He was the official photographer at Woodstock, the famous 1969 music festival in upstate New York, but Henry Diltz started out as just another folk singer riding the wave of a counterculture that swept across America in the 1960s. As the peace and love generation began to "Turn on, tune in and drop out," Mr. Diltz picked up a camera and captured the era for generations to come. He began taking album cover shots and shooting stills for his friends including The Doors, Crosby, Stills & Nash, The Eagles, Jimi Hendrix, Paul McCartney and others. His photographs also have appeared in magazines, books and galleries. The 74-year-old will give a slideshow talk featuring his four decades of work Friday night. The talk will kick off the 10th annual Cindystock, an outdoor concert and picnic that will be held Saturday to benefit various local cancer charities at a private residence in Franklin Park. For information: www.cindystock.org.
You were a psychology major, then a folk singer and, finally, a photographer. All those interests explore the human condition. What drew you to that?
I grew up in several countries. My father, a pilot, died in WWII, and my stepfather was in the State Department. We were in Tokyo, Japan, right after the war for five years. Then I went to junior high in Bangkok, Thailand. Then we moved to Munich, Germany. I started studying psychology in an American college in Munich. It was like being an Army brat. You are either the new kid in school or new kids come and your best friend leaves. There is a great flux of people coming in and out. Seeing people all over the world and how they get along or don't get along with each other made me very interested in people and what makes them tick. I went to the University of Hawaii to continue studying psychology and met some friends who sang in a coffeehouse. This was the early '60s, the early days of folk music when every kid with a guitar wanted to emulate The Kingston Trio. Pete Seeger was my big role model. I bought a banjo and started going to the coffeehouse and singing. Gradually we formed a group. We moved to LA to seek our fortunes. The first night we played we brought the house down and got an agent and a manager. We were called The Modern Folk Quartet.
Being a musician had to have helped ingratiate you with the bands and famous rockers you photographed.
Yes. I picked up a camera in '66. That was just a year after the Beatles had come to town. All the folk groups had gone to electrified [sound], even we did it. Then we played folk rock. You had The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield -- these guys were friends of mine from the folk days. Mama Cass was a friend, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, so I was really still a musician when I picked up a camera and started taking pictures around town. You know, we'd have love-ins or a picnic at someone's house or go swimming in Mama Cass' swimming pool. It was my newfound hobby. I just started photographing kind of quietly. I love just sort of watching people through the lens and being able to click the shutter and grab a moment. There weren't a lot of photographers then. Also the groups I photographed were not that well known yet. I photographed the first Eagles album, the first Crosby, Stills & Nash album, the first Jackson Browne album. I went on the road with them and they got more well known.
So what went on during a "love-in"?
Love-ins took place on a Sunday in a park. You would just hear about it and everybody would gather in the park wearing their colorful clothes. We were sort of what you would call hippies. Kind of a counterculture. We were against the war and we were for peace and love and brotherhood. ... There was a spiritual aspect to it. People had been experimenting with various psychedelic drugs, which really opened up the world to them. Like Jerry Garcia said the first time he took LSD, "I knew there was more going on than they were telling us." That was the attitude. We wanted to know. We wanted to learn. Do we have spirit guides? Do we have angels? We really wanted to know the deeper meanings of life.
Did you do psychedelic drugs?
Well, I did a few times. It was very, very opening and uplifting. The first time I thought, "My gosh, this is the first real breath I've taken." I felt a release, a certain kind of freedom. You know, like anything, it can certainly be overdone. There were people who took it every day, and that was a misuse of it. To us it was a very sacred thing. It was spiritual. I had gone to a lecture by Richard Alpert and Timothy Leary in New York. They were on stage at Cooper Union and explained exactly what happens. It breaks down your imprinting. It's like you rediscover life. Like Leary and Alpert said, you must do it in a wonderful setting with friends and guides who know about it. It's a wonderful tool done the right way. I mean this is the age of Aquarius, where we are all supposed to become more connected. Instead the world right now is very competitive.
When you were photographing Woodstock you probably didn't realize how significant it was.
Heck no. As a matter of fact, my friend, Chip Monck, a lighting and stage guy at Woodstock, called me one day and said, "Henry, we are having a big festival here in a few weeks. You should come." I spent two weeks photographing the building of the stage, and it was like summer camp. Beautiful upstate New York summer days and all these hippie guys all sun tanned with beards and long hair kind of hammering and sawing and building this big deck. It was like an aircraft carrier in the middle of this green field. One day there were a few people sitting up on the hill. The next day there were thousands and the next hundreds of thousands. In two days' time it filled up with people as far as you could see.
What was your favorite performance?
There were so many great moments. Gosh, The Who was fantastic. My friends Crosby, Stills & Nash, I had just done their album cover and here they were playing their second concert ever for 400,000 people. I would say Jimi Hendrix was the most riveting. He went on Monday morning just at dawn. The acts were so backed up. So instead of going on Sunday night to close the festival he came on at dawn. I mean the music just echoed off the hills. When he played "The Star-Spangled Banner" solo on his guitar complete with airplanes and machine guns and all the sound effects, it was just, wow! It just made your hair stand up. I had the thought that song is our song as well. It's not just the song of the government and the army and the people fighting in Vietnam, it is the song of the American people. So it was very precious.
You have said you don't like taking posed pictures. So how did you work that philosophy into the album cover shoots?
Exactly, I like the fly-on-the-wall kind of shots. I wanted to see what was happening and photograph it in its natural state. That's what was interesting to me. I teamed up with a guy named Gary Burden who was a graphic artist for album covers. When we did The Eagles first cover we camped out in the Joshua Tree desert. We said, "We are going to spend the night, build a campfire and hang out and eat peyote buttons [laughs] and take a bunch of pictures." My partner Gary would say, "Just shoot everything that happens." When we did "Morrison Hotel" [for The Doors] we found this old hotel downtown they had to just go and stand behind the window. Usually it would happen very naturally. I didn't shoot in studios. These were all real moments, outdoors with natural light. When we did the album for Crosby, Stills & Nash sitting on that old couch in front of the old house, we had found that place and they just jumped on the couch. I started shooting. In fact they are actually in the wrong order because they hadn't named themselves Crosby, Stills & Nash yet. They were sitting Nash, Stills and Crosby. I said, "Let's just go back." We all climbed in a car and went back and the house was gone [laughing].
Were you ever starstruck?
Not really. You know Paul McCartney, I never photographed the Beatles as the Beatles, but he was a Beatle and an amazing person in the music industry. I knew his wife Linda before she ever married him. She invited me to come out and photograph them in Malibu. He accepted me as a good friend because I was a friend of his wife. One time photographing Michael Jackson when he was little, like 10 years old, he was singing to a blind children's school, all the children were sitting cross-legged on the floor and Michael Jackson was singing on a little stage at one end of the gym. I was right in front, and I mean he sang like an angel. His voice was so pure, so beautiful, it just kind of opened you up emotionally. Turning around and seeing all these children smiling -- that was a moment.
What was Jimi Hendrix like or Jim Morrison?
They were quiet people. Those guys, I mean famously, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison were all very quiet. In the case of Clapton, he's almost shy. Hendrix had that, too, but Hendrix was more like a little boy. It was easy to talk to him just about everyday things. Morrison was like a poet. He liked to observe. He would stand and watch. If you said hello to him he would kind of nod and smile. He was a cool observer type just drinking it in.
How would you compare the celebrity culture of those days to today?
Of course back in those days there wasn't even MTV let alone cell phones and computers or Twitter and Instagram [laughing]. What you call celebrity was the rise of the singer-songwriter. Folk music was huge in this country, I mean the country was crazy with folk music. Those songs were written by cowboys and sailors and miners and mountain people. You didn't write a folk song, you sort of discovered an old folk song. We didn't sing original songs. Hardly any groups did. Then it was Dylan and The Beatles who came along and then Simon & Garfunkel, then pretty quickly James Taylor, Joni Mitchell -- these people started writing their own songs. People started writing their own feelings and saying their own words in these songs, and that was a sea change in the music industry. It became a form of communication. In the late '60s, early '70s that's when you had these big personalities. They weren't just singers they were people actually creating this music. Today people like Justin Beiber and Taylor Swift, and I'm not up on all the music, but you get big stars right away. They will get a million hits on YouTube. Everybody can share music now, they don't need record companies. So you have a generation of kids now writing their own music, recording their own music at home on the computer. So it's a very creative time. I am sure it will develop into something very interesting. It already is.