By Charlie Weinmann
It’s summer, 1969, and John Sebastian is high on acid. He’s just arrived at Woodstock and is standing side-stage, mingling with his friends who are performing that day. Sebastian isn’t actually on the bill, but at one-point in-between acts the crowd begins to grow restless, and someone shoves a guitar into John’s hands and tells him to go out and play something for the crowd of 450,000. And so, he does, seemingly right at home, clad in an outfit he tie-dyed himself.
“He talked to the crowd like they were his best friend, it was so sweet and unassuming and so real,” said Henry Diltz, who was standing behind the Lovin’ Spoonful founder onstage, discreetly capturing the impromptu performance through his camera lens.
This image is one of three photographs taken by Henry Diltz that are featured in the new Endless Summer Gallery, a special online gallery by Diltz’s Morrison Hotel Gallery organization. The new installment is meant to offer a look into a sun-drenched past that rings nostalgic for so many, featuring images of musicians and social icons taken by a select group of photographers over the years, all featuring elements of summertime.
It was more or less a typical assignment for Diltz to be at Woodstock, onstage, several feet away from some of the most infamous musical moments from that time. It serves as just one example of how Henry has found his way into the private lives of so many popular icons.
“Sometimes I say that being a photographer is like having a passport into people’s lives,” says Diltz. But he’ll be the first to tell you that he doesn’t take pictures for the sake of history: “Every picture that I took is a memory of a moment for me. It’s my life in those photographs.”
Of course, today, many of Henry’s photographs have become famous, like album covers for The Doors, or Crosby Stills Nash and Young, or the tightly framed shot of Paul and Linda McCartney that was used on the cover of LIFE Magazine (another photo featured in the Endless Summer Gallery).
Henry’s legacy is partly due to him being in the right place at the right time—the place and time being Laurel Canyon in the late 1960s when musicians like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell were coming into their own, writing music sequestered in the famed canyon.
“I’m so interested in what life is, and you hear these singer songwriters writing about their own life…that’s really interesting to me,” said Diltz.
A choir singer throughout his schooling, Henry professes a love for harmony and songwriting.
He’s toured with his own group, The Modern Folk Quartet, during the mid ‘60s. While on the road with them in ’66 they decided to pull off at a second-hand store where Henry decided to purchase an old camera. He discovered that it had slide film inside and hatched the idea to put on slide shows for his “stoned hippy friends,” as Henry lovingly refers to them. From that point on he began to realize his knack for observing people and how different people would go about their different lives.
“I am a natural light photographer,” said Diltz. “You could call it documentary photography, or fly on the wall photography. I’m an observer. I like to observe life, I like to see life as it is and photograph it. That’s what’s interesting to me.”
In Laurel Canyon he was surrounded by musicians whose names would soon be up in lights, and so his career as a photographer began as something he would do for friends, and for fun.
“I would take pictures all week long in Laurel Canyon,” he said. “I would photograph cats in the early morning. I remember I photographed a snail that was on some ivy.”
And of course, he’d photograph his friends who happened to be people like Mama Cass, Stephen Stills and David Crosby.
“Those were people who I photographed early on, just as friends, and we’d have a slide show on the weekends,” said Henry. “I would learn to take candid shots and they would love it! That was my training. That’s what taught me how to be an observer type photographer.”
Henry says that he never thought of his photography as ‘archival’. He never attached any significance to his photographs beyond what they meant to him personally.
“It’s my way of looking at the world. I like to frame things. It’s like a visual game. It’s satisfying,” he says.
In his formative years, Henry actually went to school for psychology to learn about people; a subject that has always been fascinating to him.
“…What it means, who we are…we’re all a little piece of universal energy in a body, and yet, we’re all vastly different. So, I think it’s that difference that’s very interesting to me.”
Despite the fact Henry has enjoyed a lifestyle that’s allowed him to see life through his own lens, he’s always felt conflicted about the term “professional photographer.”
“I never thought of it as work, but a way of life, that paid for itself!” said Henry. “Sometimes I feel like a little boy who snuck under the circus tent, and got to watch. The side effect is that I have seen a lot of other stuff for a lot of other people.”
Most of the stories Henry has about people he’s photographed start with a phone call. He would be in his kitchen in Laurel Canyon when Rolling Stone would call and ask, “What are you doing today? Would you get on a plane to Palm Springs and go to Truman Capote’s home and take some color portraits? We have a story about to come out but no cover.”
Henry recalled: “I would think, ‘wow this is so cool. Why would I be knocking on Truman Capote’s door?!”
Luckily for Henry, he was already versed in the sacred art of ‘hanging out,’ which he mentions is a necessity for doing his job well.
“I’m just there to hang out. Let’s have a cup of coffee and talk about life. I’m just there to hang out and watch, and take pictures of what I see, not to create a photo.”
Diltz has traveled in vans, boats, trains and planes with countless groups of note—The Monkees, CSNY, The Eagles, The Turtles, David Cassidy, and The New Barbarians to name just a few.
In 1979 Columbia Records hired him to go on the road with The New Barbarians, Ron Wood’s solo group featuring Keith Richards.
“It was like the Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger,” as Henry says. “That was like having a passport into the life of these people. It was fascinating. I got to know them all, and just hung out. A musician knows how to hang out. It’s a musician’s life to hang out!”
Clicking through the Endless Summer Gallery is like taking a trip down memory lane, even if you weren’t alive when the photos were taken. The collection evokes feelings of joyous nostalgia saturated with warm summery tones. It’d be a nice thing to look through with loved ones on a Sunday morning. The third picture Diltz has featured in the gallery was also taken at Woodstock, twenty feet away from Jimi Hendrix as he jarred the massive audience with his early-morning rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“It was very surprising to hear this very hip guy playing that song,” Henry said. “We were 450,000 anti-war, anti-government hippies! That was they’re song, not ours. But the next moment, it was as if we reclaimed the song as ours. It was a surprising moment turned a proud moment.”
As someone who chooses to live in the present moment, Henry shared that he used to grapple with the idea of being known for all of these images that exist as pieces of the past. But then someone told him that what he’s actually doing is helping to bring the past into the present. He’s warmed up to that idea.
“I’m going to take pictures wherever I am, whether it’s for somebody, or myself, whether it’s rock stars or a group of cows! It’s satisfying to push that button and catch a moment. I’m someone who lives in the moment. We’re alive just in the now.”
Drumhead Magazine Exclusive:
Henry Diltz on his favorite drummers.
As someone who’s photographed Sir Ringo dozens of times, along with so many other drum idols, Henry felt compelled to share his list of top drummers.
– Russ Kunkel who is a surfer. He’s got that loping surfer feel…he rides the beat in a way that’s really satisfying.
– Jim Keltner, who’s played with everybody.
– There’s a guy named Jason Sutter. He’s a really good friend of mine just in life. And he’s a photo collector. He invited me to Las Vegas where he was playing with Cher.
– Gregg Bissonette. Oh my god. He is so amazing. About half a dozen times now I’ve stood in front of the stage photographing him, and onstage too. But he is such a pleasure to watch play. He exudes a certain amount of joyful energy. It’s so infectious. I can’t keep my eyes off him.
– Ryan Jr. Kittliz. Jr. plays in a heavy metal group called “All Hale the Yeti.” He reminds me of The Animal! And my son, Nick Diltz is the bass player.
– To round it out, I would say Zak Starkey. He is such an amazing drummer. One year he was in his father’s All Starr Band and they had me fly up to Vancouver to photograph the band. They were rehearsing in this little club. I was standing on the dance floor by myself taking photos, and Ringo jumps down and stands next to me to listen to the sound. While he was standing next me, Zak played this amazing fill, and I just said “Man, Ringo where’d you find that drummer.” And he says, “In me loins.” [laughter].
– Ringo is the quintessential drummer.