Henry Diltz's photos have graced hundreds of album covers, from James Taylor's pensive gaze on Sweet Baby James to The Eagles dressed as outlaws for their album Desperado. The California Report's Diane Bock brings us this profile of the photographer who is still behind the lens, nearly 50 years on.
It’s opening night of an exhibition featuring the work of photographer Henry Diltz at the Morrison Hotel Gallery. It is located just off the Sunset Strip, in the lobby of the Sunset Marquis Hotel. The crowd jostles for space in front of instantly recognizable photographs of Jim Morrison, Keith Richards and Neil Young.
Diana Levinson grew up in nearby Hollywood in the 1970s. “I can smell the era. Incense, leather, suede fringe," she said, smiling. "Henry did capture every essence of these rock 'n' rollers, and then some.”
In the middle of the crowd, the 75-year-old Diltz, a partner in the gallery, is busy talking with fans of his work and signing copies of his book of black-and-white photos, titled "Unpainted Faces."
“I went to college to be a psychologist,” Diltz said. “Before that, I wanted to be a zookeeper. And then I became a musician, and that segued into photography. So you can’t plan those things, you know.” He laughs.
In the early '60s, when folk music was all the rage, Diltz was a member of a group called the Modern Folk Quartet. He sang and played the banjo. He picked up his first camera while on tour with the band.
Diltz tells the story: “I took pictures on the road, and when we got back to L.A. we developed the film and it was slide film, and I said, 'Oh, let's have a slideshow.' And all my friends came, and we projected these pictures on the wall, and it was mind-blowing! It was, 'God, I can't even believe the pictures shimmering there on the wall!' And I thought, 'Man I've got to take more of these, so we can have more slideshows.'”
Diltz was living in Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon, home to many of the musicians in the burgeoning Southern California folk-rock scene. He began to photograph his friends and neighbors: Mama Cass, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne.
Diltz recalled the time fondly. “It was such a magic atmosphere there. Totally out in the country, with coyotes and owls and raccoons, you know, and a distant guitar playing.”
In 1969, Diltz, working in partnership with art director Gary Burden, photographed his friends David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash on the porch of an old bungalow in West Hollywood. That image was used on the cover of their self-titled debut album, which went on to sell more than 4 million copies.
“An English musician once told me, he said, 'I don’t know how many hours we stared at those guys sitting on that couch, trying to figure out what it felt like to be in California.' "
The album covers by Diltz and Burden evoked an intimate, casual aesthetic, a big departure from the usual stiff studio shots of the time. Part of their method was to get out of town and away from distractions. They’d go to places like Big Sur or the Mojave Desert.
“They weren’t just photo sessions,” Diltz said. “We actually went somewhere, and did something, and kind of had a good time. Stuff happened, you know?”
Stuff was happening, and Diltz experienced the era with an all-access pass. He was the official photographer at Woodstock and at the Monterey Pop Festival. He also spent some time in Hollywood on the set of the television show "The Monkees."
“I can’t remember who introduced us. He just started to hang out on the set in those early days of Monkeedom,” said actor Micky Dolenz, drummer and vocalist for the band. “In those days especially, photographers would stage moments. Hey, be funny, be zany, you know? And he just captured moments.”
“I sit down very quietly and wait until they're not looking at me anymore, and then I can take the pictures of what's going on,” Diltz explained. “So sometimes I say I think of myself as the Jane Goodall of rock 'n" roll photography!”
He recently returned from photographing Ringo Starr in Las Vegas. Diltz is also the subject of an upcoming documentary. He continues to shoot album covers and perform with old friends from the Modern Folk Quartet. And he always keeps a small Canon camera in his pocket.