Elliott’s Writings: Photographing Bob Dylan
The first time I photographed Dylan was at the Woody Guthrie Memorial Concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1967. It was his first public appearance since his motorcycle accident a year earlier. He was playing with The Band, who were unknown at that time.
I was just starting my photographic career and wanted to see the show as well as take some pictures that I could sell. So I called up Dylan’s office, identified myself as a photographer for an underground newspaper, and asked for two press tickets.
I brought my cameras to the concert, assuming that since they’d given me tickets as a photographer, I could take photographs. But when I got to Carnegie Hall, there were signs posted stating “No Photographs Allowed,” and the ushers insisted that I check my cameras. I argued, showing my press pass and the tickets from Dylan’s office, but to no avail. So I said, “OK, no pictures allowed,” and checked half my cameras, but kept the other half -everything that would fit into my pockets and my date’s bag.
I had a good seat near the front of the hall. Dylan came on stage, and I started snapping away, clicking my shutter only during the loud passages in order to be as discreet as possible.
After a couple of songs Arlene Cunningham, who worked for Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, spotted me taking photographs. Soon she and Albert, whom I did not know at the time, and a guard were all waving to me from the side of the hall telling me to stop taking photographs. I pretended not to see their increasingly frantic waving.
Then Albert gestured to the guard to get me out of the seat. Meanwhile Dylan was playing with The Band, and it was very exciting. The guard came toward me. I knew what was going to happen next. They always go for your film.
So I rewound the film I had shot and gave it to my lady friend, with instructions not to give it up under any circumstances. I quickly put another roll of film into the camera. I didn’t want to create a scene and disrupt the concert, so we followed the guard out into the posh, carpeted, chandeliered lobby where Albert, Arlene, and a few other people quickly surrounded us.
Albert demanded the film, and I adamantly refused, acting as if it were gold. “There’s no way I’m gonna give you this film.” But Arlene had seen me switch and was trying to tell him, but he was too engrossed in the mock battle I was staging. Every time I heard Arlene say, “She’s got the film!”, I raised my voice a bit, repeating, “You’re not gonna get this film! You have no right to do this,” and so on. I really carried on -I wasn’t violent or nasty, just loud, to distract him from her.
While I argued with him, I held the camera in front of me, presenting it to him without being obvious about it, knowing he would grab it. Finally he did and ripped the film out, exposing it and making it even blanker, I guess. After that we left, with the film safely hidden away. It never bothered me that I missed the rest of the concert. Only the film mattered. That was the first time I saw Bob Dylan, and the last time I saw my lady friend.
Despite that first strange encounter with Albert, my life brought me to Dylan again. My first record-album assignment was Music From Big Pink, which had a painting by Dylan on the cover. I knew that everyone would read the credits to see his name and would then read my name next to his. That was when I realized that I was going to be well known. I was surprised.
Curiously, because our names are anagrams of each other-DYLAN/LANDY-many people thought I didn’t exist -that he was me under an alias!
There have even been articles about it.
Everyone liked the Big Pink photographs, and shortly afterward Al Aronowitz, a writer and friend of Dylan’s, asked me to photograph Bob for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.
I rented a little VW bug and drove up from the city to Bob’s house in Woodstock. This was during the height of his fame, when he had been seen publicly only once in a couple of years, and many people thought he had died in a motorcycle accident.
Aronowitz introduced us. Bob told me how much he liked the Band photos, grabbed his guitar, sat on an old tire, and began playing while I took pictures. It occurred to me that millions of people would be thrilled to be ten feet away from Bob Dylan while he was playing, but he was so casual, it seemed normal to me.
He suggested some other things. “This is what I do up here, take a picture,” he said while putting the garbage cans away. He sat on the step of his equipment van and then in front of an old British cab he had. After a while he asked to use the camera. For some of the pictures I used infrared color film, which made the leaves bright red.
Although he was comfortable with me, he was nervous in front of the camera, and his uneasiness made it difficult for me. I was never the kind of photographer to talk people into feeling good, I let them be the way they were and photographed it. Usually it worked out, because I flowed with whatever mood they were in, without resistance until things lightened up.
He asked me to come back with the pictures when they were ready, which I did the following week. He liked the photos, and we started to hang out a bit. He suggested that I take photographs of him with Sara and the children. I don’t think he had ever asked anyone else to do that. It seemed natural to me, and I was thrilled to photograph them because I thought they were a beautiful family. The value of the photos never entered my mind. I was immersed in the wonderful energy they had and felt joyous to document it. For many years afterward I resisted selling them, even though I was often in dire financial straits when I lived in Europe.
He was very happy, in love with his lovely and gracious wife, Sara, and with his family. He was hiding from the world, savoring the magical experience of having young children. That’s why I didn’t publish the pictures for many years. He cherished his privacy and didn’t want any media attention on his family.
I was very impressed with Bob. He was a very special person. He intuitively understood what was going on in a situation. There was a feeling you got when you were with him that was exciting. I believe it was the flow of creative energy surrounding him that sort of spilled over onto you. Over the years I’ve seen him walk into rooms, even in the presence of other very famous people, and suddenly everyone’s attention becomes totally focused on him. It’s difficult to have this type of charisma: people always want a piece of you.
I remember admiring the way he dealt with his five-year-old son, Jesse, who was whining in frustration wanting Bob to help him move a toy car. I would have gone over and done it for him, but Bob encouraged him, “C’mon, Jesse, you can do it, just keep trying.” And Jesse, with a big smile of satisfaction, did it. I was very impressed by Bob’s instinct to teach him self-reliance.
We got pretty friendly, and I stayed overnight in his home three or four times. We talked about different things. When I asked him about politics, he told me he wasn’t very interested in politics and didn’t know much about it. I was shocked because his music was considered to be the Magna Carta of radical Sixties political thought. I asked him how he wrote those songs if he didn’t know anything, and he said that he didn’t create those ideas but simply “picked up what was in the air, and gave it back to people in another form.” My interpretation is that he intuited the future of political thought and turned it into music -kind of like a seer singing poetry. His skill, he acknowledged, was “knowing how to use the language.” Although he disclaimed having any interest in the political process, I felt he was interested in social justice.
About a year later, during another conversation at his house, he expressed some fairly conservative political views, which really surprised me. I couldn’t believe it, but he seemed serious.
However, while driving home, I ran into Richard Manuel of The Band, by chance. I told Richard what Bob had just said. Richard chuckled and told me Bob could have been putting me on, that he liked to put people on just to confuse them. I had observed that Bob liked to be mysterious because he felt it encouraged people to think for themselves. One of Bob’s big themes in life was that people shouldn’t blindly follow or accept things. So I never repeated what Bob told me, but I still wonder.
Another aspect of Dylan which impressed me was that he listened more than he talked. He brought someone out rather than talking about what he already knew. From seeing him do this, I understood that silence could be wiser than words.
I think this time in Woodstock was a transformative period for him. He was learning to feel and express love through his family experience. His music from this period reflects that: It’s light, homey and havenlike. He was no longer heavy-handed.
Woodstock is a very special place; the feeling in the air is wonderful. It has a history of spirituality going back to the Native Americans. The Tibetan Buddhists have established a center there because they feel it is on one of the main energy meridians in North America.
Just after the Saturday Evening Post shoot I moved to Woodstock. I had fallen in love with the lifestyle there and expected that I would do more work with Dylan and the Band. I used to see Bob occasionally here and there. One night I bumped into him and Sara as they were driving up to the Grand Union. He asked if I would mind going in and getting a few cans of cat food; they had just run out.
In early 1969 he called and asked me to take a picture for the back of his new album, Nashville Skyline. He had the front cover already picked out -a picture of the skyline of Nashville, where he had recorded the album.
We didn’t know what to do; we had no concepts when we started. We met, and he suggested that we take a picture in front of the bakery in Woodstock with his son, Jesse, and two local Woodstock people. The brown leather jacket he was wearing was the same one he had worn for the covers of John Wesley Harding and Blonde on Blonde.
He was still uncomfortable being photographed, and therefore I was uncomfortable photographing him, but we stayed with it. We took some pictures at the bakery and then went to my house and hung out.
I projected some slides I had just taken of a female model, and he started to laugh. I asked him what was funny, and he said, “Don’t you see the story?” “What story?” “Run them again.”
As the pictures appeared, he wrote some captions and read them to me. They parlayed the expressions on the woman’s face into an absurdly funny dialogue. He wrote quickly for a while, throwing some pages away, perfecting the story,.which we both thought was incredibly funny. He said we should publish them.
After he left a little while later, he came right back and retrieved his discarded notes from the wastebasket. I wouldn’t have thought to keep them, but I’m sure he had had some bad experiences.
I mentioned the project to him several times after that, but he said he couldn’t find the notes. Over the years the photographs have disappeared as well.
That same day we took some photographs outside my house. He had his glasses on, but there wasn’t any discussion about “I don’t want to have the glasses on the album” or anything like that. We were just easy. It was very casual. He wanted some pictures, we took them, and neither of us conceptualized it. I’m spontaneous when I work, and so is he. An art director might have said, “Take the glasses off,” but neither he nor I thought about it. However people present themselves is how I photograph them -I don’t judge it.
Then on another afternoon I went over to his place. As we left the house, he grabbed a hat, and asked, “Do you think we could use this?” I had no idea if it would be good or not, so I told him “take it, and we’ll see.” We walked around through the woods behind his house looking for a good spot. It had just been raining, we had boots on, and he was carrying this hat.
He paused for a moment, apparently inspired, and said, “What about taking one from down there?” pointing to the ground. As I started kneeling, I saw that it was muddy but kept going. “Do you think I should wear this?” he asked, starting to put on his hat, smiling because it was kind of a goof, and he was having fun visualizing himself in this silly-looking traditional hat. “I don’t know,” I said as I snapped the shutter. It all happened so fast. If I had had any resistance in me, I would have missed the photograph that became the front cover. It is best to be open to life.
During those days in Woodstock he was really open and in a good mood. It was sunny out and we just followed our instincts. It was the first picture of him smiling, and in my opinion reflects the inner spirit, the loving essence of the man behind all the inspiring music he has given us. Someone told me that the reason people like it so much is that it makes them happy.
Every review of the album mentioned his smile on the cover. No one talked about the photograph itself. For me that is requisite for a “good” photograph. The medium itself should be invisible. It shouldn’t make you look at it and think, “What a great photograph this is,” but rather should make you focus on what is in the photograph: “Look at that child, look at the flower, look at that person, how fantastic.”
Nearly everyone of my generation knows the photograph, and many have acknowledged it as an image that has had great meaning to them. Perhaps it reflects the love we were all seeking to find through making the world a better place.
And so this was a magical picture for all of us. It certainly assured my reputation as a photographer. My bill for the shoot, which in addition to my fee, included an array of items such as gas, tolls, film, etc., came to exactly $777. In metaphysics 777 is the number of mystical manifestation, the magical number, representing mysteries, the occult, clairvoyance, magic, the seven principles of man, the universe, and also the notes on a musical scale. I was awed by this incredible coincidence. It strengthened my feeling that everything is interconnected in ways which the logical mind cannot explain: We are all one.
I brought the picture to CBS Records and told them that Dylan didn’t want any writing on the cover, no names, logos, or other sales tools. This was Bob’s way of saying that his music was not created as a commercial pursuit. Despite his wishes, CBS put their logo in the upper left-hand corner, and although small and seemingly insignificant, this ruins the three-dimensionality of the image. While looking at the record, cover the logo, then uncover and cover it again. It will appear to go from two to three dimensions and back.
The following summer, in 1970, he called and asked me if I would photograph some of his drawings. He had started painting in Woodstock some years before. I thought his work was very beautiful. His drawings reminded me of Van Gogh’s. Looking back at it now, I find this similarity interesting, as Van Gogh was obsessive about the purity and spirituality of his painting, while Dylan is the same about the purity of his music, treating it with reverence, to be given in pure form to the people, not adulterated by commercial interests. This is why he has never sold any of his songs for commercials, one of the few artists to maintain that purity of purpose which the planet needs to survive.
A few weeks later Al Aronowitz called from Bob’s and asked me to come over to help set up a trampoline. Bob had moved into a newer, brighter, and more spacious house. We set up the trampoline, and Bob asked me to take some pictures of the kids and then some of him doing some funny stuff. It was a great day.
In the fall both he and I moved to Manhattan. One time he came over to my loft, hidden under a knit cap and dark glasses. It was a different Dylan than I had known in Woodstock. He invited us (my wife and year-old daughter) to a birthday party at his MacDougal Street home. We went, had a fun day, and said we’d see each other again soon, but shortly after that he went to Mexico to make a film, and I left for Europe, where I stayed for seven years.
In 1978, when I returned from Europe, I went to a concert, but wasn’t allowed to see him. After the concert, by chance, I met him in the elevator backstage as he was going to a party. He said hello, but didn’t invite me along when he got out. Since then we’ve spoken occasionally, but our connection has never been renewed, and I’m sorry for the lost opportunity to do creative work. Bob was always suggesting that we do pictures and words together, but somehow the projects never happened.