Photographer Henry Diltz thinks of himself as a guy who was always in the right place at the right time. As luck would have it, the time and place was the late 1960s and 1970s, in the California backyards, ranches, hotel rooms and Lear jets of the era’s most famous musicians.
First a musician — he played with the Modern Folk Quartet, an early 1960s folk band — the now 74-year-old, pony-tailed Diltz has often told the story of how he picked up a $20 camera on one particular road trip and thus found his ultimate muse. Already friends with many of the musicians of the time — James Taylor, Cass Elliott of The Mamas & The Papas, Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Graham Nash and David Crosby of CSNY, Joni Mitchell, Jim Morrison and more than a few others — he began photographing them.
“They weren’t famous then, they were just my friends and just musicians,” recounted the gregarious Diltz during one of his famed slideshows, held Sunday night at Tmol Shilshom, the Jerusalem bookstore-cafe that is known for its literary and musical evenings. “I lucked out like that.”
Diltz arrived in Israel late last week to open a showing of his work at the Minotaure Gallery in Tel Aviv, comprising a selection from Morrison Hotel, the New York gallery he partly owns.
At the slideshow, he scrolled through dozens of color and black-and-white photos that were used for newspaper stories, magazine covers and more than a few classic album covers, telling stories about the musicians and their lives at the time.
His first official shot was of Buffalo Springfield, posing the band against a graffitied wall and earning him his first $100 as a photographer. From there, the photos just kept on coming.
There was a young James Taylor in denim shirtsleeves that was used as the cover for “Sweet Baby James,” a song that Diltz sang to his two children; the “fun-loving” Neil Young at his Northern California ranch; a tender moment between Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash, caught by Diltz during a long limousine ride.
Jim Morrison of The Doors was “a shy sort of guy,” recalled Diltz. “He was a poet, he liked to listen to people.”
It was Diltz who photographed the band’s iconic “Morrison Hotel” album cover, which happened, as many of his photos did, by chance. The band had passed by the hotel and thought it would be funny to use it as the background of the cover photo. Their plan was to stand outside, so as not to annoy the manager, but when he stepped away, Diltz hurried them inside the front window, capturing their four faces under the hotel’s name.
Diltz spent more than a year photographing The Monkees, because they liked his style, and three weeks touring with Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones in the late 1970s, when they were headlining The New Barbarians, Wood’s own band.
Mama Cass liked to mother her fellow musicians, said Diltz, inviting everyone over for picnics, including a memorable one with David Crosby, Joni Mitchell and Eric Clapton, the new English guy in town at the time. That photo includes Crosby looking right at the lens, offering some weed to Diltz. “God’s herb,” said Diltz. “Pot, it’s what powered the sixties, what made them write great songs and what made me take great pictures.”
There was the day that Paul and Linda McCartney asked him to come over and photograph their family for the cover of Life magazine. Diltz kept one photo from that shoot, a touchingly sweet picture of Paul kissing one of their toddlers while playing in the pool.
“In those days, people hung out and I would just take pictures, but then they’d get used later,” he said.
Diltz spent two full weeks at Woodstock in 1969, chronicling the building of the stage and then the musicians themselves as they played to an audience of 400,000 people. The most riveting moment was on the last morning, said Diltz, when Jimi Hendrix emerged, dressed in bright colors against the drab grays and browns of the muddy fields, and played “The Star Spangled Banner.”
“It was the moment that stuck with me,” said Diltz. “It was the American anthem and we weren’t typical Americans, but it was us, it represented who we were, who we were trying to be.”
Diltz’s photos from Morrison Hotel Gallery will be shown at the Minotaure Gallery, 100 Ben Yehuda Street, Tel Aviv, for the next month.
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