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.
The art director for CSN's debut was Gary Burden, an associate of the late Mama Cass. Burden formed a successful partnership with Diltz, creating album covers for the Eagles' Desperado, James Taylor's Sweet Baby James and the notoriously ghastly Bubble Gum, Lemonade and Something for Mama album in which Cass is framed by a border made of already chewed gum. It remained in circulation for less than a year. "Yeah, I chewed some of that gum," Diltz confesses with a chuckle.
"Art directors at the record companies hated us because we were usurping their authority, saying, 'Here's the finished album cover art.' But people like CS&N and Mama Cass, they had good managers and they would put in their contracts that the artists had creative control. That meant the music and the visual part of it.
"That CSN couch picture was a happy accident," continues Diltz. "We were just out shooting what were meant to be publicity stills. We happened on this old house with a couch outside and it was before they knew what the band was going to be called. When we realized Crosby, Stills and Nash were sitting in reverse order, we went back to the house, but it had been completely leveled. So that became the cover."
The CSN cover became the talk of the industry when Burden insisted the photo be printed on the rough side of the film paper instead of the glossy. "Gary was always battling with the record companies. They complained that the reverse side would soak up too much ink, but pretty soon everybody was demanding their record looked like that CS&N album," notes Diltz.
Another reason for the popularity of the unvarnished gatefold album sleeve was that it provided an ideal surface for rolling joints and separating marijuana seeds. The rough paper look was used again on the Doors' Morrison Hotel album -- perhaps the most famous image in Diltz's portfolio. "When Ray Manzarek mentioned seeing this great place downtown called the Morrison Hotel, we said 'groovy' and off we went," recalls Diltz.
The guy at the front desk, however, was less than groovy and wouldn't permit the band to set up, so Diltz and the boys had to sneak the shot. Imagine the Doors -- one of the biggest bands in the country by 1969 and a group in serious trouble with the law for lewd and lascivious onstage antics -- crouching silently in wait so that some hotel clerk would leave his post and they could shoot a quickie roll of film.
One photo in the show that Diltz has a newfound appreciation for is the pic that appeared on Stephen Stills' first solo album, taken in Colorado the morning after learning Jimi Hendrix had died.
"We'd stayed up all night, and when we looked out the window, suddenly everything was white with snow. Stephen said, 'Get your camera.' We took a few shots and then he ran in and got that pink giraffe and stuck it right next to him. After a few shots, I said let's lose the giraffe and he said, 'No. I want this in the picture.' That was around the time CSN&Y had broken up. Stephen had met Rita Coolidge and some little thing was beginning to blossom but then he introduced her to Graham Nash and then they fell in love instantly. And Stephen was really pissed off at that. It's really something when your buddy snakes your girl," says Diltz. "So I'm thinking that they had bought that giraffe together somewhere or she had given it to Stephen. That giraffe really offended my sensibilities. It wasn't organic. But I've looked at that picture on the walls in these gallery shows and thought without that giraffe it wouldn't be much of a picture. Just some guy playing guitar in the snow."
Among Diltz's other assignments was shooting teen idols like the Monkees for Tiger Beat magazine. Diltz was immediately allowed into the television rock combo's inner circle since he'd known Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith from his folk days in L.A. Diltz became a constant presence in the recording studio with the band (where he contributed handclaps, clarinet and banjo on several early Monkees recordings) and on the TV sound stage. Most of the photos that turned up on the Monkees trading cards were also Diltz's work.
He took another such assignment in 1971 with TV pop star David Cassidy, a frustrated rocker doing teenybopper stuff. "We instantly bonded because I was a hippie, my hair was down the middle of my back and I was into rock photography, and that got his eyes all bright. When David started doing concerts, I went around the world twice with him shooting photos and I actually played harmonica on one song. Many, many times I saw girls get crushed in the front; they'd get the railings in their stomachs when the crowds surged forward. So the security guards were pulling girls out of the crowd and laying them down under the stage. It looked like Vietnam."
While Cassidy didn't light up a great deal, Diltz did find an unusual doobie-hooving partner -- 12-year-old Danny Bonaduce. "He walked up while I was toking and said, 'Let me have some.' I said, 'C'mon, you're only 12,' and he goes, 'No, I have it all the time with my friends.' So I let him have some just to get rid of him. Then years later I read an interview and he says, 'Yeah, this photographer Henry Diltz is the first guy that got me stoned!' The little pecker!
"But everybody smoked grass back then; it's what made me want to take photos. It was just part of what made that wonderful renaissance, what made the '60s mellow."
Following that thread, Paul McCartney's first words to Diltz were, "Henry, have you got anything to smoke?" The year was 1971, and the McCartneys were staying in a rented house in Malibu. Diltz had known Linda Eastman as a fellow photographer in New York and was surprised to find out that the wealthy rock scenemaker had married the former Beatle. "They needed photos to go in this Ram songbook. Then they wanted to use one for Life magazine," recalls Diltz of his famous cover shot. "It ran in black and white because there wasn't time to do it in color. It was a last-minute replacement."
"Then I got another call from the Virgin Islands," he continues, affecting the English accent of a posh personal assistant. "'The McCartneys want you to come here and take more photos. Paul wants you to do that fly-on-the-wall thing you do.' So I spent a week floating around the Virgin Islands on boats with them while they recorded London Town and took all the pictures of them in the sunshine with aloha shirts. And I knew Paul liked to smoke it, so I brought an ounce of Maui Wowie with me. The whole week I was there, three or four times a day he'd walk up and say, 'Henry, have you got one rolled?' because I had the best grass of anybody there. So we got to be really good friends that week."
Although Diltz was the official shutterbug for some of the era's biggest concerts including Woodstock and the Monterey Pop Festival, he wasn't given clearance to shoot any photos at George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh, possibly because his closeness with McCartney drew the ire of the notorious Allen Klein, who was still managing the other ex-Beatles. "Allen Klein was a giant asshole. During sound check I saw him with these two goons dressed up like limo drivers, pointing his cane and having people kicked left and right, anyone with a camera. So I didn't even try to take a picture until the middle of the concert when Harrison and Dylan were singing together. But generally I like to be left alone. These days, I don't even do concerts unless I'm working with the group and I have all access. And even then I have to fight with security guards."
Diltz got another taste of the paparazzi life when his teen-magazine editor ran afoul of the Osmond Family and he was forbidden from taking photos of the group's Hawaiian concert. "They had me dye my hair black, put brown makeup on my face so I'd look Hawaiian and I sat in the second row. And I wore a straw hat so I could sneak my cameras in and photograph the whole concert."
But, says Diltz, the business quickly began to change by the mid-'70s. The down-to-earth music of the late '60s was giving way to disco, heavy metal and glam rock, none of which lent itself well to casual, candid album covers. "My partner Gary decided to become a film writer. I still did an occasional cover but I'd be shooting for other art directors. It wasn't the same old team. It got corporate, too big. I remember shooting a lot of heavy metal concerts for the record companies thinking, 'Where's the melody?' You sure don't leave those concerts humming a tune. It's all just about dudes and foxes. On that level, it was fun, but . . . ," he trails off. "The music business in general has gone to shit. All the music guys who ran those record companies are gone now and it's these bean counters and lawyers running things."
A bigger blow to Diltz came in the '80s when album covers got reduced to CD size, a change that brought the art form to a crashing halt.
In part, though, the nostalgia for classic rock album art is why people are responding so passionately to Diltz's gallery shows and his accompanying slide presentations. "People come up to me and say, 'I don't know how many hours I spent looking at this cover.' That 12-inch square was the perfect size to look at and imagine what that guy was like.
"I never thought into the future," reflects Diltz, summing up his almost accidental career. "It was always about the moment. When I was shooting the Doors, they were just another band. Jim wasn't dead yet and we were just pals having a good time taking photos on the beach. You never think, 'What if these guys get famous and I'm the guy who photographed them?' I never once thought about it, not even in some stoned reverie. People say, 'Oh, you must have some great archive,' and I always fought that notion. I'd say, 'Fuck you, I'm not a professional.'"