Between Henry Diltz’s intimate portraits of musicians and his fly on the wall documentary shots of some of rock history’s biggest music festivals like Monterey Music Fest, Woodstock, and Newport Folk Fest, he captured the essence of the ’60s and ’70s rock n’ roll scene within every print of film.
To look at Diltz’s photography, you can see the beginnings of the quintessential ’60s aesthetic taking shape— paisley print attire, western hats, navajo print rugs, tie dye and cacti, set in serene southern California. All of this is on display at Fullerton Museum’s Henry Diltz retrospective ‘Audio Visuals.’ Curated by Greg Escalante, and Diltz’ own Morrison Hotel Gallery, this exhibit opened last Saturday and includes never before seen photos of Diltz’s rock subjects, record covers and collectible ephemera, and on the scene images Diltz took of musicians from the peace and love generation. It’s pretty fitting that ‘Audio Visuals’ opened last weekend, when over a hundred miles away thousands of millenials were lounging under the heat at Coachella Music Festival. Many who hope to relive some semblance of ’60s hippie culture there can thank Diltz for capturing it for posterity.
“I don’t know much about book-learning photography,” Diltz told Rolling Stone Country in 2015. “To me, it was just about the eye, filling the frame in a pleasing way.” Perhaps its no surprise that Diltz, one of the most important music photographers is a musician himself. Born in 1938, Diltz was born in Kansas City, Missouri. In the ’60s, he and three other friends started the Modern Folk Quartet, playing along with other bands in the folk rock scene like the Lovin’ Spoonful and the Mamas and the Papas. It was around this time when Diltz gained an interest in photography, capturing photos of musician friends during recording session downtime and backstage. His unique eye caught the attention of other bands, who were interested in publicity photos. Even at a spry 78 years old, Diltz is still shooting photos today.
All this information is included in ‘Audio Visuals.’ As you enter, the first image that greets you is a large, blown up portrait of Mama Cass from the Mamas and the Papas posing as Cleopatra in 1968. Throughout the walls of Fullerton Museum’s wide, expansive rooms, it’s photo after photo of various ’60s luminaries like Buffalo Springfield, Steppenwolf, James Taylor, Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Richard Pryor, the Monkees, the Lovin Spoonful, and others.
Now, I’m not a baby boomer, so I didn’t live through this generation’s era of cheap gasoline and Camelot. But having seen enough Time Life music collection infomercials about the ’60s and having listened to these groups all my life, I have to admit I felt some type of way walking through Diltz’s archives of musical legends preserved in Kodachrome emulsions. There’s a softness and hazy dreaminess to his images that emanate naturally through all the pictures, which are haphazardly organized in sections, from his Laurel Canyon era shots, his sessions with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Joni Mitchell, shooting the Doors’ Morrison Hotel album cover, his Woodstock and Monterey Music fest coverage, and shots of the Monkees (whom Diltz was briefly a session player for). There’s even a section on Mama Cass, a friend of Diltz and who, as a handy description points out, was a figure of LA pop society who opened her home to welcome fellow musicians wandering through Los Angeles.
Past the threshold into the second gallery, there’s even a record player set up with a peacock chair and some Persian rugs. I wasn’t sure whether I was actually allowed to play a record, even though there was a handy guide, which reads like so:
-Select a record and remove carefully from sleeve. Handle the disc by the edges and center label only.
-Stop and look at the lines on the palm of your hand. I mean, really look at the lines on the palm of your hand.
-Place on the turntable
-Tell the cat the record is on the turntable. Laugh at the cat, because the cat is really hilarious right now. Tell your roommate how funny the cat is.
-Remember you have no roommate.
-Make sure the RPM switch is at 33 for regular LP record.
-While watching the turntable spin, think about the endless spinning of life, the spinning of the planets, and how everything is really just spinning, spinning, spinning
And um, yeah, it just goes on like that. Even though I was the only one there in the gallery I opted to not play a record, and wondered whether this humorous set of directions was Diltz’s sense of humor or what.
For this exhibit paying homage to a bygone rock era, Fullerton Museum’s architecture— shaped by domed arches and stained glass windows— only helps transport the viewer to another time and place, to where it isn’t just a gallery anymore, it’s a church, and these musicians aren’t icons anymore, they’re saints. Although some of Diltz’s more recent concert photography of Nirvana and Red Hot Chili Peppers bookend the exhibit, your mind is still clouded with the aura of rock n’ roll poets of yesteryear in intimate, private settings. Sometimes they’re lost in thought, sometimes they’re aware of Diltz and smile sheepishly for his camera. Either way, you’re seeing them through Diltz’s eye, where they are forever stardust, and are golden.
‘Audio Visuals: The Photography of Henry Diltz” at Fullerton Museum Center, 301 N. Pomona Ave., Fullerton, (714) 738-6545; ci.fullerton.ca.us/museum. Through July 9.