‘Sometimes,” says Henry Diltz, “the great picture is the one that happens before you set everything up.” The legendary music photographer, speaking from his home in north Hollywood, has taken shots that became stamped into the annals of rock history. Not only was he was the official photographer at 1969’s Woodstock festival, he has also shot more than 200 album covers, including Morrison Hotel by the Doors, and has an archive that’s more like a Who’s Who of musicians. But it is his six-decade association with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young that means the most to him.
“Nobody ever gave me the finger more than David Crosby,” he says. “It was almost automatic. I’d raise the camera and he’d go like that.” He mimics the action. “But then he would break out into a laugh and I’d get a great shot.” He pauses, remembering his friend, who died in January. “I loved David.”
Returning to his “great picture” theory, Diltz says: “There is a picture of Joni Mitchell looking out the window of the house in Laurel Canyon that she shared with Graham Nash. It was where he wrote Our House. I had received a call, saying, ‘Joni needs some new publicity pictures. Will you go up to her house?’ So I went over there late morning with Gary.” That’s Gary Burden, the graphic designer who did all of Neil Young’s album covers, except for Harvest (and therein hangs a tale, which we’ll get to).
“As we walked up, Joni was leaning out the window waiting. She said, ‘Hey, good morning!’ and started talking to Gary for five or 10 minutes, which left me to walk around and take photos. Later, we took pictures while she played the dulcimer and sang. Those were nice, but the great picture was the first one when she was waiting for us in the window.”
Born in Kansas City in 1938, Diltz’s early years were nomadic. “My father was in the diplomatic corps,” he says, “so we moved around a lot. We lived in Tokyo, Bangkok and Munich.” He later spent a year at military school in West Point, before studying psychology at the University of Hawaii. Then, one day in 1966, he saw a table full of cameras in a second-hand store, bought one, and a lifelong love affair began. “I just started taking photos of my friends in Laurel Canyon,” he says. “Then, one by one, they became famous.”
Now 85, Diltz exudes warmth and geniality, his white hair scraped back into a ponytail, a sharp curiosity flickering in his eyes, a camera ready in his pocket everywhere he goes. Even when not working, he takes about 100 pictures a day. We are meeting, via Zoom, to discuss his new photobook CSN&Y: Love the One You’re With. Boasting 835 photos, many previously unpublished, and eyewitness accounts from the supergroup and luminaries such as Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell, it is an unprecedented document of CSN&Y’s journey from Laurel Canyon choir angels to stadium-conquering superstars. “Henry was our friend who happened to have a camera,” Graham Nash later tells me. “He was one of us.”
CSN&Y were a phenomenon. An intoxicating blend of soaring harmonies, pastoral folk and swirling rock, Crosby, Stills and Nash’s eponymous era-defining 1969 debut album (pre Young) was followed less than a year later by their first as a four-piece, Déjà Vu. Stratospheric success led to rampant egos, drug addiction and in-fighting. As the 70s wore on, relations hit the skids and the band fell apart.
Diltz was there every step of the way. He had become friends with Stills in 1963, during the folk revival in New York’s Greenwich Village, and their paths crossed again three years later in LA. “I walk by a house one day and I hear guitar music,” he recalls. “I go to the door and Stephen is inside.” Stills invited him to a club where his new folk-rock group were playing that evening. They were called Buffalo Springfield.
While the band soundchecked, Diltz hung around the parking lot. “On the back of the club was a huge mural: a colourful painting of a guy on a bicycle. I was focusing on that when the back door opened and Buffalo Springfield walked out. I said, ‘Hey guys, would you just stand in front of that mural for a minute? I want to show how big it is.’ They stood making faces and I kept clicking away.”
A few days later, Diltz received a call from music magazine TeenSet, which had interviewed the band and required a photo. They offered $100. “I’d never made a nickel taking a picture,” Diltz says, his disbelief still palpable after all these years. “That was a revelation.”
By early 1968, musicians were flocking to the sylvan splendour of Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills. Among them was Mama Cass of the Mamas and the Papas, who threw soirées that everyone wanted to be invited to. Cass had just met British rock trio Cream on a TV show and asked their “shy” guitarist Eric Clapton to a picnic. Diltz was present, along with Crosby and his “protégé” Mitchell.
“Joni’s album hadn’t been released,” says Diltz, “but she sat under the tree and played the whole thing. I walked around taking pictures while Eric sat there staring at her fingers. He’d never heard of her and, because every song was in a different tuning, he’d never seen anything like it either. David loved to have her play for people because he wanted to blow their minds. Everybody would be in awe.”
Mitchell, by then the girlfriend of Graham Nash, saw some sights of her own. “Joni was the only witness to the birth of Crosby, Stills and Nash,” says Nash, referring to the night he joined in with Crosby and Stills singing You Don’t Have to Cry. “Once I started singing, nothing else mattered. I knew I would have to go back to England, leave the Hollies, come to America, and follow that sound. I rolled the dice and the biggest rewards came.”
Diltz adds: “In the beginning, they were all thrilled with the sound they could make. I would always hear, ‘They were at a party the other night and sang Blackbird by the Beatles as a three-part harmony.’”
He shows me a backstage shot where Young is snapped mid-sentence alongside Nash and Crosby. “If I’d have been a ‘proper’ photographer,” he says, “I might have walked up and said, ‘Let’s get a shot here.’ But then you wouldn’t have captured the magic of the moment. I was never in their faces, so they’d forget I was there.”
By 1970, Neil Young had moved to a ranch in Half Moon Bay he named Broken Arrow. It was there he wrote his solo album Harvest, frequently included in “greatest album of all time” lists. “Gary was a really good friend of Neil’s,” says Diltz. “We would drive up to Neil’s ranch and spend the weekend. We’d get up early and walk around with him. And I would just take photos of everything I saw.
“Gary did all of Neil’s album covers except one: Harvest. One time we were up there, Neil was sitting on a hay bale with a hat playing a little guitar. I think that photo would have been the cover of Harvest, except Gary and Neil had an argument or something, so he never designed that cover. It came out with just the word ‘Harvest’ on it instead. It’s not official but that photo is the perfect Harvest photo. In the times that I would hang out with Neil at his ranch, he was very funny. He would laugh about everything. He’s got a great feel for life, but he’s very private.”
By 1988, Crosby had kicked his heroin habit and the rest had addressed demons of their own. Diltz captured a joyous mood as they reunited at Young’s ranch to record the American Dream album. “There was a feeling that we were all back,” says Nash. “Crosby had gone through his drug issues and we’d all stopped snorting cocaine. We were singing together again, getting that blend, that sound.”
Despite their more recent famous falling out, Nash tells me he “desperately” misses Crosby. “He was my best friend for over 50 years. By the end, we were emailing and voicemailing each other. We were getting together. I set up a FaceTime so I could see his face. I waited and waited for the call, but it never came. He passed away a couple of days later.” Nash goes on: “Crosby was a unique musician. He was a great rhythm guitar player. We know that his life was chaotic and he didn’t take care of himself as well as the rest of us did, but we are incredibly sad our partner has died.” He pauses and adds: “All that arguing and shitty stuff that we did to each other, it’s meaningless now.”
As for Diltz, he continues to draw fans. His Instagram page is stuffed with arresting images from music’s yesteryear. And this week, he will receive the Icon prize at the Abbey Road Studios Music Photography awards. “I was flabbergasted,” he says. “I didn’t photograph for awards or rewards, but it’s so lovely to be recognised.”
He adds: “In life, you leave your mark one way or the other. You may have kids, you may do art, you may do something else. I’ve never thought, ‘I made that picture.’ Bullshit. God made the picture. I just pushed the button. I’m happy I captured beautiful moments of people I admired who were also my friends.”
CSN&Y: Love the One You’re With is published by Genesis Publications at £295.
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