LA Beat Interview – Rock Photographer Henry Diltz

Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, Somebody’s Baby and Eric Clapton. Photo by Henry Diltz.

Legendary Laurel Canyon photographer Henry Diltz has been curating the Morrison Hotel Gallery – named for one of the classic albums featuring his work on the cover – for two decades now. For the gallery’s latest exhibit, it’s returning to its very first incarnation – a celebration of Diltz the artist. The exhibit Be Mused attempts to re-create the earliest days of the gallery, when it was essentially a vehicle to show off and sell his own stuff. In the years since, it has turned into a multi-city entity representing a hundred and twenty five artists. So this will be a change of pace from their usual programming – but a return to the theme that visitors to the first incarnation of Morrison Hotel in NYC might find familiar.

We spoke to Diltz by phone about his artistic origins as a photographer on the road with the Modern Folk Quartet, the evolving state of the gallery, and the future of both music and photography. Be Mused will be on exhibit at the Morrison Hotel Gallery through November 20.

Tell us a little about this show that’s opening this week.

It’s going to be a show of my work. You know, we started the gallery in 2000, with a little shop in Soho in New York. And it was only my pictures, I started it with two partners, to sell my photos. So, we had a little storefront in Soho and we had only my pictures in there for I don’t know, the first year or so. So, when you’d walk it in, it would be all these pictures of Laurel Canyon people, more or less, and we’d have their music playing, and people would walk in and go “oh my God, this is my whole life!” It was a nice feeling.

And then, we added. You know, my partner said, it would be nice to have a second photographer, then we could have an opening, and it’ll get more people”. And so my partner Peter said, “Of all your peers, who would you like to have in here?” And I said “Jim Marshall.” Because he was the guru of kind of music photographers in San Francisco. He actually told me one time, he called me up and said “Henry, it’s Jim!” And I said “Jim who?” And he says “What do you mean? It’s your fucking guru!” (Laughter.) So, he’s always been my effin’ guru.

So then we got Bob Gruen, we got Neal Preston, and we had Danny Clint, all these photographers that we would represent. And then each photographer would have a show a different month, and then, after a while we realized it’s better to have a show of say “David Bowie,” or “Hip Hop”. A subject rather than one artist, otherwise you just have the one guy’s pictures on the wall. But if you say “David Bowie” then you might have ten or twelve different photographers’ pictures on the wall.

So, this is kind of a throwback to the early days, and I haven’t see the gallery with only my pictures on the wall for almost twenty years now. So that will be a thrill for me. For once… normally, I’m lucky to have two or three photos on the wall, now that we have a hundred and twenty-five photographers, and only space for maybe sixty photos…

It’s new for us in LA but it’ll be a throwback for you then.

Yeah, it’ll be fun to see that. It’s been not quite sixty years, I started in ‘Sixty-six. So it’s not quite the Sixty Year Retrospective. We’re gonna have all the main ones, the ones that everybody buys all the time, and I want to put some different ones. Ones that have never been framed and hung on the wall. For a little variety! So I’m gonna have Spinal Tap in there, they’ve never really been on the wall here before.

Well THAT’S exciting!

And some other groups that we don’t usually put up there. Well, when I say I only put two or three of my prints up on the wall at any one time, (when I do) they’re gonna be Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Crosby Still Nash. They’re gonna be the iconic ones. So, I don’t get a chance to put brand new stuff or surprising stuff up. Although I do on social media! I have a very active Instagram and Facebook page, I put the same thing on both. We try to put five pictures up every week. And I have a millennial helper, who’s a musician so she’s way into music, and she’ll look through my archive on the computer and pick five pictures for the week. And she shows them to me and I go, “Really? That one? Wow, but that’s so weird.” And she’ll go “Yeah but it’s great because of this…”

And it’s grown that way. Even when I travel now at the airports, people say “I follow you on Instagram, I love your little history bits.” She’ll find a picture and I’ll tell her what it is, and this is what happened that day. And people seem to love that.

It is kind of interesting, because if you take a random proof sheet of something you shot, you’re going to pick maybe two, three, the main one will stand out. But there’s thirty-six on there. There’s still thirty-three pictures no one’s ever seen. So it’s fun to go through that proof sheet now in retrospect, so I’ll have a few of those in the show. And even more on my Instagram.

One of the things we know from your history is that you began as a musician and began taking photos with no formal training, I was going to ask if there was anyone in your history that served as a mentor to you, maybe informally, that helped direct your development as an artist.

There was a fellow named Alan Davio. Who was a cinematographer. He worked for the director of E.T., what was his name again….


Yeah! Alan Davio was his cinematographer at that point. But he worked at the Studio City Camera Exchange for years before that. And he was a photographer and videographer. And he was a friend of mine and he would say “Focus, Henry, focus!” Make sure you’re sharp on every picture. Because focus is the one thing that you can’t change later. You can make it a little darker you can make it a little lighter, after you’ve taken it, but you can’t change the focus once you push the button.

I mean, no. I always say my training was the Kodak film box. The day we bought second hand cameras, we were on the road, and one of the guys said, “stop in the next drug store and I’ll buy film for everybody.” So I put the film in my camera and I say, boy, how do I set all these numbers? And my buddy Cyrus, who was in the group, says, “Well, look on the box.” And it says “Sunlight: 250 at 8.” Well, OK, there’s 250 and there’s 8, I can do that, let’s go out in the sunlight and try it out.

And that was my film school, I think really. The yellow Kodak film box that tells you how to set it for shade, how to set it for sunlight, I just did that. It worked out.

I was one of those musicians who lived up the hill in Laurel Canyon. So I knew everybody up there. I knew Mama Cass. I knew Steven Stills and David Crosby and Neil Young, they were all neighbors of mine. And so as a fellow musician, musicians hang out all the time, we all hung out, every day, every night, down at the Troubadour or wherever it was. So I started shooting pictures of my friends. Really for slide shows. We would have slide shows on the weekend and I would show pictures I had taken of my friends all week. And it got to be kind of a fun get together, and gradually people started using the pictures.

And, one by one, they got famous, that was the main thing. Lucky… the right time, the right place, for no real reason, for no planned reason. I hadn’t planned to pick up a camera that day, at all. It was just a momentary thing. But you never know.

Where do you think the future of music photography is going?

Well there’s always going to be music, right? I mean, we have five senses through which we see and touch and know the world, and the two biggest ones are seeing and hearing. I mean, we also smell and touch and taste, but, all day long we’re seeing and hearing, and music is such a big part of our lives. So of course we’ll always have music and musicians, and as long as we do, I should think people will be taking pictures, and videos, films, whatever. I mean it might be a little more electronic, digital now as opposed to film. But I think as long as there’s people making music, people are going to want to know those people, kind of have a vision of who they are. And so the photographers will provide that. I suspect that will probably continue going on. Who know what the future’s going to bring. (Laughter).

Be Mused is on display at Morrison Hotel Gallery, located in The Sunset Marquis at 1200 Alta Loma Rd, West Hollywood, CA, through November 20. 

This entry was posted in Art, Books, Events, Music. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply