Music in Pictures

Danielle Dreilinger
April 13, 2010
When Henry Diltz takes the photo, even a field of flowers has a musical story behind it: These poppies grow along Neil Young's driveway. Singer/songwriter Leah Kunkel sits alongside.
Rock photographer Henry Diltz
Diltz's friendship with his subjects allows him to capture intimate moments. Here, Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash ride to an early Crosby, Stills and Nash photo shoot.
James Taylor signs a copy of his breakthrough album <em>Sweet Baby James</em>—cover photograph taken by Diltz—at a Berklee clinic in 2008.
Yes, even John Sebastian's friends thought he went overboard when he met "Tie-Dye Annie," Diltz tells the audience.
Photo by Jennifer Shanley
Photo by Jennifer Shanley
Photo by Jennifer Shanley
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Jennifer Shanley

The power of music, some think, is all in the ear: the sound you hear when the needle drops into the groove. But others think images can illuminate music—if they're the right pictures.

In Los Angeles in the late '60s and early '70s, Henry Diltz took the right pictures. Still ponytailed after all these years, he gave a clinic at Berklee on March 23 with Leah Kunkel, a musician, entertainment lawyer, and the sister of the late Mama Cass. Faculty member Suzanne Dean, who teaches a course on the music of LA's Laurel Canyon, emceed and ran the slideshow.

It brought back an almost unimaginable time, the heyday of Laurel Canyon, when now-iconic bands like the Eagles were just hanging around making their first albums; when photo shoots meant camping out in the desert and taking peyote or dressing up to play cops and robbers; when Crosby, Stills and Nash still thought they might call themselves Nash, Stills and Crosby—and posed for Diltz in that order.

"It's a symbiotic thing, photography and music. One supports the other," he said afterwards. A folk musician, he found photography when he bought a camera while touring the country with the Modern Folk Quartet. From there on, "I always had my camera with me." It wasn't long before music magazines started calling.

Diltz and design partner Gary Burden created album covers for the Doors, the Eagles, and America that ended up tacked to countless teenagers' walls. But it wasn't that big a deal at the time. These people weren't famous. They were just his neighbors in the canyon and his friends from the Troubadour folk club. His fame grew with theirs.

He didn't hear James Taylor's star-making second album Sweet Baby James until after the photo session for that cover. Later he fell in love with the title track and sang it as a lullaby to his children. He reflected, "It kind of blows me away that I actually took the album cover."

Diltz told story after story, sharing the secrets behind the scenes. Every shoot was an adventure, he said. "We would always plan a trip. We would get the group out of town. . . really have an experience." That coffee pot brewing on the fire in the photos for the Eagles's debut album? Filled with peyote buttons. One band member looks cranky because he had to abstain.

He pointed out a gleam of light in the Doors' Morrison Hotel photo. It comes from the elevator, and holds the key to the entire shot. The attendant at the fleabag hotel wouldn't let the band shoot there. When they left, he stepped into the elevator; Diltz shooed the band back inside and quickly took a single roll of film. The picture drew so much acclaim that Diltz later named his New York gallery after it. 

But beyond publicity, these photographs capture an intimate sense of community. In one, his Laurel Canyon neighbor Joni Mitchell (a Scorpio, Diltz added) greets him from the window of the house her then-boyfriend Graham Nash celebrated in the song "Our House." In another, she and Nash whisper in the back seat of a car. Diltz created portraits of longtime friend Neil Young not only playing his "White Falcon" guitar on stage but hanging out on his farm with his beloved dog.

Those days are gone, not due to changes in technology—Diltz finally switched to digital a few years ago—but to changes in access. In the '60s, music photographers were few and far between. Now there are 30 to 40 at every big rock show, and they can only shoot two or three songs.

If you stop there, you'll never get great pictures, Diltz told the audience. Instead, you need to duplicate his process on a small scale. "You need to go to the rehearsal or the soundcheck [and say] 'Hey guys, just walk outside for a minute.'" Then "you've got something nobody else has."

Of course, Neil Young probably won't agree now—if you can even get into the rehearsal to ask him. But the modern equivalent of Neil Young circa 1969 probably will. "If you find new groups I'm sure they'll be happy to oblige," Diltz advised. That was his parting advice for Berklee's musicians and music photographers: Find your own rising stars; create your own Laurel Canyon.