Birdwell Blog

The Henry Diltz-Gary Burden Connection, Part One
In California #010

Henry Diltz was the photographer; Gary Burden was the art director. Their collaboration brought us some of the greatest album covers of all time. Henry is now 81 and lives in LA and still shoots zealously. Gary passed away a couple years ago. I recently caught up with Henry via phone. He was so impassioned, so full of great stories, that I thought, The only right way to do this is to do it as a two-parter. So, here is part one.

 


How did you and Gary Burden meet?

Well, from Gary’s side of it, he was in the Marine Corps, and then he became an architect. So he was working on Mama Cass’s house, and of course they became buddies, smoking buddies, and she said, “Gary, I’m doing my first solo album, and I’d like you to do the cover.” And he said, “Well, Cass, I’m an architect. I’m not a graphic artist.” And she said, “Well, you make a blueprint, you make an album cover, what’s the difference?” And he said, “Well, okay.” And soon after that he went to a love-in in Griffith Park, and he saw me there taking photos—I guess he remembered meeting me years before but I didn’t remember—and he came up to me and said, “Hey, you’re a photographer. You want to help me do this? I’ve got to take some pictures of Mama Cass.” And of course I knew Mama Cass really well. And so that was a no-brainer. I said, “Yeah. Great.” And we did that, her first album cover, and then we went on from there, and I think we did 100 album covers, give or take.

 


What exactly is a love-in?

All the hippies would get together in some park on a Sunday. It was the kind of thing where the word would be passed around. “Hey, we’re having a love-in this Sunday.” And everybody at noon would just gather at the park wearing all their finery, bringing the kids, bringing their guitars, and it would just be a huge picnic with a few hundred people.

 

That sounds like such a great time in history.

Yeah, this was the late ‘60s, when I first started taking pictures. I had been a folk musician for the early part of the ‘60s, and then in ‘66 I picked up a camera on the road and found a new hobby. I love looking at life through the camera. And so I was very busy photographing all day long, everybody I’d see, everything I’d see. And most of my friends were musicians, so I ended up photographing a lot of them. And then that’s about the time I met Gary, and it dovetails very nicely because we kept doing that, but it was much more organized with Gary because he was an art director.

 


So when you guys were doing these record covers, would you collaborate beforehand to come up with concepts, or would you just shoot and then hand it over to him and let him do his thing?

Gary liked to get the group out of town, away from managers, away from girlfriends, away from telephones—this was long before we even had beepers, let alone iPhones. So we’d get the group, and Gary was really keen on having a destination and an adventure, kind of make it a little happening. For instance, we’d take The Eagles and go out and spend the night out in Joshua Tree, and camp out. Or we’d take America and go to an Indian Reservation down near San Diego and ride horseback through the desert and camp out in a little oasis with a babbling brook and eat peyote buttons. Or we’d drive up to Big Sur. And there wouldn’t really be a plan, there wouldn’t be any sketches. Gary would just say, “Hey, we’re going to the desert. We’re going to shoot The Eagles.” He would get a case of Corona, we’d get peyote buttons, we’d get whatever we needed, plenty of nice pot to smoke, and off we’d go.

          And Gary was kind of like the scoutmaster. He was a couple of years older and such a cool guy that you’d like to hang out with him, so he was perfect. And then he would say “Henry, just shoot everything that happens. Film’s the cheapest part.” That was a big quote. And that was my thing anyway. I was just a photo-taking machine.




          And then the second Gary Burden quote I’d heard all the time was, “Back up, back up, get the whole thing.” Like when we shot Crosby, Stills & Nash sitting on the couch in front of that old house for their first album cover, I was right up close, just getting the couch, framing the couch, right into the rectangle of the frame. It fills the frame so nicely. And he said, “Back up, back up,” and I’m going, “Really? What?” “Yeah, back up. Get the whole house.” And so I backed up and backed up till I was across the street shooting the same thing that I was two feet in front of before. But he had a vision in his mind that he might want to use that whole house, and indeed he did. And on that album, the rest of the house wrapped around to the back of the album and it was an open-up album.




          Same thing with the Doors. We went down to the Morrison Hotel, and we were shooting. They were in the window, and I was right up close to the window shooting at an angle, getting the lettering and getting them kind of looking up sideways at me, and Gary said, “Back up, back up. Get the whole window.” And once again, I backed up across the street with a telephoto lens and got the whole window framed up. So we were a good team in that way. He would never really tell me what to do except he’d say, “Shoot everything that happens, and back up.”





From where were you guys drawing inspiration? The musicians?

Well, the musicians had a kind of a tight-knit little family. Really, we were all kind of brothers. We all knew each other, and we all hung out together. I lived in Laurel Canyon, and I had been a folk singer and played at the Troubadour countless times. And back in those days, in the ‘60s, when you play in a club, you always played the whole week. You played six or seven nights. Nowadays, that’s unheard of. It’s one night. Back then, one night would have been unheard of. You always played the whole week. We spent five years playing folk clubs across the country, always booked in for the whole week, which made it interesting because we got to meet people and know people, like the waitresses and stuff. So that was my world, and David Crosby and Stephen Stills and Mama Cass, those people were friends of mine, and they also were friends of Gary’s. He had met them independently, maybe through Cass. But by the time I teamed up with Gary, we both knew all these people. And in fact Gary had this really great little Spanish bungalow down in West Hollywood, and his wife was a really great cook, and these people would come over and hang out with Gary, and he’d be doing projects with them or something. But almost every night at dinner, it would be Graham Nash or Joni Mitchell or Mama Cass, all these people, with David Crosby, they would come and eat dinner with them. And they became lifelong friends. And in fact he was lifelong friends with Neil Young, and he was Neil’s art director for at least, I don’t know, 30 years, 40 years. I mean, almost every Neil Young album was Gary-produced. Not the album, the album cover, the artwork.




          But that was kind of the music of the day. That’s what was happening. I mean, Crosby, Stills & Nash were just getting together from The Byrds, The Hollies, and Buffalo Springfield, three supergroups, and then they formed this group, and we were all really close friends, and we all got to hear them singing. We went down to the studio, listened to them record, and then one day they said, “We don’t have any pictures of ourselves. We need something that’ll make an announcement that we’re recording together.” So we went out one day in Gary’s old ‘50s Ford station wagon, and we drove around West Hollywood, stopping off here and there to take pictures, and we found that old house with the couch in front of it. And that was our first really major album cover. And here’s the thing that was so great about that. So what we’d do is we’d have this adventure, I would take 500 pictures and then Gary would look at all of them. He would get them first and there would be slides, transparencies, and he would sit there all night at a slide board looking through them all and pick out the one that was just the cover. Gary had really great taste, great artistic taste. And he would pick out the one.




          And because he was an architect, he was used to working with different materials. So when we went to print, when he had that album cover printed, he called the printers. He said, “I want you to turn the paper over and print on the uncoated side of the paper,” because all album covers were glossy. And they said, “Well, wait, we can’t do that. I mean, it’s going to soak up the ink. We never printed on the uncoated side.” He said, “I don’t care. I want you to do it.” Well, it turned out to be so wonderful because if you remember that album cover—it’s a foldout album of them sitting on the couch in front of the old house—it’s got a texture to it. It’s got a matte feel to it. It’s not glossy. It’s got a texture. So it went along with sort of their organic, wooden music kind of a thing.

 













All photos by Henry Diltz. Check out more of Henry and Gary’s work HERE. And stay tuned for part two of this conversation.

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