As the "unofficial" photographer of Woodstock, New York, in the late 1960s, Elliott Landy took some of the definitive images of music's highest order—The Band, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and others. Some thirty years later, these images endure for their parallel to the music these artists were producing at the time. As much as Music From Big Pink or John Wesley Harding represented a musical return to roots, Landy's stark black-and-white pictures of The Band and lush color images of Dylan possess an equally organic quality. As such, they identify Landy's signature—an ability to communicate the subject's spirit. I recently spoke with Elliott Landy about The Band, Bob Dylan, and his career in photography.
How did you get your start as a photographer?
I saw something beautiful that I wanted to share with somebody. I remember the moment. I was walking on Broadway in New York City, and I looked across the street at the top of a building or at something beautiful, and I just wanted to point it out to someone, and I was alone. So I said, "Hey, I have to get a camera to do that." That was my inspiration.
Professionally, I got my start in 1965, '66. Just by luck, almost, my first job was as a still photographer in Denmark for a film starring Harriet Anderson, who was a major star in many of Ingmar Bergman's early films. Because I had photographs of her in her new film, I was able to sell major feature stories to top magazines in Denmark and Sweden.
Then I came back to this country, because I felt that I wanted to do something to help stop the Vietnam War. I didn't want to go to Vietnam and take pictures there, because I didn't want to get hurt or killed. Back in the states, I began photographing peace demonstrations and giving them to underground newspapers, all without pay. Just to try and communicate with people how wrong the war was, how many people were against it, and also how repressive the government was in stopping the demonstrations and the failure of the mainstream media to report what was happening at these demonstrations.
As part of this, I was working with an underground newspaper in New York City called The Wrap. I became its photo editor, and I was going out and shooting demonstrations and this and that. One night after the paper was put to bed, as I was leaving, I saw a theater marquee that said "Country Joe and the Fish." It was a concert. I went, and I was blown away by it—the light show and the colors, and I probably smoked some grass during the concert. The whole thing was a wonderful experience—a wonderful spiritual, visual and musical experience. So I started taking pictures. I've always used my camera biographically, photographing what I was truly involved in myself.
The second band I photographed was Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company. I took these pictures up to Janis's manager, Albert Grossman, who was at that time also managing Bob Dylan and Richie Havens. Then I got an assignment from New York magazine to photograph Janis, so I had been photographing her for a while.
Albert loved my photographs. He took one and put it on his wall. It was a very touching one of her hugging him, standing behind him, and she was kind of teasing him a little bit. So I assumed that he liked my photography, because he took the picture, and his publicist told me he liked them.
One night at a Janis concert, Albert called me into a little closet at the back of the club and said, "I have a new band and we need some photographs. Are you interested?" So I said, "What's their name?" And he said, "They don't have a name yet."
He then told me to go up and meet the musicians, who turned out to be Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm and the guys in The Band who were recording in a New York studio. So I went up there a few days later. I brought my photographs up, Robbie saw them, and he liked them. From that, I went up to Toronto to photograph them for the first session that we did.
The photos you took of The Band had to be very different than everything else that was being shot of rock bands at that time.
Yes. I went up to Toronto the first time to take photographs of The Band with their family, and they called it "Next of Kin," because they wanted to acknowledge the debt that they had to their parents and the love that their parents had given them. In the '60s, what young people had to say was "f-u-c-k my parents" or "the heck with them. They don't know s-h-i-t about us." Which was really true. Everything was very repressive in those days. And most parents were very straight. You couldn't talk to them. You couldn't mention sex. There was really no common ground of experience between the older and the younger generation.
The Band were saying, "Let's not chafe here. These people have nurtured us, loved us, cared for us, and we want to go against the tide of saying, 'F-u-c-k our parents.' You really owe a debt to your elders." Which is true. I agree with that. It depends who the parents are and what they're doing.
So we did that, and then they said, "Now we need a shot of the group. Why don't you come up to Woodstock?" So we talked about what they wanted. They wanted to be anonymous. They didn't have a name, actually. They were never called The Band. They were supposed to be side guys without a name making a record. They told me they didn't want to have a name because then they would be identified with playing a certain kind of music. And everybody would expect them to always play that same kind of music, and it would stump them creatively. They didn't want to be labeled. When Music From Big Pink came out—it may have changed since then—there was no credit to anybody's name. There was no group distinction. And on the inside, underneath the photographs I took of them, it said "The Band" generically and then listed their names. Since those were the only identifiable words about who they were, they became known as The Band. Their idea was not to be famous themselves. They wanted people to focus on their music and not on their personalities. That's what they were about, as was Dylan in those days.
I went up there and, since they wanted to be anonymous, the picture that we got the first time that was used on the cover of Rolling Stone later on was the five of them on a bench, taken from behind, looking out towards the water. I think there was a pond behind them. I thought that was the perfect cover shot, because that's what they told me they wanted.
After that first session, they saw the picture and Robbie said, "That's not quite what we had in mind. It doesn't quite work for us. Let's do something else." So we went out again, went to a few different locations, and got more photographs. After that session, too, they said, "It's really not what we want."
I’m a casual photographer—meaning, I don’t plan things out. I work spontaneously, and I trust life to bring me the elements that I need to get—photographs that I should have, so to speak, that everyone wants. I don’t try and control the circumstances. Nor do I try and control the people in front of the camera. Which is really why I was given access to Dylan and The Band, because I’m so casual and easygoing and don’t tell them what to do. I think that’s why Bob let me photograph him so much. I was always more interested in letting him be and, then, just being a fly on the wall, so to speak.
When they said for a second time that it wasn't what they wanted, I realized that there was something special that they had in mind. Then I was forced to think about it, and I had among my photograph books one by Matthew Brady of Civil War photographs. I said, "This is far out." The guys in The Band were very different than anyone else I had met before. They were very grounded, and they were very real. There were no affectations there. There was no bullshit there, no false humility. They were very humble people while at the same time being very powerful people. They were very folky people. They were the kind of people you might find on a farm while at the same time being very worldly-wise.
The strength of these old-time Civil War photographs where the people are sitting on logs that they felled, you see that something in their being matches the earth that they’re standing on—the way their mustaches are long, the way their hair is, the way they’re sitting, the body language of the 1860s. I realized that the guys in The Band were the same way as that. They weren’t thrown off by ‘50s conservative society, the Eisenhower years. They were who they were. They were connected to the earth. So I really saw the connection between who they were and what these photographs looked like.
I brought the book to them and they liked it. Then we looked for the place to do it, and we were just hanging out in the house that Levon and Rick had just rented. We were just sitting around smoking grass, and they were playing music and I looked out the window and said, "That’s it. Right there." Right in the front yard was the landscape I had been looking for. All the Civil War photographs are based on the landscape, and there are mountains, and there’s this. So we went outside in the yard. Also, I had thought, "How do they get that look? Why were those pictures so different?" Aside from what the people looked like in the photographs, it was the way the equipment was handled. In those days, you didn’t have fast film, and everything was taken on a tripod. The exposure was one second, two seconds, or whatever. Everybody had to stand very still. Also, when the photographer came over, it was a very important moment. It was very unusual. Nobody had cameras. It was like you were being honored with the presence of a photographer. It was very special.
So I explained this to them. "You have to just look straight ahead. Everybody pay attention to the camera. No one look sideways. Everyone is very formal. You have to stand up straight." Instead of a two hundred and fiftieth of a second, I took like an eighth of a second exposure. I don’t know if I used a tripod, but I held the camera very still. I really thought out and planned every aspect of the picture except the landscape, which we found in their front yard. And that was one of the famous ones of them in Music From Big Pink, where you see the mountains behind them and the five guys standing in the foreground.
Did working with The Band lead you to Dylan?
Yes. During the time I was in Woodstock, I met Bob casually once at Albert Grossman’s house, right after one of his children was born. In the summer of 1968, I got a call from Al Aronowitz who was a writer that was very close to Dylan and The Band. He said, "I’m doing a story for The Saturday Evening Post, and they want a picture of Bob for the cover, and we’d like you take it." And that was because Bob liked the photographs of The Band, and I met him once, and I was the photographer of the moment in Woodstock. There was no one else around that they were working with. So that’s how I got to Dylan.
There’s the amazing photo of Dylan with the red trees.
I was very much into technology at the time, and there was a military type of film called aero-infrared film. It photographed on infrared light instead of the normal spectrum light. So when something gives out heat, it comes out red on the film. So trees reflect heat.
I think it’s a beautiful one. It really does, in a metaphysical way, express what Bob is about. He really does come from another space—at least, in those days, his mind space, and who he was, and where he was getting his information from, and where he was getting his ideas from were really from the metaphysical plane beyond where most other people dwell.
You got incredible access to photograph Dylan with his family and just doing stuff like standing on his head. You're really the only person he’s let photograph him that privately.
Yes, I am. It’s not something I wanted to do. It's something that just happened. When I photographed him for The Saturday Evening Post, I took the pictures back and developed them and then the next week drove back up to show them to him. And he just invited me to stay over out of the blue. I didn’t ask. And he said, "Why don’t you sleep here tonight?"—like that. And then he said, "Take some pictures." Why did it happen? I guess he knew he could trust me. I didn’t publish the photographs for about 15 years afterwards. Bob didn’t want the pictures of his children published while they were young. He was afraid of kidnapping and this and that, and no one even knew he had kids at that point. And he just wanted to keep a low profile, which is totally understandable. I had lots of offers from magazines to publish those pictures.
I also showed my peace demonstration photographs to Bob, and he said to me, "I’d love to do a book with you about these photographs." And I said to him, "If it’s right." Meaning that I wouldn’t just want to do a fluff book. It would have to be something really serious. Which looking back was a dumb remark to say to him, because all he's ever going to do is something serious.
Was he going to write something to go along with your Vietnam protest pictures?
Exactly. I think he was seeing words as he looked at the pictures. But I was so committed to the integrity of what I was doing that, before I said yes to anything, I wanted to make sure that it was serious. He talked about it a few times.
When I was in Europe I wrote to him, "Do you want to work on that?" All I got back was a perfunctory letter from his office saying, "Don't publish the pictures [of Dylan with his kids]." There was almost no response to the book thing. I don't remember what he said about doing a book with me. And I had the right to publish those pictures but out of respect for who he was and what he wanted … there were no restrictions when I took them. He just said, "Take some pictures." I just said, "Sure. I'd love to." And I was really having a good time. Because they were lovely people. His wife Sara was a wonderful person. As was he. He was very nice to me.
What are you working on now?
I've been shooting film and putting music to the film, and the film that I shoot is kind of an interactive music visual film. It's not really film in a normal sense. It's a musical impression of imagery, I guess you would call it. The way I shoot is like a still photographer would shoot. Or a journalistic film photographer. If I see something I just kind of grab it impressionistically rather than realistically or change the speed of the film as I show it. I slow it down, and I skip frames and so on, therefore creating a musical beat out of the film. And it really is using the camera as a musical instrument.
I first started this years ago in the '70s using a Super 8 movie camera, and I didn't let the rules of cinematography or filmmaking—which was at that time to imitate reality as we think we know it—I didn't allow those rules, which come from the logical thinking mind of a person, to impose themselves on the way I handled the camera. I handled the camera intuitively—by intuitively, I mean the way I felt like I wanted to handle the camera.
Did you get this idea from spending so much time around musicians?
It came from my love of music. It had nothing to do with the musicians. The reason I was spending time around musicians was because I love the music.
The film is really like a musical score in moving imagery, and it can be interpreted in many different ways. You can put different pieces of music to the same film, the same way different singers or musicians interpret songs. So, really, I'm creating visual songs.
My intention in becoming a photographer was to share beauty with people with the purpose of lighting up people's lives and making the world a better place. At that time, I was doing peace demonstration photographs, thinking that if I showed injustice, it would help make the world a nicer place, and certainly, creating and showing beauty does that.