Photographer (and musician) Henry Diltz has taken photographs of almost every notable rock musician and band from the 1960s and 70s. His iconic style practically defined the generation of classic album cover art.
And he started it all with a tossed-off junk-store camera.
Rock Cellar Magazine was honored to have Henry Diltz sit down and chat with us. Diltz’ memory is as sharp as his camera’s focus, and the breadth of his story-telling is as wide as the gargantuan “Wall of Slides” adorning his west-coast photo studio office.
For a man whose medium is visual, Henry Diltz is a surprisingly loquacious sort: words gush out in an articulate fountain, and like his slides, most all of them are historical gold.
HENRY DILTZ: When I started taking pictures I was on tour with my group, The Modern Folk Quartet. We stopped in a second-hand store (we had a motor home, going across the country doing college concerts and clubs) and there was a table full of little second-hand cameras – old ones, this was ’66. We each got one.
ROCK CELLAR MAGAZINE: Where was this store?
HD: It was East Lansing, Michigan. [The guy at the drugstore] came out with these yellow boxes [of film]. I said, “What about these numbers on here? The f-stops, the time?” He said, “Well, just look on the box, it says ‘sunlight.’ 250 at 8.” I learned that way.
My photo school was the Kodak box. I just followed that and it came out perfect.
RCM: It was a used camera, right?
HD: Yeah, it was called a Pony.
RCM: Do you still have it?
HD: I don’t know. Maybe down in the other garage. I’ll try to find it one day! When we got back to L.A. we got the film developed, and I got the little yellow boxes back from Kodak, and I opened them up and it was slides! I had no idea– no idea what kind of film. If it had been black and white, I would have got a proof sheet. So I said, “let’s get a projector, get all our friends together,” and we all got together in this dark room, put some music on…and when the first slide hit the wall, huge, the colors shimmering, so alive…
At that moment I said, “holy cow–! I’ve got to take more of these, so we can have some more slide shows!”
I got a great photo of a guy with a monkey on his shoulder, with a little fringe haircut that matched its owner. It was one of my favorite pictures. I loved showing these pictures ‘cause I would get such a reaction from all my friends. I would take snails on the ivy in the morning and then blow it up. I loved to photograph old trucks; they had such personality. Then I would get funky little toy trucks and get them real close up. Then when you show them on the wall, the big real truck, and the big toy truck, it would mess with my friends.
I used to photograph psychedelic matchboxes. In those days you would use a close up ring and screw it on – a glass magnifying filter. You could put one on, or two or three, and get really close up.
Then I started taking pictures of my friends all the time. I learned on my friends. These were the people I hung out with every day: the guys in my group, their girlfriends, their friends. There were 20 or 30 people in this crowd.
RCM: This was in L.A.?
HD: Yeah, in L.A. I would hang out with them naturally anyway, and while I did I would take pictures. I would try to take candid shots, because when I showed them the slides on the weekend I wanted them to say, “Oh my god, I didn’t even know you took that!” They were all musicians, people that didn’t work, so they were always around the house anyway.
RCM: Where did you live at that time?
HD: I lived in Laurel Canyon–
RCM: –Of course! It was like Laurel Canyon was infested with all L.A. most famous artists. Would you just be walking down the street, and just run into musicians all over the place?
HD: Not really! It looked the same as it does now. You don’t see people walking, ‘cause people don’t walk in L.A. But they’re in those houses. There are still musicians up there – they aren’t walking up and down the street with their guitars, though. They never were. Mostly you’d meet people at the Troubadour. That’s where they were, every night.
RCM: So anyway, these musicians were your friends for the slide shows.
HD: Yes, a lot of my friends lived in Laurel Canyon, or interesting places like that, and I would just hang out with them and I really, really got into it. I got into framing, and getting the right moment, the whole thing. ‘Cause in the back of my mind the whole time was: “how is this going to look on the wall when my friends see it?” What does the background look like, what do the colors look like? I automatically oriented myself really well into just what that picture’s going to look like.
RCM: Did you even shoot print film, or was it all slides?
HD: All slides.
RCM: So it started, in a sense, as an accident?
HD: Yeah. So, up until digital, 5, 6 years ago, I primarily shot slide film. Whenever I shot something for myself it was always slide film; I had no use for black and white. However, when I got into music photography people needed black and white. I just put out a book of 140 black and white photos – and I say I wasn’t really a black and white photographer. Nonetheless, in the course of my work I had to do a ton of black and white. Print film. Kodak Tri-X. 400 ASA. All I ever shot. For the color, it was Ektachrome 64, or Chrome 200, later.
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