Born in 1942, he started off as a complete unknown who published photos of Vietnam War protests in underground newspapers. When his work caught the eye of rock manager Albert Grossman (whose client list included Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Peter, Paul and Mary, among others), photographer Elliott Landy suddenly had access to the biggest names in the rock and roll industry. In the ’60s, he took hundreds of thousands of photographs of rock music icons like Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix; he was also the official photographer for the 1969 Woodstock Festival. Now this legendary lensman has released The Band Photographs: 1968-1969 (Backbeat Books), a new book that is chockablock with some 200 photos, many of which have never been seen before. The book chronicles the intense year and a half that the group spent in the Saugerties-Woodstock area working on its first two albums. We caught up with Landy and asked him to share his thoughts on that incendiary period and its resonance today, as well as his love for his adopted hometown of Woodstock.
How did the photo sessions with the Band come about?
I was living in New York City and becoming a photographer, learning the craft and how to make money from it. I was asked to come [to Woodstock] and photograph the Band for the Music From Big Pink album. Albert Grossman, the Band’s manager, asked me. The album and the group didn’t have a name. First, they wanted to be anonymous. They didn’t want to label themselves with any particular “cutesy name” — they used that term. They wanted to remain free to change the kind of music they were playing. The Band was living in West Saugerties in a house they dubbed Big Pink. [Lead guitarist and songwriter] Robbie Robertson and his wife, Dominique, lived in Woodstock in another house by themselves.
How did the sessions work?
I went to Big Pink on Easter Sunday weekend in 1968. I was a fly on the wall. I don’t work conceptually at all; I try not to think about what I’m doing. I bring my camera and take pictures of whatever the person is offering up. I let the dance happen. There was no schedule, it was very casual.
What’s your favorite photo from the book?
One great photo is of them sitting on a bench in front of a pond [left]. You don’t know who they are. I didn’t set it up.
How did you come up with that iconic sepia image of the Band standing in a field?
After two shoots I’d gotten to know them, and I really liked and respected and admired them; I felt they were wise people. They were very grounded, and, in a way, very old-fashioned, polite. I had a book of Civil War-era photographs by Mathew Brady. I just felt that that style of photography was who they were. Once I established that, I had to analyze the mind space of 1860, what photography was like then. When the photographer came around, the people respected him, and got dressed up and faced the camera and focused on it. I explained it to them, you have to stand straight and pay attention and act like it’s very important and very unusual — like you haven’t seen a camera before.
Do you still have contact with any of the Band’s members?
I remained friendly with them, and I was the go-to photographer for them until the beginning of 2000. After I did the Band album, I decided I didn’t like being part of the music business. The record labels were not pleasant.
Did Band members comment on the book?
Robbie loved it. His son, Sebastian, said it was “insanely gorgeous.” And I agree with him. I look at it with a third person’s eye.
Why this book now?
The feedback I’m getting is that it’s pretty meaningful. I wanted to share it because I was proud — not egotistically proud, but proud in the sense of appreciation that you’ve been part of something that is harmonious to the vibration of life. I was able to do the Band book because of a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign. It was the most-funded fine art photography book in their history.
Do you still take pictures?
I only shoot digital now. I don’t have time to shoot film anymore. There’s no real need for it. I’ve been taking pictures with my iPhone, shooting film and video and music. I’m also inventing an interactive music and video app that lets people play with music in a new way.
When did you move to Woodstock?
In 1968. I needed a bigger place, I had a girlfriend moving in. At the same time, I was going back and forth to photograph the Band and show them prints and contact sheets, and meeting a lot of people. So I actually knew more people in Woodstock than in New York City. I found the house at the end of a dead-end road for myself and my girlfriend; she had a store, she moved her business up here.
You began your photography career covering antiwar protests. So how did the music industry fit in?
In those days, rock and roll music was part of the underground culture. The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Country Joe and the Fish — the musicians I encountered were all vehemently against that war. The underground culture was one of freedom whose message was that we don’t want to do what our parents had done. When I was photographing those concerts, I felt that I was proselytizing for people to become part of this culture. Don’t be warlike, be responsible, give things away for free — all very positive values, which culminated in the Woodstock Festival.
Speaking of the Woodstock Festival, how did you become the official photographer?
I knew Mike Lang, who created Woodstock, from around town as a casual friend. One day he rode up on his motorcycle and said, “I’m producing a concert. Do you want to photograph it?” And I said, “Who’s playing?” and he rattled off a list. And they were, of course, great bands. I said, “Sure, I’ll do that.” He said, “Groovy.” It wasn’t even a handshake. That was, like, three months before the festival.
Were you prepared for the magnitude of the concert?
I knew it was going to be big because of the big names he mentioned. I had an all-access pass, so I was really doing it as a freelancer. I had faith and enough money to buy the film.
Did you photograph around the clock?
I got sleep. I had a motel room the first night. On the second night, I drove back to Woodstock because I heard my girlfriend’s store had burned down. I couldn’t reach her by phone. I missed Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Jefferson Airplane. Then I came back. I was very casual about it.
What’s so special about Woodstock, the town?
It’s a very magnetic part of the planet, it’s very spiritual. I left Woodstock in 1971 at some point. I didn’t like living in the U.S. because of Vietnam. I wanted to travel, to try something else. I went to Europe for six and a half years, then came back to Woodstock in 1990. I was free, my kids had grown, and I had no more ties anyplace. I realized at some point that Woodstock is my home, where people know me and know my work, and I know them.
What are some of your local hangouts?
My wife and I like to go to vegetarian restaurants. I was a vegetarian for 30 years, but one day a psychic in a reading said, “You should eat some meat, just a little bit every so often.” I felt she was right. We like going to the Garden Café, we go to Joshua’s. We used to go to Bread Alone every morning, but it’s counterproductive to getting work done. We like the Commune Saloon in Bearsville, and the Bear Cafe in summer so we can sit outside. Then we like the Red Onion outside Woodstock and Miss Lucy’s Kitchen in Saugerties.
Do you ever go out and listen to music?
Once in a while. We’re going to a concert for a young jazz piano player [the Joey Alexander Quartet at the Woodstock Playhouse]. I don’t follow the new bands so much. Just the other day I was thinking that I don’t want to spend time being entertained. I want to spend time creating things myself.