Henry Diltz grabbed his camera not expecting to capture rock history. His friends David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash merely needed a photo to promote their debut album, and he was happy to help.
They meandered around West Hollywood until they found a dilapidated home next to a carwash with a ratty old couch out front. Crosby sat down and hiked a foot up to the cushion. Nash perched up on the back. Stills strummed a guitar. Diltz snapped a few shots up close, a few more from across the street. Then it was on to the next spot.
A few days later, Diltz got the film back, and the group gathered for a slideshow. One shot from the couch jumped out.
"Everybody saw that and said, That'd make a great album cover," Diltz said.
"It felt very much like the music we were trying to create," Nash said. "We saw that image, and knew instinctively that it was a classic photograph."
Henry Diltz has taken a few of those in 50 years as a music photographer. He shot Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, took peyote with the Eagles, created album covers for the Doors, James Taylor and Richard Pryor. It's a remarkable career, one he'll recount alongside fellow photographer (and muse to George Harrison and Eric Clapton) Pattie Boyd on April 15 at Ruth Eckerd Hall.
As Diltz will attest, music photography has changed considerably over the past half-century. No longer do artists and their shutterbug pals simply roam the neighborhood in search of funky couches. Social media has changed everything about how stars are seen; access to shoot them is tighter than ever.
"When I started, I could do whatever I wanted," said Diltz, 77. "I was the only guy there with a camera."
Now every fan has one in their pocket, ready to raise it for a concert or a selfie with a star. Anyone can be a rock photographer these days. But being a great one has never been harder.
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Last summer, Taylor Swift penned an open letter to Apple, chastising the tech giant for failing to pay artists during a free trial period for its new streaming service. In an open response, photographer Jason Sheldon pointed out Swift's hypocrisy by posting a copy of the lengthy contract she requires all concert photographers to sign.
Not only did the contract forbid photographers from marketing their work commercially, it granted Swift's team the right to use those images for their own marketing purposes, free of charge. Another version of the contract stated that those who broke the rules could see their cameras destroyed on the spot.
After numerous complaints, the National Press Photographers Association swooped in to help negotiate a new contract with Swift's representatives. But the social-media uproar shed light on long-brewing frustrations between performers and photographers. Artists like the Foo Fighters, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga were taken to task for their own restrictive stances on concert photography.
Concert photo contracts have long been commonplace in the industry, though most are not so draconian. The standard is generally to shoot the first three songs, then move out. But some artists deny all requests, period, to protect both their image and the concert experience.
"They don't want 20 photographers hanging around the front of the stage," Diltz said. "It's distracting to the audience and performer." And it's hard to blame artists for attempting to constrict photo usage when "unscrupulous guys saw the opportunity to make posters and sell them."
At his Clearwater concert in February, Bryan Adams — a celebrated photographer in his own right — required photojournalists to sign a consent form promising the use of "no more than 6 pictures ... in minimum web size." Photographers could shoot only one song, and only from the right half of the stage.
Truly great photos, Adams said, tend to come from access that most working photographers simply can't get.
"There are certain photographers who are really good at getting live concert photographs," Adams said. "And the only way you do get really good live concert photographs is having access to the artist, so that they allow you to circulate, and almost even get on the stage. Without having really good access, you're going to get okay pictures, but you won't get arty pictures."
Therein lies a quandary: Is music photography journalism? Or is it art?
"A great photograph is the best of both," said Nash, also an accomplished photographer.
In much the same way a documentary film can be considered a work of art, the best music photographs capture and reflect a sliver of culture that might otherwise be lost. Consider Annie Leibovitz's intimate portrait of a nude John Lennon embracing Yoko Ono on the last day of his life. Or a righteous Johnny Cash flipping off Jim Marshall's lens. Or Pennie Smith's explosive shot of the Clash's Paul Simonon smashing a bass guitar. Snagging those iconic images required artistry (and a little luck), but also a journalist's eye for the moment.
"I've had my picture taken so many times, I know when someone's pointing a camera at me, and I always want to put my best side forward and look like James Dean," Nash said. But as a photographer, "I don't like that moment. I want to be invisible. I want to take a portrait of you when you don't know that I've ever taken it."
Attaining that sort of trust and intimacy with big stars these days is nearly impossible. That's why an artist like Selena Gomez, who with 71.6 million followers is the most popular person on Instagram, is effectively her own documentarian, posting moments with her own famous friends that no professional photographer would ever see.
Gomez is showing the world only those snapshots she wants public. But that's no different from Diltz's approach to shooting his friends in Laurel Canyon.
"I'm not a pushy guy," Diltz said. "I could sense if I was intruding on their space. I did it quietly, kind of like Jane Goodall and the chimps."
The one thing Diltz, Gomez and every other photographer, celebrity or otherwise, will always have in common?
"Having the courage," Nash said, "to press the trigger at the right time."
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Diltz didn't set out to be a photographer. He was a folk musician who purchased a vintage camera from a junk store one summer on a whim. In his circle of friends, he became the guy who always had a camera. It just happened that his circle of friends was also the epicenter of California's folk-rock scene.
"Being a single musician, you hang out with your friends all day, in the back yard, at parties," he said. "I loved to capture documentary photos of my friends so when they saw them on the weekend, they'd go, Oh my god! I didn't even know you took that! That was my training."
Fifteen years ago, Diltz opened the Morrison Hotel Gallery — named for a Doors album cover he shot — in New York. Today it has a second gallery in Los Angeles and represents some 130 music photographers. He has hundreds of thousands of slides available to anyone interested in "licensing history." Customers include Whoopi Goldberg, Chris Rock and Luke Wilson.
"In the early days, we thought yuppies and baby boomers would want to buy these photos, because it's the music of their lives," he said. "Fifteen years later, all kinds of people buy photos. And it's not just photos from the '60s and '70s. We're selling hip-hop photos and millennial artists. It's right across the board."
Selling documents of his younger days has proved a nice way to make a living. And he has enjoyed touring with Boyd, telling stories about the historic moments they captured on film.
"I think of myself as a bit of an existentialist," he said. "The moment is all that's really real. It's hard to reconcile that my life has been capturing and saving past moments; I'm not sure I can justify that. But then people say, No, you bring the past into the present. Well, okay, I can live with that."
It's especially true of Diltz's famous photograph of Crosby, Stills & Nash. When the band saw the processed film, everyone loved the shot that became the cover of their 1969 self-titled album. But there was one tiny thing wrong. The musicians were sitting in the wrong order: Nash, Stills and Crosby.
Diltz and the band went back to the house for a reshoot. But when they arrived, it was gone.
"It was a pile of rubble in the back," Nash said. "They had demolished the bloody house in that day."
"To this day," Diltz said, "it's a parking lot."
But in his photo, it still stands.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.