Elliott in his Woodstock, NY. studio
Photo by Charles Hahn
Photographer Elliott Landy was born in the New York City borough of the Bronx and currently resides in Woodstock, NY. He found the art of photography at an early age and worked for underground newspapers in the 1960s to hone his photographic skills and use them to photograph the rock music counterculture of the times.
Landy became an iconic photographer of many legendary music and art figures in and around the time of The Woodstock Art Festival in 1969. His photographic images include the likes of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin (Big Brother and the Holding Company), Van Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Joan Baez, Eric Clapton, Peter, Paul and Mary, Richie Havens, and the Band. Elliott was one of the first music photographers to be recognized as an artist.
Elliott has written multiple books including Woodstock Vision: the Spirit of a Generation; Photographs of Janis Joplin: on the Road and Stage; and, The Band Photographs: 1968-1969, all published by Backbeat Books.
Friday, September 8, 2023
My assistant Cheri and I are weaving and winding through a narrow half-paved and graveled country road at the foothills of the Catskill Mountains. Through heavily wooded views we can make out a structure on our right side indicating a partially hidden driveway is quickly approaching. We turn right into the drive and through a short passage of woods where three structures appear in front of us. There are four other cars parked about the area and I squeeze our rented Toyota Rav4 in between the two buildings and next to one of the other cars.
As we are getting out of our rental, a middle-aged lady walks out of the home on our left to greet us, “Hi I’m Lynda, Elliott’s wife.” Lynda is an attractive thin woman with shoulder-length brunette hair. As she comes towards us their cat bounces alongside of her, curiously checking us out. We exchange pleasantries and soon Elliott appears out of his studio, the building on the right of us. Elliott, is a tall thin man over 6 feet and much younger in appearance than his currant age of 80. Having read books and watched videos that included Elliott, I immediately recognized Elliott.
“Thanks for Seeing us,” I said.
“No, thanks for coming on short notice. It’s been a very hectic day as all my days are. We have a place in the city (New York City) we try to go to every other week and I tell people I go there to escape the stress of Woodstock.”
We enter Elliott’s studio and immediately notice a multitude of familiar photographs all around us. Many are hanging up on the walls and some are scattered on a table. Elliott leads us around the lower level of the two-story structure. A middle-aged woman appears and we share our pleasantries. “This is my assistant, Virginia,” Elliot adds. Virginia is an attractive lady with a medium build and medium-length brunette hair.
“This room used to be my darkroom, but now I use it for scanning and storage.”
We enter a back room of the lower level where we are introduced to a young lady who is sitting at a desk and studying a computer screen.
“This is Caitlin. She is the designer. She put together the Janis Joplin book and now we’re doing a second Band book. She has a very easy job going through ten thousand photographs,” Elliott jokes.
“It’s an honor (to work) for him,” Caitlin nods towards Elliott.
“Caitlin is a very fine photographer in her own right as well, and that’s the reason I hired her: her skill and use of visual quality. Her visual aesthetic.”
I notice a photograph on the wall of Janis Joplin. “That’s my favorite photo of Janis. I love that photograph,” I remark.
“I like it, too, and that’s why we open the book with that picture.” Elliott turns his Janis Joplin book to one of the beginning pages and identifies the photo of Janis.
Elliott’s photograph of Janis Joplin on stage
at the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival
“So, here’s what we wrote to go with that picture.” He points to a poem on the page in his book with the suggestion of how Janis lived her short life as he knew her. “It was like perfect
for Janis’ life,” replied Elliott.
My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends-
It gives a lovely light!
-Edna St. Vincent Millay, Published in 1918
Elliott and his new work
We walk up a narrow winding stairway and enter the second floor of Landy’s studio. We enter a large room with white walls and photos on most surfaces of the wall. There are many tables and cabinets with an assortment of large color photographs covering the tops of the tables. At the rear of the room there are shelves with a multitude of flat boxes containing hundreds of photographs of Elliott’s archives.
“This is my newest work here.”
“I want to see a whole wall of it. We will frame them,” Virginia adds.
“Do you do your own framing here?” I ask.
“We do, actually. We just did for this (Elliott gestures towards his new, color photography) because it was for a show. The show was in France. I haven’t started to sell these yet. I want to show them to the art market, not to the photography market.
“This is the way the picture comes out of the camera using a filter. I don’t manipulate it. All we do is print it. It’s hard to get it printed to make it look like the original work.”
Elliott holds up a printed photo
from his recent project.
“What kind of printer do you use?” I ask.
“I use an HP. I have a lady that prints for me. She used to come every day, but now it’s just once a week.”
“Can we (sit) get comfortable? I would like to ask you a few questions, take a few photos, and get out of your hair. I don’t want to overstay our welcome.”
“Oh yeah, thank you. I couldn’t schedule a session with you until yesterday because I didn’t know what was happening.”
“How long have you been here at this facility?”
“In this house? Twenty-three years. Before that I lived for two years - I was renting a place in West Hurly overlooking a reservoir. Then for ten years before that I was living on hill 99 in Woodstock.
“I first met Lynda in college in 1960, I think. We hadn’t seen each other in 37 years and we re-connected and we’ve been together for 23 years now.
Photo by Charles Hahn
When It all started
“When did you first pick up a camera, and do you remember the moment a light when on in your head and you thought this is something you wanted to do?”
“Really, I picked up the darkroom first. When I was fourteen years old, we were at a bungalow colony for the summer. They had different activities. One of the activities was the darkroom, and I went in there and never came out. I was just totally attracted to the darkroom. The chemicals and the process of making contact prints. They had like a 2 ½ inch negative from a Kodak Brownie camera. I wound up being the assistant counselor for the darkroom. I showed people how the make contact sheets. How to develop the prints they made. I would mix the chemicals with the thermometer and stuff and I was just totally I love with it. I had no interest at all in photography. It was nothing about photography. It was something about the darkroom. It was home. Forget tennis, forget boating, I was never an outdoor person, I was an indoor guy.”
“My parents had an old Kodak Brownie camera. So, I just took a few pictures of my sisters because I needed my own film to make a print to play with. I wasn’t interested in photographing at all. I look back at those pictures now, that I didn’t have for many years. When my mother passed away, I got them. I found them again and they’re really good photographs. If a young person showed me these photographs and said, ‘Do you like these photographs?’ I would say wow, they’re really good photographs. Instinctively, I was a good picture taker. I wasn’t even thinking of composition, I guess I was feeling it, but I had no concept of it. I was never able to take a straight-on boring picture. I was totally ignorant of the idea of photography.”
“Do you remember the first time you were published?” I asked.
“Before I even had a camera of my own, I borrowed my older sister’s Polaroid camera and a very shaky tri-pod she had. I was going out to Fire Island and I took a picture of a full-moon over one of the sandy beach streets. I took it over to the Fire Island News and they published it.”
“After college I had an office job and after six months, I knew I didn’t want to be in the office. I had only taken the office job to save money to travel. I had to decide what to do, and it was one of two things: I wanted to go out with girls, and I wanted to take pictures. While I was working this office job, I was working in Manhattan at 72nd Street and Broadway, and I noticed a building that was quite ornate. I was standing in the street and I thought, wow that’s incredible.”
“I wanted to share that with somebody, and I looked around to see if I knew anybody by chance. I didn’t know anybody, so I thought I should get a camera. That was the moment I decided I wanted a camera. I first got myself a Nikorette which was an amateur, smaller quality Nikon camera. After a week and a half, I switched out. I got a better Nikon camera in which I could take the viewfinder off and look down into it. So, immediately my creative instincts surpassed what was available in the camera I bought. So, it was as if something came back to me like from a past life or something like that.”
“Getting the Nikon camera came after the Polaroid experience. I did so well with the Polaroid I wanted to get a camera where I could control it. So, I decided I would like to make money with photography.
“I got myself an enlarger, which I put up in my parents’ kitchen at night. Made some prints. Then I wanted to take a class or two in it. Photography was not considered an art form in those years. There was only one class of note: hi-quality photography coarse at the New School of Social Research. Lisette Model was teaching it. I applied for the monitor’s position which means that I wouldn’t have to pay for the class. I would take attendance to make sure everybody came in and was registered.”
Time as a student
“I remember meeting with Lisette Model, and she just loved my pictures. They (the photographs) were stuff made on a federal enlarger in my kitchen in Manhattan and the Bronx. A young person I needed that support. In my later years, I wish I had the opportunity to teach a little bit, not just to do portfolio reviews of younger people.”
“When I decided to become a photographer and I got my camera, I had gotten an apartment on 88th Street and Broadway. A two and a half room apartment. I put up a background paper in the living room and I started to offer to do portraits for actors. I put in an ad in Backstage newspaper. I built a sink in my bedroom and an 8-foot wooden waterproofed sink. So, I was really committed. I have some of those prints, and some of them are striking, great photos.”
“I developed my skill set after Lisette Model. I had no participation in class whatsoever. All I needed was that first meeting with her and the rest of it (the class) had no meaning to me.”
“The second class I took was with a guy named Lawrence Shustak, who was a great New York City photographer. He was a street photographer of graffiti and all that. He was really my mentor. I took a class in advance photography. I became the monitor for that. I used to come in early and mixed the chemicals for him and stuff like that. I worked as his assistant and we became friends later. From him, I was taught the perfection of photography and how you could stand all day long to make one print in the darkroom, till you get it right. You just do it and do it until it’s right, and this is what you do. I really learned how to be an artist. I learned the craft of being an artist.”
Photography as an occupation
“My first job was going to Denmark and working for 6 months and it was a magical time for me. I had to photograph some scantily clad women. I tried to get these photographs back from this Danish film studio. It was in 1967. I had the chance to stay on and on. There were other things I could do there. The Vietnam war was happening and I wanted to get back to the states to do what I can to stop the war.”
“The first thought I had was I would go to Vietnam and take pictures to show how bad war is. My second thought is I don’t want to be shot and be hurt or killed. There were peace demonstrations and I wound up working for the Westside News. They were very liberal and they got me a police-press pass which got me into the demonstrations without getting hit by the police or pushed around.”
Start as a music photographer
“Then I started working with a newspaper called the Rat Subterranean News. It was an underground liberal newspaper. I became the photographer for that. One night I was walking home in the lower eastside, and I see a marquee that said Country Joe and the Fish – Lightshow. I had no idea what that was. I walked over to the box office and I heard the music from the inside. I showed my police-press pass and they let me in. I was greeted by this incredible light show. It wasn’t like a screen. It was a whole wall filled with moving imagery that was with rhythmic time to the music. It was phenomenal. I was in back (of the theater) and I had my cameras with me, and I wanted to get closer to the stage. And that’s how I started photographing music: just by chance. I wanted to photograph rock-n-roll people. I say in my book that I was never a fan, that I only photographed the musicians because I liked the experience of being at the concert. But also, when I was doing it, I was proselytizing and I was publishing pictures that would hopefully bring people into this new culture. Smoking grass was part of it. You wanted to do what YOU wanted to do, not what they wanted you to do. You entered the Fillmore East, and people handed you a joint as soon as you entered the theater – not quite exact. It was just a new culture; you could dress any way you want. You’re supposed to do your own thing, which means find your own thing and what you like in life and learn to live from it.”
“For me, when I was taking the rock-n-roll pictures, I was saying pay attention to these people. The stars were the same as the audience. They were really all the same people, and they all were against the war, and they would speak out against the war and smoking grass and being free. It was only a lifestyle. To me it was only proselytizing.”
“That led me to the second concert after Country Joe; it was Janis Joplin. So I went up there, and I was able to go backstage because I had cameras and there were no other photographers around and you were able to do that. Linda Eastman was actually back stage the whole time. I have pictures of her with Janis. I always think I should have contacted her when she was married to Paul because we were very friendly at the time, but I never did.”
Jimi Hendrix at the Fillmore East in New York City, 1968
Photo By Elliott Landy
First Meeting with the Band and Bob Dylan
“I got an assignment with a magazine to photograph Janis; to photograph her and Big Brother and the Holding Company.”
“Bob Dylans’s manager, Albert Grossman, was Janis’s manager also and (once) threw me out of a Dylan concert because I was photographing. But then he forgave me. He (Grossman) saw some photographs that I dropped off (to Grossman’s office) of Janis. One night I was photographing Janis at the Club Generation (it became Ladyland), a small club in New York City with low ceilings. Big Brother was playing. You can’t hear a thing, and someone taps me on the back and I see it was Albert, and he goes like this (Elliott motions with his hand as if beckoning someone), like follow me. I don’t know if he’s going to throw me out again or why he's there and why he’s doing this. He takes me into the back and into a large utility closet with brooms and cleaning liquid and buckets and stuff. He says, ‘Are you free to take some pictures next weekend?’ I said, yeah. What Band is it? He said, ‘Well we don’t have a name yet. We were thinking of maybe the Crackers. Or they won’t have a name at all because they don’t want to be pigeon-holed into doing a certain kind of music.’ What’s a better word or synonym for pigeon-holed? Anyone who’s reading this article please write in. Okay, Albert says, ‘I want you go and meet these people.’ So, I went up into this recording studio in New York City where the Band was doing some mixing and stuff. They were through recording Big Pink already, and I met Robbie Robertson and I showed him my photographs I brought. Mostly, I had performing shots because I thought that’s what they would want. I didn’t know what they wanted at all (actually). Robbie says, ‘That’s not really what we’re interested in, but I really like the pictures and yes you can do it.’ I also had some portraits I had taken of actors. So, that worked out, and that’s how I met the Band.
“After that meeting, we then went to Toronto and then to Woodstock a few times. I kept working with the underground newspaper, the Rat. At some point when I was doing the photographs for Big Pink, I met Bob Dylan. It was at a party at Albert’s house, and it was just a very brief introduction. We didn’t even shake hands. But then some months later, after we finished the Big Pink thing, Dylan had agreed to allow himself to be photographed for the cover. He had agreed to have his picture on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.”
“When I photographed Bob, we got really friendly. I was the closest to him and connected to him in terms of the conversations we had and stuff.”
“Did Bob live far from Big Pink?”
The house nicknamed Big Pink by members of the Band and
became the title of the Band’s first album.
Photo by Charles Hahn.
“Well, it was in the same neighborhood.”
Elliott took this photograph of Bob Dylan at his
home in Woodstock, NY. 1969
The process of film developing and printing during the Big Pink days
“What was your process of developing and printing during the Big Pink time frame?”
“Big Pink I was still in New York. I processed the film in my darkroom in New York. I was very careful about it. I learned from Shustak. Color film I had done by a lab. I never processed that.”
A portrait of The Band shot in Rick Danko’s basement in Woodstock, N.Y. 1969
Photo by Elliott Landy
“How did you get into the infra-red film?”
“When I was in Denmark to start with, I met a guy, a German photographer, who showed me infra-red pictures he had taken. He had showed me a whole slide sheet. I thought they were very nice. So, I remembered it and I wanted to explore it myself. I was just starting to do that when I met the band, so I was in my infra-red period, I call it. It’s very hard to take infra-red colored pictures because the focus is different. It’s not a visual focus. You can focus visually but then you would have to look at a scale on the lens and then move it over a little bit. Look at the lens scale and calculate the differences. But I managed to do that. That was just an experiment.”
“I always liked to experiment with things. Being 80 years old now, I see my pattern that once I’ve done my genre of work, I’m not interested in continuing it. It’s not how good it is or how nice it is; it’s the newness of something and the floriation of it. Once I’ve mastered it, and I don’t think about it like that, but I observe looking backwards, that I just don’t have the interest to keep doing the same thing.”
“Even things like mother and baby photos. I love to photograph mother and child. I’d love to get some opportunities to do that.”
Bob Dylan in Woodstock, N.Y. with infra-red film, 1969
Photo by Elliott Landy
“Have you processed your own color film?”
“I experimented once. I didn’t mind it. It was just a lot of time and a lot of work, and I really didn’t like to spend time at work. You know what it is again when I say, I should do only things I know only I can do. Someone else can process and make prints. I had a darkroom printer, a woman that worked for me 6 or 7 years in the darkroom. She was just a better printer then I was. I would stand next to her, she would make a proof, and I would look at it and say, ‘This is what I’m talking about but, lighter.’ I was printing it, but it was her hands and her aesthetic also. I told her the chemistry to use.
Robbie Robertson and his documentary film
“Robbie (Robertson) just passed away. Can you talk about him and some of your experiences with Robbie?” I asked.
“He was the point person for the Band. When I dealt with them, it was always with Robbie. I was friendly with the other guys. For example, Levon and Rick had a house together after they left Big Pink. They said, ‘Man anytime you’re in Woodstock you can just crash on our couch. Come on over, you don’t even have to call. You’re welcome to come over and hang out.’ I had a very comfortable relationship with all of them, but any talk of business or getting our pictures right, it was always with Robbie. And, he would always have a chuckle. He was always chuckling about things and saw the absurdity of the way people lived, and I had a very nice relationship with him.
“According to the documentary, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, they all considered each other to be brothers with each other. Can you comment on that?” I asked.
“Yeah, they did an early interview with me about it. That’s what I said to the film makers; I said they were brothers.
Elliott goes on to say in the documentary, ‘It was very clear the moment I met them who they were and what they were about. They (The Band) were very grounded. They were very strong. They were very secure. They were gracious like country people are gracious, and they were totally in love with their music, and they were in love with each other. I never saw any jealousy; I never saw any arguments. I never saw them disagree; they were always supporting each other. They were five brothers. Very clearly five brothers who loved each other, and I never saw anything but that. In the 60s, part of the rebellion was rejecting one’s elders, rejecting one’s parents. The guys in The Band wanted to say ‘Hey, that’s not right. We love our parents. They worked very hard to bring us up and care for us.’ And so, they wanted to have a picture of their families in the album.”
“When that film premiered at the Doc Festival in New York, I was there in the audience and Robbie was on stage with Daniel (Daniel Roher), the Director of the film and somebody asked a question about one of the pictures. Someone said, Elliott Landy who took the picture is in the audience. Robbie said, ‘oh wow, he was one of us.’ Robbie didn’t want to be bothered with other photographers so, Robbie let me in (allowed me to be close). I was the only photographer Robbie would let photograph The Band. Robbie didn’t want to deal with press and all that stuff. Robbie said something like, he (Elliott) was a partner in crime, or something like that. It was an acceptable phrase in those days.”
The film of the time
“During those days what kind of film did you use?” I asked.
“It was always Tri-X. My teacher, Larry Shustak, showed me to develop it in Ilford Microphen developer, which is a re-usable developer. He showed me how to develop it in deep tanks, and I could develop 9 rolls of film at one time. I would shoot Tri-X at 800 ASA (instead of 400), and the Microphen would give me a much better grain. D-76 is a horrible developer. I could always tell a D-76 photograph because of the granular structures. I was fortunate. I was lucky he taught me that. Everything I ever did with film was based on Microphen, until Kodak T-Max came out. T-Max can be softer. So, I started using T-Max. I took a series of pictures. I was living with a young woman and her three-year-old child for two years and photographed them for the whole 2 years. It developed very softly; had a feminine feel to it.”
The use of sepia toning
“Did you do any sepia toning at that time?” I asked.
“Oh yeah. I did of The Band. The Music from Big Pink picture was my idea. I’d gotten to know them, and I realized they were very grounded and very much old fashioned in some ways. I’d gotten a book of Mathew Brady photographs. I said, ‘That’s the style that they belong in.’ Those pictures were all sepia-toned pictures from that era (Mathew Brady lived between 1822-1896). So, that picture (of the Band) was always in my mind, meant to be sepia toned. But I didn’t have the control or the input, and so they published it in black. When I publish it myself, it’s always in sepia tone, because I can control it. Also, I make prints in sepia tone and black and white so someone can choose.
A sepia-toned photograph of The Band, 1969
Photo by Elliott Landy
Time to say goodbye
Time was running out on our visit with Elliott, and I asked him to bring one of his photographs outside for me to shoot a picture of him holding it.
My photo of Elliott holding a photograph he shot for the cover of the Bands' second album
Elliott Landy is a very kind gentleman. We will forever be thankful for the time he allowed us and his willingness to share the wonderful stories of his career.
Selfie by CH
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