Opinion: Random Guy Noticing Stuff

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‘It’s Not History. It’s Evidence’~ Glenn Frey

By Gary Stewart

Consider the following list of recipients of the esteemed Trustees Award, from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences: Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, Quincy Jones, Carole King, The Beatles, Dick Clark, Count Basie, John Williams, and …Henry Diltz?

Perhaps you don’t know the name, but you know the photographs. Two hundred fifty album covers: the face of James Taylor on Sweet Baby James; Crosby, Stills and Nash on the red couch; The Doors in the lobby of the Morrison Hotel. Not to mention Michael Jackson on the cover of Rolling Stone, and Paul and Linda McCartney on the cover of Life. If I listed everyone Henry photographed, I would quickly run out of space. Just a few: Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, The Eagles, Paul and Linda McCartney, Bob Dylan, Blondie, Queen, Curt Cobain, Jackson Brown – it’s just endless.

For decades, Henry Diltz was there, capturing uncounted iconic images of the musicians that have touched virtually every life of every American. And here he was, casual, congenial, in the sold-out ballroom at The Ranch this last Sunday evening, showing slides and talking about them, sort of like the family on vacation. After all, that’s how he got started – photographing his friends (who, by chance, all became famous) and doing slideshows for them every couple of weeks.

He had unequaled access to these folks precisely because they were his friends and because his approach was so relaxed and personal. Ringo Starr explained it this way – with usual photo shoots, there’s all this equipment and directions and analysis, but “with Henry, it’s only him.”

Mark Christy, who calls music “my oxygen” and says it “gives technicolor to a black and white day,” considers Henry “the real deal” and provided a glowing introduction for Henry. Henry’s presentation was one long stream of fun and fascinating anecdotes and observations. Many of the photographs would bring an audible gasp or chuckle from the crowd.

It might be driving out to Joshua Tree from the Troubadour in the middle of the night with The Eagles, sneaking The Doors into the hotel lobby when the guy behind the desk left it unattended, Linda Ronstadt going barefoot all the time, John Sebastian’s obsession with tie-dye, hanging out with the llamas at Neil Young’s Broken Arrow Ranch, having Keith Richards and Ron Woods as captive subjects in a small plane, lugging a heavy mirror around the desert with America, Eric Clapton sitting stunned into silence when he first heard Joni Mitchell playing songs from her not-yet-released first album, and Henry’s camera bouncing crazily when galloping on horseback with Kris Kristofferson.

One of my favorites – literally, the very first words Paul McCartney said to Henry were, “Have you got anything to smoke?” (The answer was, “Yes.”) That day, Henry took the sweet photo that found its way to the cover of Life magazine. The cover of Jackson Brown’s breakout album came to be called Saturate Before Using because of the instructions on the water bag, plus Jackson’s girlfriend liked it because…well, never mind. It was Henry who first used the rough side of the paper, rather than the glossy side, for printing album covers to give them a softer look (CSN on the couch). The back of The Doors Morrison Hotel album showed a little hole in the wall called the Hard Rock Café, and from there, the name was picked up and launched a franchise.

So, what advice did Henry have for a budding photographer? Take pictures of your friends. If you want to take pictures of musicians, offer to take pictures of them for free, go to their rehearsals, get to know them and let them get to know you. That’s what provides the access that is so crucial.

I also want to give a nod to David Heath, who provided lovely “Diltz-inspired” song selections on the patio while we all enjoyed the beauty of Aliso Canyon and perused the striking photographs of Henry’s for sale. You may contact Leslie Cunningham at [email protected] to check what’s still available. And if you missed it – stay tuned. Henry may be back again next year.

Dr. Stewart, a native of St. Petersburg, Florida, stopped in Nashville and St. Louis for education before arriving in Southern California in 1977. A happily married internal medicine physician with three accomplished children, he is equally enthusiastic about the arts (piano player, art collector, bachelor’s in English, widely read), the sciences (physician, climate activist with Citizens’ Climate Lobby) and fun.

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