Elliott Landy: Shooting The Band

Iconic ’60s photography coming soon to London...

There aren’t many people for whom an altercation with Bob Dylan’s imposing ’60s manager, Albert Grossman, would be an auspicious opportunity, but for photographer Elliott Landy, it was his entry into shooting the decade’s most iconic stars.

Despite a ‘No Photography’ ban at the 1967 Woody Guthrie Memorial Concert at Carnegie Hall in New York, Elliott sneakily snapped from his seat, until the hulking Grossman accosted him and attempted to steal the film. It was the pair’s first encounter. After their second, Grossman would hire Landy’s services.

Albert’s latest signings were four Canadians and their American drummer, who’d been plucked from relative obscurity to bring to life Dylan’s controversial new electric sound on tour through 1965 and ’66. They’d since moved to Woodstock in upstate New York, following Dylan, who’d retreated into self-imposed exile after a serious motorcycle crash), and were now readying their debut album, for which they required official publicity photographs. When Landy met the group, they didn’t even have a name. Later, they would adopt what people round town referred to them as: The Band.

As an exhibition of his photographs of The Band opens this week in London for the very first time, Elliott speaks exclusively to Clash to reveal his memories of their time together. The Band Photographs: 1968-1969 runs at Proud Camden from June 6th to July 24th, and comes in the wake of the book of the same name, which Elliott funded through a highly successful Kickstarter campaign.

His photographs stand not only as the most iconic of The Band’s entire career, but are an absolutely unique insight into the nascent juncture of this intensely private group of musicians.

Shooting began at Big Pink – the salmon-coloured home of bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel and keyboard maestro Garth Hudson, and namesake of their debut album, ‘Music From Big Pink’, where it was also recorded – over the Easter weekend of 1968, moving around the area over the coming days. Completed by drummer Levon Helm and guitarist/songwriter Robbie Robertson, The Band were captured at their most relaxed in the most comfortable of surroundings.

Landy’s bond with the group endured through 1969, when he shot the cover of their eponymous second album, but though his rock and roll career flourished – he’d shoot the covers for Bob Dylan’s ‘Nashville Skyline’ and Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’ – he soon left it all behind to focus on other subjects.

Ahead of the UK premiere of these historic documents, Clash brings you a sneak peek of some of our favourite picks, and the inside story of their making.

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Have you previously exhibited these photographs in London?
No I haven’t, actually. I made maybe two shows in London in the past, and maybe one or two were scattered throughout these shows, but no, in general it’s really, for most of them, the first time that they have been shown as fine art prints.

Apparently there will be some unseen photographs in this exhibition?
Yes. What I did for this is that I went through 12,000 negatives with my assistant – actually, she went through 12,000 and I went through about 1200 that she picked out – and then I just chose a whole lot of pictures that are just really nice and that had never seen the light of day before. I just picked out what I thought were the best photographs.

This exhibition and the popularity of your book is really a testament to the international and enduring appeal of The Band. I don’t suppose that when you were taking these pictures that you thought they would have this life of their own…
That’s true.

But did it feel special at all? Were you aware of what potential these guys had?
No I wasn’t, and that was part of the reason that I was able to photograph them as intimately as you describe and as the pictures show: because there was no ulterior motive or ulterior thought. It was only what was happening at that moment and how can I get the best picture of it. And nothing in my mind was impure – by ‘impure’ I mean having a second reason for doing something rather than the thing itself that you’re doing. The second reason for doing something would be because they’re gonna be worth money in the future, they’re gonna be famous in the future, and so on, so none of that was part of my mental space.

The Band behind Big Pink, Easter Sunday. West Saugerties, NY, 1968 © Elliott Landy

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When you first started working with them, they were pretty much unknown to you, right?
They were unknown to everybody. I mean, they didn’t exist as an independent band. Well, actually they did; they were The Crackers, but nobody knew them, they had no album out, and I guess if you went to certain bars you may have seen them, but they really were unknown as a public entity.

How did it come about that you first shot them? You were accosted by their manager, Albert Grossman, I believe?
He had sourced some pictures I had taken of [his other client] Janis Joplin that were really, really nice photographs, and then when The Band – they didn’t have that name yet – were looking for a photographer, he came up to me one night in Club Generation, which is the space that later became Electric Ladyland, and he tapped me on the shoulder and waved for me to come to the back of the room with him into like a broom closet. I didn’t know if he was going to throw me out or what was going on, but he said to me, ‘Are you free next week to take a picture up in Canada?’ I said, ‘Yeah. Who’s it for?’ He said, ‘Well, they don’t really have a name yet, but if you’re interested you can go and meet some of them – they’d like to see your pictures.’ So, I went up to the studio in New York City where they were recording, and that was it. (Laughs)

Your work up to that point was largely reportage – documenting the civil rights struggle, for example – how did that prepare you for shooting The Band? Did it make it easier for you to be a fly on the wall?
I don’t think that really prepared me for it. Well, it didn’t prepare me, no, it’s just how I photograph anything; I try not to interfere with it and just try to photograph what’s going on. So it’s just my attitude about photography. Previous to the documentary work, my first job was working on a feature film in Denmark where I was the set photographer and I had to be very quiet. Being on a film set, you have to very much be a fly on the wall, for sure – you can’t interfere with anything, you have to make sure that you don’t take pictures while they’re actually shooting stuff, and so on. But I just kinda knew how to do it.

What were your first impressions when you met The Band? They were kind of different to what was going on in music at that point in the ’60s.
Yeah. You know, they were different then to most other people I had met actually, and certainly different to the other musicians. The other musicians that I had met, like Janis Joplin and the Big Brother band, were super nice people, but they were Americans. These guys were just very much wiser and older – they were kinda like old guys already, even though they were 26 or 27-years-old or so. They had been through so much. It just seemed like another level of experience or another level of life that they had gone through. I mean, the other bands that I’d met, they were just kinda starting out as bands, but these guys had been around already for six or seven years. Not that that meant anything to our relationship – they didn’t tell me what it was like on the road; we never talked about any of that stuff – but just as to who they were, they were much more mature people, let’s say. You couldn’t fool them – they were wise – and they were also very kind and very nice. I think that’s what impressed me: how sociable they were. Up in Woodstock, where they lived, when they passed someone in the street who they knew, they were just really sincerely glad to see them, glad to say hello to them. It wasn’t some phony stuff, and they were just very gracious human beings. And they were very gracious to me also.

They cultivated an air of anonymity; was that a challenge for you to counter?
No. I was taking the pictures for them – for Capitol Records, for Albert Grossman, for whoever. I mean, they had a need for them – they want it for the album – and I figured they’d do what they wanted with the pictures, so I really wasn’t trying to counteract something, but actually, your question could be related to one of the pictures that I took. There was a pond outside Big Pink, and in front of the pond was a bench. We went out there just to take scenic pictures with a nice background, and one of the shots I got was from behind, of them looking out on the pond, and that was on the cover of Rolling Stone, that picture. And it was very interesting because we talked about that as the picture they were going to use, and they said, ‘Well, that’s a little too anonymous.’ Albert had said they don’t really want to be too famous and they don’t really want to be too identifiable, so that picture kinda suited what they had asked for, but then when it came down to it, it was too anonymous. (Laughs)

Shooting at Big Pink. West Saugerties, NY, 1968. © Elliott Landy

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You spent the 1968 Easter weekend with them in Woodstock, and I believe each day was a different attempt to get the right shots, but it wasn’t quite happening each time. What do you think was not working?
It wasn’t that it was not quite working – I think we got exactly what they asked for, which was a shot from behind, beautiful shots in front of the pond… But, for some reason, they wanted more. They had in their mind that it just didn’t feel it reached the place that they wanted it to reach. So, to their credit, they asked me to do it again, and then a third time also – not because there weren’t any good pictures. I guess if there weren’t any good pictures they would have gotten somebody else.

For the third session, you drew inspiration from vintage pictures of the old west, right?
Well, for the first two sessions, you see, I prefer so much to just flow with things that I don’t really like to think about things or plan anything; I’ll just show up to shoot somebody with my camera. I would just show up with my cameras and I’d photograph wherever they lived or wherever we could walk to or something like that. There was no planning. So that’s what I did for the first two sessions: the first one was around where they lived at Big Pink, and then the second time they moved to two different houses, and so we photographed around there, but then the third time, when they didn’t get what they wanted from the first two, I thought about it and I said, ‘Well, here’s who they are’ – they were very grounded, and I just knew them at that point and I knew what they were about.

I had just gotten a book of photographs by Matthew Brady from the American Civil War period, and I just connected them to it. I said, ‘This style of photographs is really what they are about.’ And I didn’t even know their music, actually – I was not familiar with the Americana style – so now that I know their music I see that that was a fantastic choice because it matched so well. But it just happened synchronistically to come together for me; I had this book in my living room and I was thinking one day this is the style I should imitate, so then I figured out how to do it – like, what made those pictures look like they did – and one of the things was that during those days, when a photographer showed up, it was a very big deal, and everyone who was going to be photographed was ready for the photographer, and they stood facing the camera, paying attention, and if the photographer said to stand a certain way they did that. So, I realised that was one thing: attitude. I said to them, ‘Look, you have to make believe that it’s a very special moment that I’m here photographing you and you need to face the camera and you need to pay attention.’

And then the second thing was to figure out how they got the look of the pictures. I realised that in those years, film was very slow and everything was a long exposure, and the cameras were put on a tripod. So I had to be ready to stand still, and I set the camera for a slow shutter speed, and that was it. But I also handheld it instead of putting it on a tripod, so the hand-holding of it created this kind of old-timey, somewhat blurry look to it. It’s not a pin-sharp, digital-looking photograph. The hardest part of that picture was finding where to take it. We drove around – I was looking for a landscape that looked 1850/1860-ish – and we drove around for a day or whatever, and we looked at a lot of places and couldn’t find anything right, and then when we were hanging out in Levon and Rick’s living room, I looked out the window and there it was: that landscape was right outside in their front yard.

Levon and Rick’s yard. Woodstock, NY, 1968. © Elliott Landy

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You shot amazing individual portraits of each of the members. I read somewhere that you thought Levon was sometimes difficult to shoot, and Garth was particularly shy. What were your thoughts on each of the members: who was easiest? Who was most fun? Who was your favourite?
I really had no favourites. Photographing some of them was more challenging – as I said, Levon often felt uncomfortable, but yet personally I was very, very close to him – closer to him than some of the other guys – but he felt uncomfortable in front of the camera in general, but he got over it. In other words, there’s just a few pictures like that. It’s not like he was always uncomfortable, it’s just in the beginning he was more uncomfortable than the others were. But he got past that and it wasn’t always hard for him. And Garth was just naturally shy, but he wasn’t difficult at all.

You just had to engage him?
Well, exactly. You know, they weren’t poseurs. They weren’t there to pose for a photograph, and they weren’t interested in what they looked like, and they weren’t there for publicity or promotion. There was really talk of them remaining kind of anonymous – well, not anonymous, but just quiet in the background of their music. They wanted their music to speak for them, not pictures of themselves dressed in a certain way or whatever. It turned out that the picture did speak for them, but it wasn’t their intention to do publicity for themselves. You know, the word that comes to me is they weren’t self-aggrandizing at all. They were very humble about the fact that they were musicians there to play music.

Rick Danko, Big Pink session. Woodstock, NY, 1968. © Elliott Landy

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One of my favourite pictures is your infrared portrait of Rick Danko. How does shooting on infrared work?
Infrared film was a scientific film developed by Kodak for military use, and in the ’60s some photographers began using it for its crazy, artistic effects. It is sensitive to any infrared wavelength light, as well as the normal wavelength that we can see. And because of that sensitivity, it gave you false colours – colours that were different than what you saw visually – and one could never know exactly what you were going to get when you took the picture, because you can’t see the infrared light. It depends on a lot of different aspects – is it overcast, the wavelength of the visible light, how hot it is outside, and so on. And you have to use colour filters with it, because of the nature of the film, so some of the infrared pictures were taken with an orange filter, some with a green filter, some with a pink filter, and so on. It’s difficult to use, because the focus point is not the same as it is for normal light. So, in those years, lenses had a special infrared focusing mark on them. It was rather slow and difficult to use.

Shoot for the cover of ‘The Band’ album. Woodstock, NY, 1969. © Elliott Landy

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Was the photograph that became the cover of the second album pre-planned?
Yeah. I got the idea of posing in the rain. (Laughs) I said, ‘Can we make it look like it’s raining?’ I tried technically and I couldn’t figure out how to do it in those days, but somehow, on the day we were doing it, it did start to rain. It was rainy and drizzly all day long. There were a lot of good pictures there that I don’t remember.

It was only a couple of years after that picture was taken that you decided to quit music photography and focus on other areas of art. Was it something that you only enjoyed for a short period of time? Did you want to concentrate on other things?
My wife got pregnant, and I found my new interest was to photograph her and our daughter, when our daughter was born. I went from wanting to share the beauty and power of music, and also anti-war demonstration photographs, to just wanting to share the beauty of mother and daughter photographs – of women – really more on a feminine vibration. People sometimes come to my studio to buy prints and so on, and it’s usually the man who will want pictures of The Band or Dylan, and then his wife or his girlfriend will see some of my impressionist flower photographs and they’ll buy some of those for themselves. (Laughs) So, for about seven or eight years, that’s all I photographed: my wife and children. Because I wanted to share how beautiful that was, how nice it is to be part of a family, how wonderful and wise it was to watch a good mother bring up a child and nurture a child.

You shot The Band again in their ’90s formation. Now, of course, Levon, Richard and Rick are no longer with us, but are you still in contact with either Garth or Robbie? With every new reissue for The Band, your pictures are always there…
I don’t deal with either of them personally. Whenever I see Garth it’s a very warm conversation and so on, but I am not in touch with him at all. We live in different areas; we’re both in upstate New York, but I don’t see him. And I deal with Robbie mainly through his manager, and he [Robbie] was very gracious and very supportive about the book.

It must have been a very gratifying experience, producing the book through Kickstarter, just to see the amount of people who loved your work and wanted to see it come to fruition.
You know, the major gratification was doing the book and seeing how well it came out – and I didn’t really know how well it was going to come out until I opened it up when it was delivered the first day. That’s the gratification. For me – in photography too – the gratification is when I see the picture after I’ve taken it. Seeing it – identifying the one really great picture out of 1000 – that’s really gratifying, and that remains gratifying. And yeah, knowing the support was there, I didn’t think about that. Because I’m so focused on the work itself, that’s why. And yes, I am really grateful for all the people that supported it so bountifully and so warmly and so beautifully.

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Words: Simon Harper

The Band Photographs: 1968-1969 by Elliott Landy runs at Proud Camden, from June 6th to July 24th. www.proud.co.uk

Elliott Landy’s website, from where you can order prints and books, as well as viewing his other work, is www.landyvision.com

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