During a photo shoot for the cover of Life magazine in 1971, Paul McCartney had asked him if he was going to do his “fly on the wall” thing. These were only the early years of what would roll out to be four decades of music photography, but Henry Diltz’s portraiture of rock giants already had the trappings of a signature style. Diltz is the Jane Goodall of music photography: The pioneering British anthropologist observed chimpanzees for 45 years; Diltz studies rock stars.
As a musician in the late 1960s America, immersed deep in its vibrant milieu, Diltz had the sort of access that few photographers could hope for. He went on to make images for over 200 album sleeves, including best-sellers such as James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, the Doors’ Morrison Hotel, and the first Crosby, Stills & Nash album. And there was Woodstock—the most pivotal event in the history of popular music—of which he was the official photographer.
Flower power: (left) Diltz in India; and one of his Goa images.
Diltz’s images have appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines around the world. Apart from digital licensing agency Corbis, he sells them through a New York outfit, the Morrison Hotel Gallery, that he co-founded. His best photos have also been compiled in a limited-edition book called California Dreaming.
Diltz has finally—somewhat befittingly, given his self-identification as a “hippie”—made his way to India. We met him while he was here on assignment to shoot Goan villages for an upcoming boutique hotel in north Goa called Shanti Morada, which will be housed in an old Portugese mansion.
At 72, with long silver hair tied at the nape, he really is a flower child. Of his casual foray into photography, he says one must “lie back and let things happen”. This is his first trip to India although he says he’s been here “in his mind and through books” (Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda is his gift of choice on any occasion).
Born in Kansas City, US, Diltz grew up all around the world, including Japan, Thailand and Germany. It was in Hawaii— where he started off attending college—that he met the band members of his folk revival band, the Modern Folk Quartet.
The photographs began with a $20 (around Rs900) second-hand Japanese camera purchased when Diltz was on tour with his band. When the group split, he embarked on photography. He submerged himself in the world of music: the road, the gigs, the social consciousness, the psychedelia. The rapport he’d developed with his musician friends enabled him to capture candid shots that conveyed a feeling of trust and intimacy. He believes “hanging out” is the most important part of what he does. “It’s your attitude, you know,” he says in a Californian drawl. “If you don’t fit in, the musicians don’t want you around.”
With a veritable archive to his credit, he still doesn’t call himself a professional photographer, only a musician who likes to take pictures (Diltz frequently contributed on banjo or clarinet, to the albums he was shooting for). And photos aren’t the only one of his resources. Through his years backstage, Diltz started recording quotes. He has cartons of notebooks and loose sheets filled with what he calls “found poetry”.
There are revelations he shares without much prodding: Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix were quiet, sensitive souls who were only aggressive when drunk or drugged. “Guitar was their release…that (The) Doors movie got it all wrong,” he says. “In the green room, you have to sit quietly…,” he adds, “only when they forget that you’re there, do you get the best picture.”
This was McCartney’s reference. And this is something that translates on to Diltz’s images from Goa, where he spent close to two weeks in November, shooting around three villages a day. The fisherwomen of Siolim caught his particular fancy and he recounts how he pretended to be interested in the trees and birds and shot them only when they’d stopped noticing him.
Though Diltz’s Goa photographs reveal the colour-rich exotica that international artists are prone to take to—flea markets, canary yellow walls, bright pink saris—his photographs do something distinctive to the people. In his pictures, they look like rock stars.