If Henry Diltz’s photographs could talk, then we’d know practically the entire history of 1970s West Coast rock ‘n’ roll. But even in silence, the hundreds of album covers for the likes of Crosby, Stills & Nash, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, The Doors and the Eagles that the celebrated California-based photographer has shot tell a compelling story. And when paired with the music inside the albums, they capture a pivotal era of musical history and the youth culture that spurred it on.
“People ask all the time, ‘Did you realize that you were capturing this history?’ and of course I had no idea,” said the 74-year-old Diltz from his home in Los Angeles last week. “I never once thought, ‘Boy, one day I’m gonna have all this, and people will look back and say, ‘What a time.’Heck no! Every day you go out and you have fun, and you do what you do.”
What Diltz ended up doing inadvertently was create a body of work that places him at the pinnacle of rock photography – some of his album covers of CS&N’s debut album, The Doors’ Morrison Hotel or James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James – are almost as famous as the music, and in the ensuing years have become an inseparable part of the listening experience.
“It was an amazing time to be around, and I very much admit to good luck and synchronicity,” said Diltz. “How come I got to be in the middle of it all and pick up a camera and sort of accidentally capture so much of it?” For Diltz, the answer lies in his own musical aspirations. In the early 1960s, he was a member of the Modern Folk Quartet, a group with a respectable following and a record to its credit produced by Phil Spector. To relieve their boredom on tour, the band stopped by a second-hand store in Michigan and bought a used camera.
“We just started shooting everything that happened, taking photos of each other like a photo freak-out,” said Diltz. “When we got home a month later, we had a slide show, and the moment that I saw a slide on the wall eight feet tall, of a moment on tour, I thought, ‘Wow, this is magic!’” Diltz began carrying his camera around everywhere, and since he knew all the burgeoning Los Angeles musical underground, he was soon asked to take his friends’ photos. His first album cover was for the Lovin’ Spoonful, and from there it snowballed into a full-time pursuit.
“For about a year I was a musician and a photographer. I was really a musician that just had a camera, and I got to photograph all my friends who were, like, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, David Crosby, Neil Young,” said Diltz.
“These people were all friends of mine in the music business in LA and I really wasn’t a photographer, but I was just a musician that happened to be there in their backyard or there in their recording session or living room. I was kind of obsessed with photographing everything I saw and all my friends. It was a transition in that way. I think I’m a musician in my heart and a photographer in my eyes,” he said.
In addition to photographing exclusive shots of Jimi Hendrix and Paul and Linda McCartney, Diltz was also the official photographer of the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969.
He explained that while he had no formal photography training, he did possess the innate ability to wait for the right shot.
“Being a musician taught me how to hang out,” he said. “So at a concert, there are a certain number of pictures you take back stage, in the dressing room, you know, if you go on the road, you’re on the bus or in the airport or whatever. So I know how to hang out for hours. Musicians do that; photographers don’t always. They want to get in, get the picture and get to the dark room. I never had that kind of a sensibility; I was there for the long run.”
Today, Diltz is a partner in, and is exclusively published and represented by, the Morrison Hotel Gallery in Manhattan.
A two-month exhibition of his work will open on September 20 at Tel Aviv’s Minotaure Gallery on Ben-Yehuda Street with the famed lensman as the guest of honor. Diltz will also be giving a lecture/slide show on September 23 at Tmol Shilshom in Jerusalem.
The humble Diltz is still surprised at the success and the accolades he’s received.
“I know people go to college and they learn all this stuff. They learn lighting and they learn different cameras, and they learn how to develop or print. I never learned any of that. All I knew was how to set the little numbers according to how light or dark it was and you look through the little window, and when it looks right you push the button. My film school was the Kodak film box.”
The two-month exhibition is on display from September 20 at 100 Ben-Yehuda Street, Tel Aviv.