Catching Up with Legendary Rock & Roll Photographer Henry Diltz at the 2022 NAMM Show
Photographer Henry Diltz has taken photographs of almost every notable rock musician and band from the 1960s and 70s. His iconic style practically defined the generation of classic album cover art.
Diltz has maintained a strong relationship with the NAMM Show over the years, and this past weekend he participated in a speaking engagement, discussing his work and the subjects he photographed over the years.
He was also gracious enough to sit down for an interview with Rock Cellar (as well as pay a visit to our booth for an autograph appearance, for which we are very grateful).
Below, enjoy a spirited chat with the ever-humble Diltz, the man behind the lens of some of the most iconic rock and roll photos ever taken.
Rock Cellar: What’s it like to be back at the NAMM Show after a few years? You’ve been here before, right?
Henry Diltz: Yes, I have, I’ve come a number of years. I walk around and look at all the instruments and see old friends, make new ones.
Rock Cellar: It’s quite something to be back here for the first time in through almost three, four years, especially since it’s a little scaled-down, it seems. But it’s still just as noisy, just as busy as always.
Henry Diltz: Exactly. Yeah. It’s great to be out. I mean, we’ve spent the last couple of years at home, you know, so everybody’s happy to see each other.
Rock Cellar: They have a special focus on photographers, Neal Preston’s work is on display here. You gave a talk this morning, you’re you have some events going on. What is it like from your perspective to be appreciated in that way and have your work talked about in this capacity?
Henry Diltz: I was telling someone earlier … look. It happened. I was there. I took these pictures. I don’t claim it. I’m not going, “Oh, yeah, I took all those pictures.” It’s something that I did. It’s mainly it’s about the people that I took the pictures of, you know. When people say, “Oh, you know, I love your work!,” I say, “Well, you don’t love me, you love the groups that I shot, right?” That’s all I was doing.
Rock Cellar: At the moment you were taking photos of your friends and musicians, did you have any possible idea that these were going to live on as important snapshots of legends decades later?
Henry Diltz: I never thought, “Boy, someday …” You never know. In the early days, when I was doing the first album covers of the Eagles and Jackson Browne and CSN and people like that, I knew I really admired their music and loved what they were doing. But you’d never … you can’t jump ahead 20 years and say, “These guys are gonna be big.” So it’s just a momentary thing.
Rock Cellar: Living through the formative years of those artists, watching them grow in stature as the scene took off, what do you think spoke to people the most about that era of music? What made it so powerful and makes us look back on it now with such regard?
Henry Diltz: There was a big change in music, a sea change in music that happened in the middle to late ’60s and then into the ’70s. And that was that singers and musicians started writing their own songs. Previously, there were songwriters, and there were singers. Frank Sinatra never wrote any song, Elvis Presley didn’t write … there were songwriters, and you would sing their song. But when the Beatles played Ed Sullivan, all the folk groups saw that and said, “Wow, they’re singing their own songs! She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.” You don’t write folk music, that’s 100-year-old songs that you discover. But the new thing that happened was when someone like Joni Mitchell says, “Now I’m going to write my own feelings and my own thoughts about life.”
Yeah, that is damn interesting, you know, and Jackson Browne and Jimmy Webb. Neil Young, all of those people writing their own take on music makes it twice as interesting. One time, I was talking to Jackson Browne, I was saying, “What do you say, Jackson, when people say, ‘Oh, you’re so lucky. You were there in the ’60s, ’70s?” And his answer was, “because it was brand new.” And it was brand new, to have the singer write their own song. I mean, there were a few, but I mean, even the Beatles sang “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Blue Suede Shoes” before they started writing their own music. So I think it was the fact that singers wrote their own view of life, their own take of life that made this interesting.
Rock Cellar: It’s probably a question you’ve been asked a million times, but how did you get started with taking the photos? When did it become a full-time kind of thing rather than just hanging around snapping photos of your friends for fun?
Henry Diltz: I was photographing all my friends in Laurel Canyon, basically so I could have slideshows, as a personal thing. And one by one, they all became famous. The first group I photographed was the Buffalo Springfield, one day when Stephen Stills invited me when they were going to do a soundcheck at a club on the beach, and I went down. I didn’t photograph the soundcheck. I photographed people on the beach for my slideshow, but I went back to the club and they were walking out and I was photographing a big mural. And I said, “Hey, would you guys stand there a minute so I can show how big that mural is?” I didn’t think anything about it until a week later, a magazine called Teen Set magazine. They said, “We hear you have a picture of the Buffalo Springfield, we’d like to run it and we’ll pay you $100.” And I went, “Oh, my God. You will?” No one’s ever paid me a nickel for a photograph up until then. And that started the ball rolling.
Rock Cellar: And then the ball just kept rolling.
Henry Diltz: When I photographed my friends for the fun, they would say, “Boy, we could use this for publicity or an album cover and I’d say, “Okay, sure.” And then it became a way of paying the bills.
Rock Cellar: Morrison Hotel, of course, uses your photo for its classic cover art. It’s one the most iconic album covers from the Doors, or anybody, really, from that era. It’s probably one that people still will stop you in some capacity and say, “Dude, that’s awesome,” right?”
Henry Diltz: That’s funny, I was saying earlier, young kids, you know, they’ll say, “Oh, yeah, what album covers?” And I say, “Well, you know, Sweet Baby Jane by CSN, the Eagles Desperado,” they go, “Yeah …,” and then I say Morrison Hotel. They go, “Duuuude! dude, You did Morrison Hotel??”
Rock Cellar: I’ve been to the Morrison Hotel Gallery in the Sunset Marquis a few times for a couple events. What does it mean to you to have that, and see all the work the Gallery as an entity does to preserve and spread not only your work, but the work of other photographers?
Henry Diltz: Well, we started 20 years ago in Soho, in New York, and then it was a place to sell my photos with a couple of friends, and it was all my pictures on the wall. And then we would play Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, we’d play that music. People would walk in and see all those pictures and hear that music and say, “Oh my god, this is my whole life.” You know? And that was really cool. And then we started getting other photographers in there. Now, I’m lucky to have two or three on the wall, because we we have 125 photographers! So it’s great to be part of that and offer all these pictures.
Rock Cellar: What do you hope people take away from the “photos of your friends,” as you put it? What do you hope they take away from that, for those of us who weren’t around when that was actively happening?
Henry Diltz: I guess I’m taking a little slice of life. Gosh, I mean, they’re all my heroes, all the people I photographed. I love the music, it’s like having a passport into people’s lives. You wouldn’t ordinarily be there in the Eagles’ dressing room, except that they need you to take the photos. I’m glad I’m able to share that, and people are able to look back at those moments.
I used to I fancy myself an existentialist. You know, “I live in the moment. This is the real, this is the moment right here. The rest is either past, or future hopes and dreams.” And then I thought, “I’m not too comfortable being known as a guy who captured all these past images.” That’s not very existential. Until somebody said to me, “Well, no, but you bring the past into the present.” And I said, “Okay, I can live