Elliott Landys Woodstock Vision
It’s possible that Elliott Landy captured iconic images of the 60s because his mind and spirit were in tune with the tumultuous changes happening around him. Through a combination of talent, chutzpah and fortunate timing, he was photographing events of youth-oriented and civil rights politics. Moving to musical artists, he produced the iconic images of The Band as well as Bob Dylan and his family at his Woodstock retreat from the public eye as well as concert shots from the Fillmore and the Woodstock festival. His work has graced album covers by The Band, Dylan (_Nashville Skyline_) and Van Morrison (_Moondance_).
Like the flash of a strobe light, Landy abandoned taking shots of musician for more personal work — photos of his children in an attempt to portray the beauty and importance of family life, impressionistic images of flowers and “kaleidoscapes” of New York.
He’s published books of his historically significant photos, which capture moods and emotions as much as a time and place. Besides working on an interactive music video project, he continues to exhibit his work. The legendary lensman shares gallery space with his son, Bo, for an exhibit that opened Dec. 5 at Michael Joseph Galley & Frames, 2757 E Oakland Park Blvd., Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. It runs through Jan. 23, 2007. For more, check out www.landyvision.com.
JPG: Referring to your book, Woodstock Vision: The Spirit of a Generation, the inspiration for taking photographs was based on your excitement of what was going on in the 60s, but what originally inspired you?
EL: Frankly, it was not being a part of what was happening. It was more of a moment-by-moment situation. Like a concert was happening. I got a job to photograph Dylan. It really wasn’t this generalized thing. It’s how I always am. I was always sampling. If it’s something I like or something I think is beautiful, I like to take pictures of it.
That was the beginning of my career, those early years. I guess the consciousness to be aware that in my life that I only wanted to do things that I wanted to do and not things that were driven by the culture and certainly an inner spiritual awareness.
JPG: I get that feeling that it’s more than just a job.
EL: It’s never just a job for me. It’s always what I love, and try and share very beautiful and poignant information.
JPG: As a child were you given a camera and took it from there or
EL: When I was 14 years old, my parents went away to a bungalow colony, a resort kind of thing, and the 14 year olds went around from activity to activity to help the counselors called Counselors Training. They had different activities. They had tennis. They had soccer. They had boating. One of the activities was dark room work. I got into the dark room; my turn to be the helper in the dark room. I just totally fell in love with it. Inexplicably. I loved being in the room with the dark lights and I loved to mix the look and take the thermometer reading and to make little contact prints, little 3×5 inch prints. Not even of my own work. There was really no reason for that.
But I didn’t have a camera and everything. I was going into high school the next year and I went in the beginning of, in the first days of high school they pick out your hobby club and I went to the Photography Club and the guy said, standing up in front of the room and hands out a paper, Put down your name, address and all that stuff and the name of your cameras and lenses.’ I said, Oh man, this is much too advanced for me.’ And I walked out. I just snuck out the back. It wasn’t til I graduated from college that I picked up a camera again. I renewed my interest then. I just felt too unsure of myself. I guess I didn’t belong in the place.
For me the music part was only a part of my experience. I didn’t become a photographer to photograph music. That was just something that happened along the way. It was only a short period of my life, really. I think I did it for a few years, then stopped.
JPG: Many people associate you with music because of the iconic images you took. Do you see that as a nice thing or frustrating?
EL: No, it doesn’t frustrate me cause I’m very grateful for the recognition. I’ve very grateful that that aspect of my work, of my life has gone out and affected so many people. That wasn’t the idea of it. It wasn’t to get my life out there. The idea was to share the experience of what I was experiencing to people. So, I’m very, very happy for that. There’s never a moment that I regret that and it only helps. When I call up people they immediately talk to me. So, it’s not bad.
JPG: In reading about the sessions with Bob Dylan, it seemed as if it was very relaxed, nothing planned (i.e. the shoot that became the Nashville Skyline cover). Is that how it was the whole time?
EL: It was totally like that. Dylan is/was, I don’t know him anymore, a totally spontaneous person. If you read about how he liked to do his recording sessions, just walk in almost without rehearsal. I’m not an expert on him and how he worked and what he did, but from what I understand he was totally spontaneous. It was the first take or the second take and that was it. Some of the greatest music ever and that’s how he was like in person and that’s how he liked to be and that’s why, I guess, we got along cause that’s how I am.
And the fact that I don’t need to control things and I’m very receptive and whatever happens is fine. I don’t mean that completely, but I’ll allow whatever happens naturally to happen. Then, if I don’t like it I have to change it. I try to give it a chance first before I get involved in controlling it. That’s what happened to The Band photographs. With Big Pink, where at first we just hung out and let whatever happened happen, and we got some really great photographs, but in the end they wanted something special to do for the Music from Big Pink picture. So we had to control what was happening, but my preference is to see what happens
JPG: During that time or afterwards did you get the sense of what you were doing? Because, let’s face it Dylan was out of the public eye at that period and here you are photographing him and with his family. Many people would have been amazed or curious or dying to be in that same position.
EL: Al Aronowitz brought me up there and said, “Bob, this is Elliott. Elliott, this is Bob.’ And then drove away. I was standing there like 10 feet from this guy and he had his guitar all ready. He just kind of sat down and I just took pictures of him [without] saying anything and he just started singing and playing the guitar and I’m thinking, Man, how many millions of people would love to be in the same position I’m in right now.’ I realized it was like a private little concert in the country. And I thought and it doesn’t even feel special. Feels the same as any other moment in my life. I was focused on focusing the camera. (slight laugh). Getting the exposure right and doing all the things that a photographer has to do.
So, your question is very true, is very accurate. That yes, I was aware of it consciously, but emotionally I wasn’t shaking or thrilled or looking forward to for my whole life or it wasn’t an earth shattering moment I’ll always remember like holding my own children. That kind of thing.
And then when we had more sessions and I photographed him and his children. I was photographing them because I liked them a lot. Sarah was very nice. I thought they were beautiful as a family. I always loved children. Going back to when I was a kid. I loved little children. I loved photographing kids and families. That’s what I do now. I’ve photographed children for many years, my own kids in particular.
I was aware, but it didn’t change my emotional feeling, which was why it happened. If I was a fan in awe of him it couldn’t have been like a real relationship.
JPG: That’s an interesting way to put it. Maybe you would have lost sight of the job at hand?
EL: I wouldn’t have lost sight of the job at hand. I was always a pretty tenacious, technical photographer and I always made sure that I got it right. He wouldn’t have been comfortable with me. The whole point was that because I felt totally comfortable in what I was doing, comfortable with him. I wasn’t a star worshipper, a hero worshipper I certainly respect what he did and all that stuff, but, ultimately, you have a sense that a person’s a person’s a person and that everyone has good things and bad things blah, blah, blah, so that’s what really made it possible.
I think it’s true for any relationship that a person who is famous in any area has with anybody else, to have a real relationship, and by real I mean a deep relationship… It could be a fan that’s just a groupie and that’s a relationship also, but I mean a real personal relationship; you want people to see each other as people and not about being Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. It’s about being two human beings who have similar goals and desires and… And that’s what it was with Bob and me, really. We were just two people.
JPG: That’s a nice way to think of it.
EL: Also, what you said at first was interesting, too, about the spontaneity of it. I forgot the way you put it, but the idea of not wanting to do anything about not needing to control the situation. Let it happen.
JPG: Well, it almost sounds like you were a good film director who actors love because they calmly have control of the situation yet at the same time, they let the actors do what they want for X-amount of takes and finally they’ll say. Okay, now do it this way for me,’ and then they’ll use whatever works.
EL: I like that yeah, yeah. That’s the way I would direct a film if I was directing a narrative feature film, just that way. I’d let them do what they want to do and then correct it if it didn’t work.
JPG: Then, at least the actors are happy. I it doesn’t end up in the final cut of the film, at least they had that shot.
EL: I do actually make little films, but they’re not narratives. Story films and impressionistic films that are very free flowing, kind of reflect everything I’ve said so far in the conversation. They’re interactive music films. Just work on getting those out there now in the public and releasing them. That’s a whole other thing.
JPG: As far as film itself, some of your photos are in color, but a lot of them are black and white. I didn’t know if that goes back to your love of the dark room and being able to work on those shaping those images.
EL: Before getting a digital camera you had to choose between black and white and color, and most of the time the image is just the form of the image, the color is not really involved in what’s beautiful. It’s the person. The form is the primary interest. To me color wasn’t important to what I was seeing. When you’re taking a picture you’re trying to extract the abstract elements of something and concretize them so people can feel what you are feeling. Color can often get in the way. It’s like an extra element. I think if it hadn’t been for the fact that the people that were going to buy pictures from me wanted color I might not have shot too much color.
However, occasionally, I would shoot color when color really mattered. I have a lot of gorgeous infrared photographs. I have only one of Dylan. I don’t know where the other stuff went. I think I just shot one picture of him. But, of The Band I have a lot of beautiful infrared pictures where it kind of skews the color, infrared colored film. It gives you a professional effect, really gorgeous.
So, for me the colors of photography are black and white, and then regular color pumped in every once in awhile. When I shoot a digital camera I’ll switch it to black and white. Of course, if I don’t do that you have the option to make black and white color or color black and white. If I don’t do it in advance then when I’m sitting looking at the photographs it becomes almost impossible to see a color picture and say, Would I like that in black and white’
I realized I never really had that problem save one or two pictures I took in my life that I regret not taking in color. I just did what I felt like, but I will pre-choose to make it easier for myself when I’m editing. It’s rare that I even want to look at it in color. I just trust what my choice was for my digital photography. For me the lack of light is still a stronger medium although I do have a lot of beautiful color photographs.
JPG: Such as your “kaleidoscopes” of New York.
EL: Oh, you saw those?
*JPG: I was looking at them online.*
EL: Definitely and my flower pictures are, I don’t know if you saw those…
JPG: Yeah. Those are very impressionistic.
EL: A lot more of it is online now. They’re really beautiful on large screens, like two-foot by three-foot print. They look really gorgeous.
JPG: The pixilated photos of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan, I couldn’t look at them very well on my computer screen so if you can explain those photos…
EL: The pictures on the web are all from my CD-Rom I made in 1996 to go along with the book. I was just fooling around with my computer and I discovered a way to make full colors out of pictures and some of those pictures started out in black and white. I just basically pressed some keys on the computer until some odd stuff happened. Then, I’d do a screen grab to capture the fall colors that existed for only a moment.
JPG: Back to photographing musicians, looking at Woodstock Vision and recalling some of the iconic people you shot besides Dylan and The Band. John Lee Hooker, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Van Morrison. Did you choose specific people or were there others who you took just as a job?
EL: So, you’re asking me just the fact that most of the people that I photographed, most of the images are of people who in some way are iconic like John Lee Hooker, Van Morrison and so on. The people I photographed just happened to be those people. It was all by chance, you know, whoever was playing at the Fillmore East. Van Morrison, he was living in Woodstock and Warner Brothers called me and said we need a picture of Van Morrison. Of course, they knew about me. I had a reputation then. But I never photographed him that much. It was really just that one session, I’m sorry to say. From that we got the Moondance pictures. A lot of gorgeous pictures.
Actually, he came over to my house once also. We took some pictures in the house, I think. That was very nice. I was friendly with him at the time. He was a very nice guy. Very wise, actually. I think he’s emotionally kind of mixed up as far as being insecure and all that.
I got a job doing Tom Paxton. He’s well known in folk music and I photographed Tom Rush once for an underground newspaper in New York. But most of the stuff is what you see in there. I have some pictures of Elton John that I’ve never published. Of course, they’re not very good. It was at the Fillmore East. So, I was always looking for the photograph, not who it was of. Of course, people like the Dylan pictures and the Band photographs got published more because that’s what people like to see. But, it’s not about true photography, it’s about the musician.
JPG: At the same time, you were in there quickly taking celebrity photos and from there concerts and sessions with musicians. But, did you just want to move on to other interests or did you not have the freedom and the ability to…
EL: I really got bored with the medium. I never got bored with Dylan. I would’ve loved to have collaborated with him on other things. He suggested doing at least two different books with me, but then he never followed through with them. I liked him. I never stopped liking him as a person. I never stopped liking the guys in The Band but the business became painful — the greed, the selfishness of the record companies. A lot of the times, the management didn’t care about anybody but their acts. Very often didn’t even care about their acts.
So, I found that I didn’t like to be in the music business thing. I didn’t have an agent to deal with all that and also the main thing was that I had done it already. I had been part of the music photography space, creative space. I photographed musicians in concert and I took the pictures of the people singing, the light shows, and I think that as I look back at it, at that time that the nature of artists was different and unique. I think that looking back at my life I see that I really have the personality, the temperament, the desires and needs of a true artist, not in an egotistical way, but, I guess, I fit into a classical definition of an artist. This person just lives to make new things. You know nice beautiful new things. That’s really been my major inspiration throughout my whole life. And once I had done the music thing, and once I had photographed Dylan and The Band and Dylan as a subject I really wasn’t yearning or aching or wanting to take more pictures of him. I wanted to work with him creatively on projects, but I didn’t really care if I ever photographed him again or the guys in The Band cause I had done it. And the inspiration was fulfilled. The need was fulfilled.
I was just finished with it like a period in my life and I moved on. For a while, I had no inspiration at all for photography. I thought I wanted to do nature photography and I tried to do a few nature photographs and they were terrible. Black and white trees and they were just awful. I started painting a little bit. I opened up a metaphysical/spiritual bookstore where I thought I would show my new nature photography and my paintings. Then, I just wasn’t interested in photography. My inspiration came back when my wife got pregnant. I was photographing her and my daughter. That became my inspiration for the next seven, eight years of my life — my wife and children. And being with children and photographing children. Showing how beautiful they are and writing about the way we live and what we do.
We traveled in Europe for seven years and had a 40-passenger bus for five years. I have a whole odyssey book about that that I started to work on.
It was just different periods. Before the rock and roll was the peace demonstration work that I did and some celebrity parts, because I was curious about that. I wanted to help stop the Vietnam War. I was very committed to that. I felt that by photographing rock and roll music people I was helping to spread a culture that was going to remake society to a more just, better place. I always had, at that time anyway, a consciousness about what I was doing, that I felt that I was doing things to help make the world better. When I was photographing my children, I realized the way to make the world better is not to fight with what’s wrong because when you fight with what’s wrong, it’s won. The negative aspect has taken over your life. All you’re doing is fighting against it. I realized that the way to change the world is to do positive things and show positive things and create positive spirit and energy. So, that’s what I did by being with my children and making this very nice body of work that I’m very thrilled when I look at in film. I’ve moved on since then.
JPG: When you were talking about making the world a better place, in the book you talk about changes in the world and how it may not seem good now, but it’s like a slow painful birth process. I appreciated that because of feeling frustrated about where things are now.
EL: Right, with the government. Most disgusting. Horrible. The man’s a war criminal. So is Rumsfeld. So is all of these people. They’re war criminals. They really are. They should be prosecuted and put in jail. Besides being a war criminal, he’s a culture criminal, too. He destroyed the environment and everything like that. He had no right to invade a sovereign nation just because he thought…He lied. He knew there was no evidence. Anyway, so yes things are pretty bad…and what’s the answer? All we can do is what we can control in our life. Put out our good thoughts for it and hope that those thoughts really will manifest into a better world for people because we can’t go and kill the president. We can’t really go and demonstrate anymore. It doesn’t do any good. They don’t listen to anything. The only thing way it would do any good if it was a really massive demonstration and everything was shut down. Close down the cities because everybody strikes. Maybe, they’ll start to listen but that’s never going to happen cause we’re too comfortable.
JPG: You were talking about how it’s not good to do stuff that’s negative, do you think then that for change to happen it just has to be on such a personal change that eventually…
El: Well, yeah. I think that the world is a lot more complicated than what we see every day. I think that there’s a certain life space or mind space that’s spiraling through time and eternity and I think we’re just all riding it, in a way. And in the 60s it was like we saw through the manhole cover for awhile. Now, it’s gone backwards again. I don’t know, it’s impossible to predict the future.
But I did, from my own life, come to the conclusion that the way to make the world a better place is to become more conscious and aware and open yourself. Treat people as nice as you can. If you have a lot of money give it to the right things to do, don’t just accumulate money just for yourself. Like I always say to people about money, it’s not a question of not needing money, it’s a question of if I have more money than I need, I know who to give it to. Of course, money is just an energy form.
JPG: The other aspect I like in Woodstock Vision is you discuss the idea of the Woodstock generation vs. the Yuppie movement. You tie the two, saying that the material stuff has a place in one’s life, but there’s also another aspect and that you can’t totally ignore one. As you put it, “Perhaps, the 90s will be a time of synthesis for the two ways of thinking and being for balancing our spiritual awareness of our place in the universe with an ability to work toward making physical life on this planet more pleasant for everyone. What we the 60s generation have learned is that the material part of life is important as well.”
EL: Yes. Yes. That’s why we’re in physical form because the material part of life is important and it alleviates suffering. Look what’s happening in underdeveloped nations. They don’t have water. They don’t have food. Humanity has suffered for a long time. You think about the way they lived in the Middle Ages. There was cold, damp, smoky if they would light a fire…
The idea for me is to grow the physical capability of humanity so we could concentrate not on killing animals to eat them, not on keeping ourselves warm by cutting down trees and so on or building houses but so we can concentrate on growing the love within us, and being kinder to everyone. And I’m sure once that goal has been met…Let’s say every soul, every person born, is going to be taken care of well and properly and whatever happens that there’ll be other challenges to be met. But first, we have a long way to go as far as caring for people.
JPG: Taking it back to your work as a photographer, what you say touches on how you described dealing with things such as being the official photographer at the Woodstock Festival and like the Dylan situation where you were able to do your job yet remain aware of the enormity of the event.
EL: If you’re asking me about the Woodstock Festival, if I was conscious of what was happening, the historical significance…
JPG: ...Or was it days later after you got a good night’s sleep and read the newspaper?
EL: No, no, no it doesn’t happen in a few days. When I was at Woodstock, I had no idea that it was going to be an important event 30, 40, 50 years later on. Didn’t have a clue. And if I did, I probably would have taken a lot more pictures, even though I took a lot already. I was completely in the dark about that point. I treated it like I did every other thing I did in my life; I took pictures when I felt like it and didn’t take pictures when I didn’t feel like it.
I never felt an obligation to cover something, necessarily, which I wish I had done. But that’s what made my personality the way it is. You pay a price in these things. So, I maybe could have done a better job had I been another kind of person, but if I had been another kind of person, I might not have been asked to do those photographs in the first place. It’s hard to say. The if and the what if and the should have and could’ve are very difficult.
I was at Woodstock and I was enjoying myself and I was really part of that whole music life space at the time. I thought it was fabulous. For me it didn’t seem that special because I had a pass and I could drive out of the festival and drive back in. I had an assignment from Newsweek, so I sent down some film by bus. I wasn’t locked away like the rest of the people were. And that’s what Woodstock was about. Woodstock was almost like being forced into meditation, which is about leaving everything in your mind’s eye and only connecting to what life is really made up of. And Woodstock was like that, also. People were, all other aspects of their lives were shut out and all they had was other human beings who liked them, wanted to be nice to them and music, which they were entertained by and uplifted by. It was very uplifting and consciousness raising. So, you’re really in a kind of paradise. There was enough food and there was no sickness and the weather was good even though it rained. It was still warm.
Woodstock was Woodstock because you were encapsulated in another world for three days and I was encapsulated in another world. I was taking pictures. I had all this heavy equipment and all my film. I had been part of that other world for a long time as well, not the music world, but just part of the idea of not letting society dictate what I was doing, but creating my own life, my own space. Doing what I wanted to do with my time. For me Woodstock was not so psychologically moving as it was for other people. I photographed as best as I was able to do at the time. There were certainly some failures on my part covering it. But no, I had no idea that it was going to be historically significant for forever, really.
JPG: But you still caught the essence even though you were working, of people getting along and the enormity of it.
EL: Well, I caught the essence of the festival because I was part of it. I have certain limitations in my ability to photograph and one of those limitations is photographing people I have no real connection with. It just doesn’t work for me. I’m not someone who walks around the streets and takes picture of anybody. And there were some great pictures taken by other photographers at Woodstock. I have a few pictures of people at Woodstock, just audience members at random, but they’re not really great photographs. They’re okay. My skills come when I’m really connected to something. That’s why the pictures of The Band are so extraordinary and the pictures of Dylan are so good because we really connected. There was a contact there.
So, I did what I could do. I took pictures of the crowd and the enormity connected to the overall meaning of the event and then I happened to have my panoramic camera with me and I was able to take these unusual ones, wide-angle photographs. Also, stage acts. There’s a lot of good pictures there for sure. I produced and edited a book called Woodstock 69, the First Festival. It’s now out of print. I was free to do anything I want. I published it with a guy. I could have used only my own photographs or gotten one or two other photographers, but I looked at the photographs and I wound up with I think 12 other photographers besides myself contributing to the book. The iconic stuff. Of course, I have the overview. I had those panoramic photographs. It just happened like that. A lot of other photographers there could focus in more on the individual stories and the unusual people which I didn’t get.
JPG: Getting to 2006, what now?
EL: I do a fair number of exhibitions of my photography work. Mostly from my shows I do digital prints because I can control them a lot better. They’re easier to make, and they’re just as nice when you’re looking at them framed under glass. For collectors at the galleries, I make traditional photographic prints. Sometimes I’ll do a show with traditional prints and sometimes with ink jet printers. I use HP printers.
JPG: With these exhibitions will they be music-related prints or a combination of everything?
EL: The most interest is in my music-related material. That’s because that’s what was published the most. Also, it was the easiest to sell in my life. Kind of pre-sold. Although my pictures of my children were extremely well sold in Europe. Most of the time, it’s just a general, Elliott Landy photography show. I include my peace demonstration photos I did during that time also cause that was also part of that body of work. Sometimes, I’ll do a show only about Bob Dylan photographs. I have one framed show, just Dylan. Just now, I had the first show in Hot Springs, Arkansas, the first show of my impressionist flower photographs. I made 2×3 foot prints and framed them and had a show in a Convention Center for about three months. They held it over for a while. They were really beautiful. So, I’m looking to do other shows now of other kinds of my work. The rock and roll was the easiest to promote and demand.