3 Days of Peace & Music with Henry Diltz
Fifty years on, the official photographer of Woodstock takes us back to where it all began.
It’s no exaggeration to say that musician and photographer Henry Diltz’s work not only documented but defined the world’s collective vision of rock ’n’ roll as it existed in the ’60s and ’70s. Diltz’s candid snaps of musicians like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and the Rolling Stones simultaneously provide a magical window into simpler times and capture the personalities of some of the most iconic artists of the last 50 years—often as they were just becoming stars. Diltz’s name is at the top of the very short list of photographers that evolved the way we see and document musicians, craft album covers, and approach concert photography. Among Diltz’s monumental archive of nearly 800,000 photos, there are countless candid shots of zeitgeist-shifting musicians, photos featured on hundreds of album covers by artists like the Eagles, the Doors, and Crosby, Stills & Nash, and snaps documenting of some of the most important moments in music history—none of which rank higher than the photos Diltz was responsible for as the sole official photographer of the original Woodstock Festival in 1969.
With Woodstock’s 50th anniversary approaching, Diltz will celebrate the magic and cultural significance of the festival with a retrospective photo show at the Morrison Hotel Gallery on Prince Street in SoHo. In preparation for the show, GrandLife sought an audience with the enthusiastic and immensely charming folkster-turned-photographer to discuss his charmed, uncanny career, shooting Woodstock, his time spent living in the thick of the action of Greenwich Village during the singer-songwriter revolution of the mid-60s, and what he hopes people take away from his photos of Woodstock 50 years down the line.
Tell us about how you initially got involved with shooting Woodstock.
Henry Diltz: Chip Monck was the lighting guy at Woodstock, but his lights never got hung on stage because they didn’t manage to get the truss built in time. So Chip became the emcee and was the guy that famously said, “Don’t take the brown acid.” Chip called me one day a couple weeks before the festival and said, “Henry, you should be out here, we’re having this big festival.” I said I’d heard about it, but that I didn’t know any of those people. So Chip spoke to the festival’s producer Michael Lang and Michael called me the next day and all he said was, “Chip says we need you. I’m sending you an airline ticket and $500.” And that was it!
I flew out two weeks before the festival and photographed and documented all of the setup. Every day I was on that big plywood aircraft carrier stage they were building at the bottom of this beautiful green hillside, covered in blowing alfalfa. I photographed all of the stage building, the campgrounds being prepared, all of the paths through the forest being made. In the afternoon, we’d get on their school bus and go down to the lake and go skinny dipping—it was just like summer camp. It was kind of a surprise when people started arriving. For some reason, fate smiled on the whole thing.
What’s it like looking back on that event with 50 years now passed?
HD: Well, the music was just so great; we had a renaissance and flowering of incredible music in the mid-60s to the mid-70s. Expressing your own feelings and thoughts in songs you yourself wrote was a seachange from singing folk music, which had been around 100 years. Nineteen sixty-nine had so much of that vital, new thing happening and between that and all of the other greats that were at Woodstock like the Who, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, there were just so many great groups. The thing that made the original Woodstock what it was was that there was only one stage, and four times as many people as they had expected actually showed up, but they managed to make it work and everybody got to watch all that music for three days.
It was Micheal Lang’s singular vision to have three days of peace and music, and none of the other stuff. No violence or anything. It was a unique thing that just worked. Obviously, there were people that took too much acid and freaked out a little, but people really stepped in and helped, especially the Hog Farm [hippie commune] people, those that took too much to calm down and realize it was going to be OK. It was really wonderful to see the Hog Farm folks help keep the sanity. When the festival ran out of food the first day, those same people cooked up huge pots of brown rice and made giant things of coleslaw and fed that massive crowd. It was just a different, simpler time. There was obviously no cell phones, there was no crowd surfing yet. Everyone at the 1969 Woodstock was sharing in the experience and no one was really distracted. That makes quite a difference.
You’ve taken so many iconic photos of important artists like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and The Doors. Your photos do a remarkable job of capturing the artist’s personality and I’m curious if you’ve found there’s a key to that?
HD: Here’s why it happens that way for me: I never meant to be a photographer. I never went to photo school and I didn’t even pick up a camera until pretty late in life in 1966, when I was a folk singer and already 28. I was on the road with my group the Modern Folk Quartet and we stopped at a secondhand shop on the way out of Michigan, and there was a table full of used cameras. One of the guys in the group bought a camera and for no reason at all I said, “Why not? Me too!” We were probably a little high and it just seemed like a fun thing to do. We took pictures for a few weeks and when we got back to LA and developed the film, we had a slide show and it really blew my mind to see these moments we had all shared on the road blown up 8 feet wide and glowing in colors on the wall. I couldn’t believe it, it was just amazing. I decided that I wanted to take more pictures so we could have more slideshows for me and my stoned hippie friends. It became a thing.
I lived in Laurel Canyon where all of the musicians lived, people like David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Mama Cass. Eventually, Dan Fogelberg moved in across the street from me. These were my friends, the people I saw every day. We’d hang at Mama Cass’s swimming pool or down at the Troubadour in the evening. I always had my camera and I was always looking to take more pictures to show at the weekend slideshow and if I saw David Crosby at the renaissance fair or something, I’d take a few pictures of him for the show. I wasn’t doing photo assignments and that’s when it gets a little stiff and artificial and posed. For me, I was just hanging out and photographing these people in their real lives….They were disarmed because they didn’t perceive me as a photographer, I was just a friend with a camera, so I could get these candid moments. Also, my interest was in getting candid moments. When I first started doing it and photographing the guys in my group, my very closest friends, I’d try and take photos when they didn’t know I was taking them because I loved it when I showed them and they’d say “Oh my god! I didn’t even know you took that.” That became a thing for me and it transferred over to when I was photographing more well-known rockstars. I just wanted to capture and see how people really were, I didn’t want them to pose. I’m very interested in people and that’s where my interest in photography really is—in being able to watch people and capture their lives.
A lot of your work centered around the Laurel Canyon scene in California, but you also spent a lot of time shooting in New York City during the same era. What do you recall about that time?
HD: I lived in New York City for a year between 1964 and 1965 in Greenwich Village, right around Bleecker and MacDougal. I shared an apartment with Erik Jacobsen, who was the producer of the Lovin’ Spoonful and would go on to become quite an important record producer and work with people like Tim Harden and Chris Issak. In those days, we hung out right in the center of everything in NYC and it was when all of this new music was really happening. It was right when all of the clubs had musicians singing their own songs, which was a revolutionary thing then.
I was talking to Jackson Browne and I asked him what made that time so great from his perspective, and he said, “Because it was all brand new.” And that’s the simple answer and the truth. The music business was vibrant and alive and making itself up.
Can you share some memories from living in the Village in the ’60s?
HD: When I walked out my door, I was at the center of everything. The Bitter End was right there and the Village Gate jazz club had jazz and comedians. My group, the Modern Folk Quartet, were sophisticated folk singers: We wore suits and we were good for opening at a jazz club or a comedy club. There was a marriage then between folk music, comedy, and jazz—it was what college audiences liked. There was just so much music all over the place, and while there is plenty of music in the city now, it was so brand new back then. It was really beyond exciting.
In New York and LA, there was so much happening on the streets. On Sunset in LA and in the Village in New York, it was like a carnival midway full of young kids wearing bell-bottoms and love beads and it was this feeling of a burgeoning, new thing in the air. It was us against the old generation and we were going to change the world. We weren’t going to kill strangers in a foreign land for no reason. We said, “Let’s celebrate life and enjoy life. Let’s wear colorful clothes and grow our hair long, and be brothers and help each other!”
With all of the Woodstock retrospectives and album anniversaries happening, I’m curious if one photo stands out as a favorite after all these years?
HD: I always say I was there for every single picture I took, so it’s my life and memories to me—not just photographs. So, where do I start? I’d say my favorite album cover is probably the Crosby, Stills & Nash self-titled album because I think it reflected their music so well, and it’s a well-known, well-loved album cover.
James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James is one. When you photograph an album cover, you don’t always get to hear the music because they’re often still working on it, but when that record came out, I loved the title song so much. I sang it to both of my little children to put them to sleep. The color photo on the cover was actually cropped by the art director at Warner Bros and I don’t think it looks as good as the original, but the black-and-white pull-out photo of James inside that album is one of my favorite portraits that I’ve taken. The Paul McCartney photos are also some of my favorites, especially the ones of him and Linda together. Hanging with Paul McCartney was really special for me, obviously because he’s a Beatle, but he’s a Beatle because he’s just such an amazing guy. I loved the time I spent with Paul and Linda. I’m very proud of those pictures.
The shots of the Eagles, too. I mean, going out into the desert and taking peyote button with the Eagles—what an adventure. That same year, they did Desperado and we want down to an old movie ranch and played cowboys for a couple of days and I photographed all of that. So again, to me, these photographs are more memories of times and adventures than they are just photos.
You know, I never was a studio photographer; if all of those pictures were taken in a studio, I’d have no adventures or stories and those pictures wouldn’t either. I still photograph all the time and I carry a little pocket Canon camera around. I try to take about 100 pictures a day of just stuff I see around. Whatever’s around, and that’s the way I see the world. I want to frame it up and capture the best parts. When I started photographing, I was shooting all of these young new acts because I was part of that then-new school of music, and now, I’m still photographing younger groups. When I shot Crosby, Stills & Nash, their first album hadn’t even come out yet. I photographed Jackson Browne, the Eagles, and a lot of people’s first album covers. Now, I’m photographing young singer-songwriters again, but they’re millennials. I like photographing the beginning of something. I’ve been on the road with the Stones and the Eagles many times—they don’t need it anymore. I’m photographing young kids that are just getting into it and there’s an energy and excitement there. It’s amazing.
What do you want people to take away from the upcoming gallery show of your Woodstock photos at Morrison Hotel Gallery?
HD: It’s an important historical event and it has so much meaning these days. It’s always nice to share that meaning with people and educate younger people about it. I wish people would go back to some of those hippie ideals of peace and brotherhood, and in a way, those ideas are out there and represented by those four young women in congress [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib] who I see saying, “We’re the young generation and we can make the world right!” It’s a little rough right now, but I do feel like we’re on the edge of something good happening. I hope so at least. I want people to take away a bit of history and understand that their elders—parents, grandparents, even—could attend a huge event with hundreds of thousands of people and mud and no food and still have a wonderful time. There were no fights, and that’s truly amazing, especially now.
The Morrison Hotel Gallery’s WOODSTOCK exhibition celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Woodstock is on show through August 31 at 116 Prince Street, New York.
WORDS David Von Bader
PHOTOGRAPHY Henry Diltz. Featured image: John Sebastian, Woodstock, New York 1969.