He was the official photographer at Woodstock, the famous music festival that took place Aug. 15-18, 1969, in Upstate New York, but Henry Diltz started out as just another folk singer riding the wave of a counterculture that swept across America in the 1960s. As the peace-and-love generation began to “Turn on, tune in, and drop out,” Diltz picked up a camera and captured the era for generations to come. He began taking album-cover shots and shooting stills for his friends, including The Doors, Crosby, Stills & Nash, The Eagles, Jimi Hendrix, and Paul McCartney.
Excerpts from an interview with Diltz, 74:
Q: You were a psychology major, then a folk singer, and, finally, a photographer. All those interests explore the human condition. What drew you to that?
A: I grew up in several countries. My father, a pilot, died in World War II, and my stepfather was in the State Department. We were in Tokyo, Japan, right after the war for five years. Then I went to junior high in Bangkok, Thailand. Then we moved to Munich, Germany. I started studying psychology in an American college in Munich. It was like being an Army brat. You are either the new kid in school or new kids come and your best friend leaves. There is a great flux of people coming in and out. Seeing people all over the world and how they get along or don’t get along with each other made me very interested in people and what makes them tick. I went to the University of Hawaii to continue studying psychology and met some friends who sang in a coffeehouse. This was the early ’60s, the early days of folk music when every kid with a guitar wanted to emulate the Kingston Trio. Pete Seeger was my big role model. I bought a banjo and started going to the coffeehouse and singing. Gradually, we formed a group. We moved to L.A. to seek our fortunes. The first night we played we brought the house down and got an agent and a manager. We were called the Modern Folk Quartet.
Q: Being a musician had to have helped ingratiate you with the bands and famous rockers you photographed.
A: Yes. I picked up a camera in ’66. ... All the folk groups had gone to electrified [sound]; even we did it. Then we played folk rock. You had the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield — these guys were friends of mine from the folk days. Mama Cass was a friend, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, so I was really still a musician when I picked up a camera and started taking pictures around town. You know, we’d have love-ins or a picnic at someone’s house or go swimming in Mama Cass’ swimming pool. It was my newfound hobby. I just started photographing kind of quietly.
I love just sort of watching people through the lens and being able to click the shutter and grab a moment. There weren’t a lot of photographers then. Also, the groups I photographed were not that well-known yet. I photographed the first Eagles album, the first Crosby, Stills & Nash album, the first Jackson Browne album. I went on the road with them and they got more well-known.
Q: So what went on during a “love-in”?
A: Love-ins took place on a Sunday in a park. You would just hear about it and everybody would gather in the park wearing their colorful clothes. We were sort of what you would call hippies. Kind of a counterculture. We were against the war and we were for peace and love and brotherhood. ... There was a spiritual aspect to it.
People had been experimenting with various psychedelic drugs, which really opened up the world to them. Like Jerry Garcia said the first time he took LSD, “I knew there was more going on than they were telling us.” That was the attitude. We wanted to know. We wanted to learn. Do we have spirit guides? Do we have angels? We really wanted to know the deeper meanings of life.
Q: Did you do psychedelic drugs?
A: Well, I did a few times. It was very, very opening and uplifting. The first time I thought, “My gosh, this is the first real breath I’ve taken.” I felt a release, a certain kind of freedom. You know, like anything, it can certainly be overdone. There were people who took it every day, and that was a misuse of it. To us, it was a very sacred thing. It was spiritual. I had gone to a lecture by Richard Alpert and Timothy Leary in New York. They were on stage at Cooper Union and explained exactly what happens. It breaks down your imprinting. It’s like you rediscover life. Like Leary and Alpert said, you must do it in a wonderful setting with friends and guides who know about it. It’s a wonderful tool done the right way. I mean this is the Age of Aquarius, where we are all supposed to become more connected. Instead, the world right now is very competitive.
Q: When you were photographing Woodstock, you probably didn’t realize how significant it was.
A: Heck, no. As a matter of fact, my friend, Chip Monck, a lighting-and-stage guy at Woodstock, called me one day and said, “Henry, we are having a big festival here in a few weeks. You should come.” I spent two weeks photographing the building of the stage, and it was like summer camp. Beautiful upstate New York summer days and all these hippie guys all suntanned with beards and long hair kind of hammering and sawing and building this big deck. It was like an aircraft carrier in the middle of this green field. One day, there were a few people sitting up on the hill. The next day, there were thousands, and the next, hundreds of thousands. In two days’ time, it filled up with people as far as you could see.
Q: You have said you don’t like taking posed pictures. So how did you work that philosophy into the album-cover shoots?
A: Exactly. I like the fly-on-the-wall kind of shots. I wanted to see what was happening and photograph it in its natural state. That’s what was interesting to me. I teamed up with a guy named Gary Burden, who was a graphic artist for album covers. When we did the Eagles’ first cover, we camped out in the Joshua Tree desert. We said, “We are going to spend the night, build a campfire, and hang out and eat peyote buttons [laughs] and take a bunch of pictures.” My partner, Gary, would say, “Just shoot everything that happens.”
When we did “Morrison Hotel” [for the Doors], we found this old hotel downtown they had to just go and stand behind the window. Usually it would happen very naturally.
Q: Were you ever star-struck?
A: Not really. You know Paul McCartney; I never photographed the Beatles as the Beatles, but he was a Beatle and an amazing person in the music industry. I knew his wife Linda before she ever married him. She invited me to come out and photograph them in Malibu. He accepted me as a good friend because I was a friend of his wife.
One time photographing Michael Jackson when he was little, like 10 years old, he was singing to a blind children’s school, all the children were sitting cross-legged on the floor and Michael Jackson was singing on a little stage at one end of the gym. I was right in front, and I mean he sang like an angel. His voice was so pure, so beautiful, it just kind of opened you up emotionally. Turning around and seeing all these children smiling — that was a moment.
Q: What was Jimi Hendrix like, or Jim Morrison?
A: They were quiet people. Those guys, I mean famously, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison were all very quiet. In the case of Clapton, he’s almost shy. Hendrix had that, too, but Hendrix was more like a little boy. It was easy to talk to him just about everyday things.
Morrison was like a poet. He liked to observe. He would stand and watch. If you said hello to him, he would kind of nod and smile. He was a cool observer type just drinking it in.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Patricia Sheridan is a writer for the Post-Gazette. Contact Patricia Sheridan at: email@example.com.