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Like rock 'n' roll's answer to Zelig, Diltz managed to quietly place himself at many of pop music's defining moments -- especially in the late '60s and early '70s, when legends were bigger, their shadows stretched longer and everything they did seemed to matter more. Today, the images and icons he captured for posterity remain rites of passage for any budding music lover. But none of this figured into Diltz's thinking back when. All he was doing was hanging out with some friends and taking a few pictures. Of course, there wouldn't be packed showings of his work in art galleries and museums if it were so simple. Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Eagles, Jimi Hendrix, James Taylor, Paul and Linda McCartney, the Doors, Mama Cass and the Monkees are but a few of the subjects that have received Diltz's signature treatment.
The casual quality of Diltz's work owed much to his familiarity with the subjects, who thought of him more as a friend than a professional photographer.
"Photographers can be a real pain in the ass," complains Diltz good-naturedly. "A lot of them are square and pushy. I lucked out, really. Back in the '60s, there were a lot of AP photographers with fedoras and big flash cameras assigned to shoot rock stars. Photographers like Linda McCartney and me, who were hip and the same age as the subjects and could share a joint with them -- that was rare."
Even more rare was a photographer who was also a musician. Diltz was a founding member of the Modern Folk Quartet, a combo that recorded a pair of albums for Warner Bros. and became favorites on the college campus touring circuit in the early '60s. Like hundreds of other folkies, the MFQ went electric after seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. "When we came back to L.A. to play the Troubadour with all these electric instruments, [owner] Doug Weston went nuts. So after we did our folk set as the Modern Folk Quartet, we came back and played electric as some other band called Your Friends."
One of the people who caught the amped-up MFQ was Svengali producer Phil Spector, who later made a rare live appearance onstage with the band at the L.A. nightclub The Trip. By the summer of '65, Spector had produced a recording of the group doing a Harry Nilsson song, "This Could Be the Night" (Diltz would later play banjo on Spector's commercial Waterloo, "River Deep, Mountain High").
"Brian Wilson came down to the session in his robe and slippers and listened to 'This Could Be the Night' over and over," remembers Diltz. "We thought our future was made, and then Spector didn't release it. We waited around for almost a year, and it broke up the band rather than make us famous." The song did serve as the theme to Spector's concert movie The Big TNT Show but only surfaced on a compilation album issued years later. Disappointed, the MFQ did one more tour before calling it quits. It was at a thrift shop in Michigan during that final jaunt that Diltz found a cheap Japanese camera and got bit by what he calls "the framing jones."
"When we got back to L.A., the band had a huge slide show of all the pictures we'd taken on the road; I thought of taking more pictures and doing it again. We'd do a slide show about once a month after that; we'd all get together and have a big party. I'd photograph everything: snails, matchbook covers, animal crackers, anything that'd look cool blown up real big on the wall. I did series of numbers, fire hydrants, people giving the finger, giving the peace sign. And I started photographing my friends, a lot of whom happened to be musicians. The first picture I sold was of the Buffalo Springfield. I got paid 100 bucks, and for a guy who was spending all his money on film processing, that was quite amazing."
Thirty-five years later, Diltz has never once developed a roll of his own film. "I never learned any of that darkroom stuff," he says, laughing. "For me it was just looking in the little magic hole and pushing the button and sending it off to Kodak and a few days later, the little yellow box with the magical pictures would arrive. I still think of myself as a musician who loves to take photos."
Diltz's photography first appeared as album art on a 1966 U.K. release by the Hollies (For Certain Because), in which several of the photos were purposely run with color plates missing, giving the Manchester group a cadaverous green glow. Diltz's association with the Hollies' Graham Nash -- who Diltz names "one of the three nicest gentlemen" in music, along with Paul McCartney and Garth Brooks -- continued on through to the first Crosby, Stills & Nash album.