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Henry Diltz, Legendary Photographer, Looks Back on Career

The official photographer of Woodstock, who lives in North Hollywood, shares his career highlights with Patch.

If you’re the kind of person who pores over the credits of classic albums, you already know the name. If you’re not, you’ve seen the pictures. The name is Henry Diltz, and not only was he the official photographer of Woodstock, he’s also taken the iconic images which grace the famous covers of more than 80 albums from  the ’60s on, including The Doors Morrison Hotel, James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, the debut Crosby, Stills & Nash, Desperado by The Eagles, Jackson Browne’s debut and countless others.

He’s also a legendary musician, a singer who plays banjo, recorder, clarinet and guitar. He's a founding member of the Modern Folk Quartet (MFQ), a famous folk group formed in Hawaii in 1961. He toured with them throughout the country in the early Sixties and recorded several albums, including the famous single "This Could Be The Night," produced by the infamous Phil Spector.

Just to pass the time when on the road, Henry, along with his fellow musicians, bought cameras. But none of them took to it like Henry, a natural artist who delights in all forms of creative expression. He reveled in his newfound ability to create these little pictures, which he could then turn into slides and project to "blow the minds of my friends."

And since many of his friends were famous musicians, he began to take some of the most beautifully intimate, natural and genuine photos of these people–which matched the intimate nature of their music much more than the former conventional studio glam approach.

And so by happy accident, and simply following his bliss, his music led him to become one of the leading photographers of his generation, part of a new school of celebrity portraiture which forever changed the visuals attached to pop music as profoundly as these musicians, his subjects, were changing the shape of pop music.

Born on September 6 in Kansas City, Missouri in 1938, his father was a pilot for TWA, and his mother a stewardess, so the family was constantly on the move. In WWII, his dad  joined the Army Air Corp, and as a kid Henry was a typical army brat, living in different regions every year, from Florida to Alabama, New York, Japan, and beyond.

In 1944, his father died in a plane crash while testing a B-29 over Utah. His mother remarried a man named Duke, and Henry–known then as Tad–became Tad Duke. A few years later he became Henry Diltz again.

He studied psychology at University of Maryland in Munich, Germany. While there he heard about West Point.

"Someone told me that children of deceased soldiers could attend West Point for free," he said to Patch on a sunny Saturday morning in his North Hollywood home. "It’s very hard to get into West Point. So I figured I should apply. So many people told me what a special rare opportunity it was, I figured I should go there."

So this man who would come to visually define hippies for the rest of the world, as well as becoming one, attended West Point and became a cadet. And he adored it. 

"I loved West Point. I loved the military trip of it, the pomp and circumstance," he said. “It was a fun game and I was good at it. It put me in great shape. I played 22 different sports there. And I loved the parades, when you put on the starched white pants, and the cross-belts with a brass plate in the middle. You had to polish that brass plate to get it beautifully shining.

"I loved to march with the rifle and the bayonet and the big hat and gold buttons. You stand out in the field at sundown and they’d play the Star Spangled Banner and shoot cannons over the Hudson River. I loved that long gray line and the sound of the cannons boom and looking down the line and seeing all those breast-plates shining in the sun."

But as much as these martial rituals satisfied him, he still hungered more than anything to play music. His love of folk music, of Pete Seeger and Bob Gibson primarily, both of whom played banjo, led him to want to make his own music.  

So upon graduation, he headed straight to Greenwich Village, where he purchased his first banjo. Like getting his first camera, it would change his life.

To further his studies, he decided to go, banjo in hand, to the University of Hawaii. "I wanted to go somewhere far away," he said, "because I had gone to college in Munich, Germany. So I liked the idea of  Hawaii."

Almost immediately upon arrival, as new friends recognized his musical aspirations, they all gave him the same name: Cyrus Faryar.  A musician-poet and owner of the legendary Greensleeves Coffeehouse in Waikiki, he soon was Henry’s best friend. 

Cyrus had a magnetic charm which drew in artists, musicians and other Bohemian types. One such type was the late, great songwriter-author-cartoonist and  womanizer, Shel Silverstein. He was the first to immortalize Cyrus, who was half-Persian and half-Welsh, in song, as Henry remembered: "It was called 'An Arab’s Got a Right To Sing The Blues.' It had one line: 'And I can’t ride my camel into bathrooms with enamel/ An Arab’s got a right to sing the blues.'"

Singing at Greensleeves and other venues, little groups formed, and in this way the Modern Folk Quartet came to be, with Henry and Cyrus plus Jerry Yester and Chip Douglas.

In 1962 they left Hawaii to come to Hollywood and make their fortune. They were signed almost immediately to Warner Bros, and joined the momentum of the folk boom then booming.

Between 1963 and 1966, the MFQ recorded several albums, and toured all around America, playing often at the venerable Village Gate in Manhattan, where they opened for comedians such as Bill Cosby and Woody Allen. These were still pre-hippie times, and though the MFQ sang folk music, they dressed in suits. "We were sophisticated folk music," he said with a laugh. "We had sophisticated chords."

Phil Spector, then looking for a good folk-rock group to produce, discovered the MFQ, and began to groom them for a studio project.

"For a whole summer we’d go to his house, sit around a piano and sing," said Henry. "He’d tell us each what to sing. And we’d sit and play our guitars and banjos, and he’d play his 12-string. Once we were playing The Trip (a club on the Sunset Strip) and he came in with his 12-string, sat on a stool,  and performed 'Spanish Harlem' and we supported him."

"At the end of that summer he said he found the perfect song for us. We went into Gold Star Studios (in West Hollywood) with the 'wall of sound. (The "wall of sound" refers to Spector’s studio style of using huge bands and many singers to create a hugely full sound.)

"We did the track in one day, and then the next day we did the singing. During the playback, Brian Wilson was there in the control  room, in his robe and slippers, and he’d just listen to it over and over and over. We could see him through the glass, but we didn’t go in there. We were in awe. He was our hero. He loved that song. Whenever he sits down at a piano to play, to this day, he always plays that song."

Phil Spector also used Henry on banjo in other 'wall of sound' productions, including Ike & Tina Turner’s classic "River Deep Mountain High."

"There were like eight guitar players," he recalled, "six drummers, and me on banjo. Several drummers, always Hal Blaine. Big African hair drums. Tambourines, shakers, percussion people. One time I sat down and I was next to [guitar legend] Barnie Kessel.

"The songs had impossible chords I didn’t know on banjo. But Phil would hire Jerry Yester too, and he could play all those chords on guitar and would figure them out for me, how to do them on banjo. I’d play these arpeggio parts, these flowing parts like a waterfall, so sparkly.”

Although Spector was a functional and jovial man back then, he refused to release any record that he wasn’t sure would reach Number One on the Hit Parade, and so much to the profound dismay of the MFQ, decided not to release the record they figured could be the big hit they were waiting for.  

Disillusioned, Cyrus decided to return to Hawaii, and the MFQ broke up for the first time. This was 1966. Chip Douglas joined the Turtles, Jerry Yester became a music producer, producing The Association and later Tom Waits and others, and Henry fell in love with photography.

Ten years later the MFQ reunited to make an album, and have since gotten together about every ten years to make a new one. Presently they have an album of Hawaiian music in the can soon to be released, and a Japanese tour on the horizon.)

Though Henry was soon to be a serious pro photographer, his love was entirely about art, and never with any intention of making money.

"I never thought of doing it professionally," he said."I just loved doing it! It was all about slide shows I’d give for my friends. I’d show these slides and blow my friends’ minds. And once you do that, you want to do it again and again!"

"It wasn’t really like photography, even. It was like a little visual game. I wanted to get the picture to sing, to get the wow effect."

But his love for capturing vivid visuals was infectious, and his friends wanted to see themselves in those great slide-shows. They also recognized that Henry, a friend and fellow musician who shared their love of smoking "God’s herb," as Henry calls it,  was a whole lot more fun to be photographed by the pro photographers they’d known. It was Henry’s warmth and charm, as much as his technical and artistic prowess with a camera, that led him to become one of the great photographers of the Rock era.

When Neil Young and Stephen Stills, then in Buffalo Springfield, asked him to come along to Redondo Beach one day to shoot some stills, Henry took the first of what became an unprecedented chain of amazing photographs, many of which were used for the covers and inside sleeves of classic albums.

His first professional assignment was for his friend John Sebastian’s band The Loving Spoonful. They paid for him to come to New York, and he happily spent a summer taking photos of them. Because he was a friend of these famous folks, his photos were natural, unforced, and a great antidote to the fake studio glam then often foisted upon musicians.

Henry teamed up with art director Gary Burdon, who was adept at designing album art, as well as keeping up a conversation with a subject while Henry snapped away.

"Gary, who was even more of friend to everyone, made these shoots happen," Henry said, always happy deflecting praise to others. "He was a very cool guy, he could talk to anyone"

When it’s suggested that description applies to him as well, he says, "Well, maybe now. But not then. I learned a lot from Gary."

It’s a lesson that has served him well, as he has photographed many of the most famous people in the world. Henry was never an outsider; he always arrived as a fellow musician, one of the gang. "With famous people, you’re either a friend or a fan," he explained.

It was a formula that worked. Gary would maintain a genial atmosphere, and Henry would gently snap away. It’s a method that led to many famous photos of that legendary Lady of the Canyon, Joni Mitchell.

"We were at Joni’s taking photos," Henry said, "and she was talking to Gary, leaning out the window and the lighting was just perfect. I took 30 or 40 beautiful shots of her leaning in the window. As he talked, I did my thing. And that was how we always did it , whether it was America or the Eagles or CSN. Gary would talk and I would shoot."

None of it was calculated to intentionally preserve historic visuals of rock and roll; all simply happened in the moment, often by "accident," as Henry says.

To shoot the cover of Morrison Hotel, for example, he and the band brainstormed about a potential title, when keyboardist Ray Manzarek mentioned a transient hotel he saw near Skid Row in Downtown L.A. It was the Morrison Hotel, at 1246 S. Hope Street. They hopped in their cars and drove there; Henry arriving first with Gary to photograph the old façade before the band arrived. Because it was Henry behind the lens, they were relaxed as ever, and a classic image was created.

"Jim [Morrison] lived behind his eyes,"said Henry, "and nobody really knew what went on behind those eyes. He was a poet–enigmatic, and bemused.”

Soon every band wanted the kind of shots Henry Diltz was taking. Even the Monkees,  formed as an imitation-Beatles TV band, wanted the Diltz touch, as Henry recalled:

"One day in 1967 I got a call from a guy asking me to go down to The Monkees’ TV show at Gower Gulch. He said they’d pay $300. And that’s what happened–I’d shoot, and then they’d take the rolls of film, undeveloped. And kept them.

"To this day I don’t have the rights to those. What happened is they used to have older guys shooting photos – like newspaper photographers – and the Monkees weren’t comfortable with them, they weren’t’ hip, they weren’t part of the scene. So they brought me in.

"I’d go there in the morning, spend the whole day. You couldn’t shoot when they were shooting, because the click would be audible. So I would shoot when they were rehearsing the scene or lip-synching songs. I used to hide among the light stands cause I knew they would never look at those with cameras, so I was safe."

Becoming the official photographer for Woodstock, despite its retrospective glory, was as uncalculated as his other famous forays. He  accepted though he had no idea whatsoever what it would entail.

His friend Chip Monck, a lighting designer, then living in Woodstock, New York, called him in 1969 and said, "Henry, we’re gonna have a big show here. You should come." Henry told him he couldn’t afford it. Monck was the MC of Woodstock; his announcements from stage are preserved in the movie and record album.

The next day Woodstock producer Michael Lang called Henry. "Chip said we need you," he said. "I’m sending you a ticket."

Henry arrived at Woodstock–which took place on Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York–three full weeks before the concert would commence. Not only did he never anticipate the scope of what Woodstock would be, he had so much fun living with and photographing the beautiful young people preparing for the show in this great setting that he wasn’t thinking ahead.

"I forgot there was even gonna be a show," he said. "I was busy photographing all these hippie girls bringing lunch and the hippie carpenters nailing planks. It was a great little village."

When thousands began flocking in and sitting in front of the giant stage, he caught on to what was happening. And loved it.

"[Woodstock] was an amazing event," he remembered. "I saw it from onstage and backstage, so I could see the flurry and the hurry of it all. People running around trying to keep it going, get the next act out there, because we have 400,000 people out there waiting! And it got crazy, you couldn’t drive anymore, the roads were all full.

"I had a little rooming house a mile down the road but I couldn’t go home after the first day because people parked their cars on both sides of this little country road, so there wasn’t any room for anyone to drive down the road anymore."

Although he came to recognize that Woodstock was way more vast than anyone could have planned, he had no concept of its actual size until he saw a newspaper photo.

"It was an aerial view," he said, "and we were blown away! That’s us? From where we stood it was like a giant sea of people. It went for as far as your eye could see in every direction, a hell of a lot of people."

Despite the legendary expressions of free love blooming there, Henry focused on the job at hand.

"I was diligently occupied photographing everything that would happen," he said. “It was like a feeding frenzy–you look around and there’s John Sebastian backstage in his tie-dies playing and singing and there’s pretty girls dancing and there’s Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane sitting on the edge of the stage in the afternoon sun, and do you take all of that or do you take photos of Joe Cocker, who is onstage performing?"

Henry, which the world came to know, did a masterful job of preserving the visuals of Woodstock–all the color, the energy, the music–visuals which went a long way in establishing for the world the character of the "Woodstock nation," as it was known.

Henry was already a friend with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and David Crosby, who performed at Woodstock with Neil Young. When they were forming, they’d often perform at people’s parties and astound their friends with their amazing harmonies on the Beatles’ "Blackbird" as well as their own songs. Henry would be there snapping shots, so when the time came to shoot a cover for their eponymous debut, they jumped in a car with Henry and Gary to seek out some locations for an album cover shot.

Like almost all of Henry’s famous photos, this iconic photo happened again by accident, when they discovered an old abandoned house off on La Cienega on Palm in West Hollywood, which had an old couch in front. It became one of his most famous photographs ever.

"When I took this photo," recalled Henry,  "I wasn’t sure it would be the perfect photo, but I knew it was very satisfying to me, the three of them on a couch. It filled the frame so nicely and was so balanced. It’s all a matter of mathematics and symmetrics so that it’s balanced."

The famous cover of James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James was also accidental. Although the bucolic photos seem to have come from a photo session at a pastoral Massachusetts farm, in fact they’re the product of an afternoon session in Burbank with Henry.

"[James’s manager] Peter Asher asked me to come to his house," Henry said, "to take black & white promo shots. But the light wasn’t good there, so I suggested we go to Cyrus’ place – he lived them at the Farm on Barham Boulevard [no longer standing, it was situated on the ground behind what is now the Oakwood Apartments] . There were sheds and barns there, and  I love shooting around barns, because there’s that old weathered wood. And the way the light comes in the windows is so good.

"[James] was wearing a blue work-shirt. He was leaning against stuff, we were talking,  but not too much. I didn’t really know his music then–nobody did.

"When he leaned on that post, that looked perfect, and I took a few black & whites, and I said, 'Wait a minute, James, I wanna get a few color shots,' and reached down in my bag for my other camera. I just did that because I wanted to put that in my slide show, so I took half a dozen color shots. And those were the ones they used."

One of the few exceptions to Henry’s happy accident method was the shooting of The Eagles’ Desperado, for which Gary envisioned the look of an old Western movie.

"They told us it would be a cowboy record," Henry remembered."So Gary got some cowboy clothes from Western Costumes and some guns. We  shot it at an old ghost ranch out in Agoura. As usual, I just shot everything that happened. Gary said, "Shoot everything you can. Film’s the cheapest part."  And as The Eagles played cowboys and pretended to have a gun fight, Henry caught it all, showing there’s really no kind of photography he can’t do.

Though mostly associated with California artists, he’s also shot many artists whose music was made far from the Golden State, such as Paul McCartney. Henry knew Linda McCartney when both were photographers in New York, prior to her marrying Paul. One day sin 1969 she called.

"She asked me to shoot some pictures of Paul and her," remembered Henry, “for the songbook for Ram. She said she couldn’t take photos of both of them, so I spent the day with them in Malibu taking photos of them and their family, their kids.

"At the end of the day I did a black & white portrait of just the two of them. And they liked it so much they rushed it off to Life magazine for a cover. I didn’t know it was gonna be a cover; I’d just been shooting all day. Life had wanted to use a Beatles picture, but it was a story on Paul, and Paul wanted the photo to be just of him, cause he had just gone solo. And they had one more day to get a better photo. So Linda didn’t tell me, but she got what she wanted."

These days, in addition to take new photos, he’s selling a lot of his classic ones. With Peter Blachley and Rich Horowitz, he’s opened several Morrison Hotel photo galleries around the country, which sell fine-art prints of his own work and that of other rock photographers.

The first gallery was in the Soho section of New York, and the second in one-half of the former CBGBs club in the Bowery. He’s also had Morrison Hotel Galleries in Hollywood and La Jolla, with plans to open more.

He lives these days in a quiet neighborhood of North Hollywood in a home filled with archives of slides and photos, as magazines and film companies and more call from around the world needing some of his famous photos. These days he has assistants to help him with this most difficult aspect of his work – the archiving and distribution of his work.

He’s also created many great books, most recently an extraordinary collector’s item book created by Genesis Publishing in the UK, California Dreaming, of which a limited amount of signed editions were created. Used copies on Amazon are being sold for upwards of $1200.

Henry’s photos are also strewn beautifully through Harvey Kubernik’s classic book of Laurel Canyon history, Canyon of Dreams.

And with the acclaimed writer Dave Zimmer, Henry created Crosby, Stills & Nash, The Biography.

Henry Diltz, in his visual expedition into the heart of the music,  preserved the magical genius of this great transitional American era. And although the musicians who created that music have aged, their music is untouched by time, the spirit perseveres, and those great photos by Henry Diltz remain.

Yet Henry isn’t one ever to rest on his laurels. He stills looks with wonder at his remarkable career.

"It’s funny how I got into photography. I didn’t go to photo school or study. It fell into my hands. I became one without even wanting to be. And I still love it as much as ever."  

Though he started taking photos with film cameras, and thought at one time he’d never change, he’s fallen in love with the unlimited potential of digital photography. Not only does he use professional model Canon SLRs, he also loves Canon’s tiny but amazingly high-quality Powershots.

"These little camera are amazing," he said. “It’s a magic little thing. I take hundreds of pictures every day. I take more now than I ever did."

For more information on Henry and his work: www.morrisonhotelgallery.com 

Barbara July 22, 2011 at 07:43 PM
I met Henry while I was a student at Bard College. I made a point of buying all his albums and catching many of his shows. And now I live in his neighborhood. Didn't know....Bought all their albums but lost them in the Northridge earthquake debacle at my house.
Richard Lomax July 23, 2011 at 06:16 AM
Rich Lomax Henry is a one of a kind guy. Doing something he loved, never expecting the success he as aquired. Another remarkable story!!! I live about 8 block from him, here in North Hollywood. He knows me from my working with The Kingston Trio and The Association. I would like to see more of his work. Sorry I missed our trip to Hawaii a couple of years ago. That was Bob Shanes last trip Home?? My Best to you Henry.
Richard Lomax July 23, 2011 at 06:23 AM
Henry ought to have his own PAGE????? Rich
Paul Zollo July 23, 2011 at 06:33 AM
I live in the neighborhood too! And it's nice having him so close.
Todd Holden August 09, 2011 at 10:09 PM
as a professional photographer, who's shot lots of rock and roll and country and western...I have long admired the work of Henry Diltz...a long overdue recollection of his amazing career.
Suzanne Lewis August 09, 2011 at 10:12 PM
Henry, It is a long way from 1969 to 2011! Hearing about Cyrus & Gary brought back some many fond memories of those days. I too live in the neighborhood, and it is nice having him so close!
CHUCK CHAVEZ August 09, 2011 at 10:29 PM
What an awesome story. Here is a man, "Henry Diltz" who is just clicking away with a camera taking pictures, because he just enjoys taking pictures and it ends up being a career which to him isn't even a job or work because its something that he just enjoys doing like a hobby. FANTASTIC !!!
Anne Heath Oliver December 31, 2011 at 05:11 AM
I used to live in Tad Diltz's neighborhood: Garden City in the '40s. My parents, Dorothy and Debs Heath (both with TWA) were best friends of Tad's parents and Trixie and mom stayed in touch until Trixie died. I often wondered what happened to that adorable blond boy I knew back then and found out tonight while watching the "Carole King and James Taylor" documentary on American Masters. What an exciting and rewarding life you have led, Tad. Good for you!!! Anne Heath Oliver
Tom Lenard January 09, 2012 at 01:22 AM
Hey....back in 1971 I filmed a short segment of Neil Young and David Myers settling up a shot that were about film in Columbus, Georgia. Today on Facebook some folks believe that one of scenes I posted as freeze frames show what is believed to be Henry Diltz taking a photo..Looks like he's photographing me... Is this Henry Diltz circa 1971 onlocation in Columbus, GA? https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=2988202755079&set=o.145829948831673&type=1&theater DAVID MYERS (Circa 1971 in Columbus, GA): https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=2988478801980&set=o.145829948831673&type=1&theater
Suzanne Lewis January 09, 2012 at 01:53 AM
Sure looks like him. Henry, is that you?
Paul Zollo January 09, 2012 at 02:06 AM
That's Henry! I'd know him anywhere. Back then he had those big aviator glasses and his hair like that. That's the guy. Aka 'Tad' back then.
Paul Zollo January 09, 2012 at 02:06 AM
That's Henry! I'd know him anywhere. Back then he had those big aviator glasses and his hair like that. That's the guy. Aka 'Tad' back then.
Tom Lenard January 09, 2012 at 05:17 PM
Many thanks for the fast response to my post..
Tom Lenard February 11, 2012 at 04:20 AM
UPDATE: Will know soon. Talked on the phone with him tonight (February 10, 2012)..Says he will take a look at the freeze-frames I have on facebook about that time back in 1971. Henry didn't recall being in Columbus, GA back then.. He has my phone number now and will be back in touch with Me. He's very interested in this...He of course, traveled and filmed so many places with Neil Young, David Myers, and Larry Johnson. I'll let everyone know what I found out when Henry Calls Me back or messages in Facebook...TomL
Tom Lenard March 25, 2012 at 08:35 PM
Hey Paul Zollo.. I was able to talk to Henry Diltz on the phone about a month ago...He does not recall being in Columbus, GA in 1971. He doesn't think I filmed him ...I found him on FAcebook also and sent the freeze frames...He did tell Me he seldom goes on FACEBOOK any more..but, would take a look and message back.. Haven't heard anymore from him....Just thought I'd let you since you were positive as well that the 16mm freeze frames were indeed of him...I suppose we were wrong. Unless there's some other reason.. s this Henry Diltz circa 1971 onlocation in Columbus, GA? https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=2988202755079&set=o.145829948831673&type=1&theater DAVID MYERS (Circa 1971 in Columbus, GA): https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=2988478801980&set=o.145829948831673&type=1&theater
robert connor June 01, 2012 at 09:33 PM
Hi Tom. Any chance you could get me in touch with Henry? Working with some of the old tour poster artist and another classic rock photographer for a new microbrewery line featuring beers named after classic songs. Company is going to be San Diego based and called Analog Ales. Love to discuss this with Henry to see if he might be open to including some of his work on the brands and we will feature his works for sale (direct to him with no middle man fees) on Analog website, store, and brewery/taprooms. Appreciate any help! RWCONNORJR@HOTMAIL.COM Thanks! Bob

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