity photos of this guy at a friend’s place where they had some interesting barns and outbuildings.”
As they wandered around the site, James stopped to lean on a post. By now, Henry was using a pair of Nikons, usually one loaded with black-and-white film and one with colour, to replace his Pentax cameras that had proved less than robust for a working photographer. And once again, the tiger was watching and waiting, looking for his moment and his framing. “James had an elbow out and he was leaning on this post, with an arm up,” Henry says. “His arms perfectly filled the horizontal frame from elbow to elbow. It was such a great photo, right there.”
He told James not to move. “I shot black-and-white, and then I picked up my colour camera, thinking I’ve got to get a colour slide of this to show my friends in the slideshows, even though Peter wanted the black-and-whites. Well, they saw that colour picture and it became the cover. I like that photo a lot, though not that cover. Inside the original record was a double-album-size pullout, 12 by 24 inches, and it was that picture, close up, that I really like. You can see the full-frame original of the black-and-white on our website.”
Henry is still at it today, as happy to talk about those halcyon days in the 60s and 70s as he is to discuss the benefits of modern digital photography. He seemed happily unfazed by the coming and going recently of his 83rd birthday. The week before we spoke, he’d been photographing Emmylou Harris at a small charity bash. And he says all his jobs, back in the day or right now, start with a phone call in his kitchen in Laurel Canyon.
Back in the summer of ’69 it was Chip Monck on the blower. Henry knew Chip, a busy lighting guy, from his days on the folk-club circuit. Now Chip was telling Henry about a “huge outdoor concert” coming up, that he ought to be there, and that he’d talk about him to the show’s producer, Michael Lang.
“Next day,” Henry says, “Michael, a man of few words, called me, said: ‘Chip tells me we need you, and I’m sending you $500 and a plane ticket.’ So I went out to the site of the Woodstock festival, a few weeks before it began.” He spent the days photographing a team of hippies happily hammering and sawing the big wooden aircraft-carrier of a deck that became a stage at the bottom of a hill.
“That hillside was filled with green alfalfa blowing in the wind, almost like you were at sea,” Henry remembers. “I’d go over and watch the hog farmers, a commune setting up the camp grounds, smoke a doobie over there, watch them set up teepees, walk around and take photographs, come back to the stage work. Then in the afternoon, the hippie girls from the office would come with sandwiches and drinks and stuff. It was like a blissful summer camp, just Elysium. And when people started filling up that hillside, at first I was thinking, ‘What the hell are they doing here?’ It was almost a surprise when all the action started happening.”
With Woodstock under way, Henry stayed pretty much permanently up on the side of the stage, cameras to hand, watching and waiting as ever. He couldn’t get to his room a mile or so down the road, anyway, what with the blocked roads, so he slept in his station wagon at the back of the stage. He photographed most of the performers, from Richie Havens to The Who, through to the Sunday when the festival was due to finish. But he was woken on Monday morning by an announcement from the stage, and he caught the words “Jimi Hendrix”.
“Wow! I jumped up, grabbed my cameras, ran up the back stairs, and got there just in time to photograph Jimi from 20 feet away. And then he played ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. It was such a surprise. We were the peace-and-love hippies, we were against the Vietnam war, and against the government sending people over there. So for a second, you thought wait a minute, that’s their song. What is he playing that for? And then the next second you think, wait, he’s claiming it back. That’s our song. And then he put all those sounds in, neuuurrrr, bap-bap-bap-bap-bap, like airplanes diving and bombs going off and machine guns. Nobody will ever make a guitar talk like Jimi Hendrix could.”
Much of the audience had gone home by the time of Jimi’s early-morning performance. “It was just a cluster of people by then, and the hillside of green alfalfa was now just mud,” he remembers, “and cow manure, and the mixture of people having been there for three days. There was a huge smell! When the sound from the speakers went out and bounced against those empty hills, and came back like an echo in the air, it was kind of eerie. That field looked like a battlefield, like those old pictures of the Civil War where you’d see dead horses and dead soldiers. There were soggy sleeping bags and broken tents, things that people had left right in the middle, spread over that hillside. And then Jimi playing that amazing piece of music amidst it all.”
The tiger was ready. “I like to see stuff happening, I like people,” Henry says. “I never went to photo school. So I smoke god’s herb and I use god’s light,” he adds, with yet more laughter.
“To me, it’s all about looking through the lens, framing things up, enjoying the visual, and then pushing the button when it looks optimal, when it’s exciting. I’m not a technical guy. I know what I need to know. I never developed a roll of film in my life. It’s all about that moment! Like Jimi, right there, playing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. And like Keith playing that one warm, loud chord that filled your soul. It’s just that moment. Bang! Get that! And you keep doing that.”