A new exhibit at the State Museum featuring the iconic photographs of Elliot Landy celebrates the 35th anniversary of the famed rock festival and highlights a tie with more that a few parallels to our own.
An exhibit celebrating the 35th anniversary of the rock festival ¡ª and featuring Elliott Landy¡¯s timeless photographs ¡ª proves that the event was about a lot more than music
by Ann Morrow
The most striking thing about Elliott¡¯s photographs is that they¡¯re iconic,¡± says Cliff Siegfried, director of the New York State Museum. ¡°You leaf through them, and you think, ¡®I¡¯ve got that album!¡¯ ¡± Siegfried is referring to Elliott Landy, who in addition to shooting such famous album covers as Van Morrison¡¯s Moondance, was one of the two official photographers for the 1969 Woodstock Festival. A collection of his ¡¯60s-era rock photographs will be featured in Spirit of the Woodstock Generation: The Photographs of Elliott Landy, a celebration of the festival¡¯s 35th anniversary, that opens at the New York State Museum in Albany on June 19.
Invited by promoter Mike Lang to photograph a three-day ¡°peace and music¡± festival, Landy was serendipitously right for the job, and not just because he lived in Woodstock. A free-spirited pacifist from the Bronx, Landy already had experience in capturing the defining images of musical happenings. That experience came from one simple desire: to photograph the performers who were making the music that he loved. Today, Landy¡¯s photos of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and others are an indelible part of 1960s culture. But though Landy¡¯s album covers for Dylan, the Band, and Van Morrison are classics of the genre, he is best known for his joyously spontaneous Woodstock photos.
Many of these of-the-moment shots ¡ª Joplin pouring herself a drink in the performer¡¯s
pavilion, Joe Cocker playing air guitar with abandon, concertgoers clambering up the sound towers like kids on a jungle gym ¡ª have shaped the nation¡¯s image of what Woodstock was all about. (The only one missing, it seems, is the festival¡¯s unsung hero, the Port-O-San man.)
¡°For me, photography is a very personal thing; I have to be enjoying something to photograph it,¡± says Landy. ¡°That is a detriment to making money, but I do feel it¡¯s why my photographs are artistically successful, and why they¡¯ve found a wide audience.¡±
The exhibit will augment his pictures with artifacts such as clothing, posters, and memorabilia. (Don¡¯t expect hash pipes or tabs of brown acid; you will find several ¡°grabber objects¡± on loan from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, promises Siegfried.) The wall text, written by museum staff in collaboration with Landy, will mix insights from Woodstock Vision, his 1994 book of photo essays, with new perspectives on the festival and its significance. ¡°I knew it was going to be special, but I really didn¡¯t know it was going to last 35 years,¡± says Landy, who came to regard the gathering as a spiritual awakening. ¡°In those days, I never did anything because I felt I should be doing it, but rather because I wanted to do it, and then I understood why I was doing it afterward.¡±
Appropriately enough for an event that was as much about protest as it was music, Landy began his career snapping antiwar rallies for underground newspapers. ¡°In 1967 I was living in New York City and doing what I could to help stop the Vietnam War,¡± he says. ¡°I was taking photographs of peace demonstrations and other social-justice demonstrations, and part of the underground culture in those days was rock music. It was the antiestablishment music, the way that people had to personally express their inner beings, which were being devastated by cultural repression and the political actions of the government. It was a natural thing for me to segue into photographing these rock musicians, because I felt I was spreading the concept of freedom and inner experience, rather than just going along with society¡¯s mores.¡±
Landy started out in rock photography somewhat by accident. Walking home one evening from the office of the counterculture paper The Rat: Subterranean News, he was intrigued by the music coming out of the Anderson Theater, and used his press pass to get in. ¡°I was blown away by the incredible light show, and the incredible, loud, wonderful sound,¡± he recalls, admitting that he pulled out his camera as an excuse to go down in front. The band was Country Joe and the Fish; the following week it was Janis Joplin and Big Brother & the Holding Company. From there, Landy went on to shoot Jefferson Airplane, Frank Zappa, and Jimi Hendrix at the newly opened Fillmore East.
Landy¡¯s shots of Joplin, whom he knew, are some of the most intimate in existence, capturing her around the time of her first major-label contract, before the ravages of her drug use were noticeable. Even so, the singer¡¯s loneliness and vulnerability are apparent. (In one of the Woodstock pictures, Joplin is seen taking a jaunty bow, but she seems isolated upon the starkly lit stage, with only her larger-than-life shadow for company.) Landy also caught Jim Morrison during his early stardom. In photographs from Hunter College and the Fillmore East, the doomed singer appears as a sleek pre-Raphaelite in gleaming black leather.
Landy¡¯s magazine photos of Joplin caught the attention of her high-powered manager, Albert Grossman. Thanks to Grossman¡¯s recommendation, the unconventional photographer was hired for shoots of Bob Dylan, who was living in Woodstock, and the Band, who were staying there at Dylan¡¯s urging. The Woodstock sessions resulted in several leg- endary images, among them the album cover for Nashville Skyline, with a grinning Dylan hoisting a guitar with one hand and tipping his hat with the other; and the inner gatefold of Music From Big Pink, with the Band members staring at the camera with the solemnity of Civil War veterans. Landy spent enough time with Dylan and the Band to justify renting a house in Woodstock, where he has lived on and off ever since. ¡°It got to where I had more friends, and felt more comfortable, in Woodstock than I did in New York City,¡± he says.
Then came the invitation to shoot the Woodstock festival, which as many concertgoers will remember, was actually held on a farm in Bethel, Sullivan County. One of Landy¡¯s favorite photos from the event is of Max Yasgur flashing a peace sign to the endless sea of hippies in front of him. ¡°I was really blown away by what Max Yasgur had to say,¡± Landy recalls. ¡°In those days, almost the only people who were against society, against the war, were young people. It was rare to find an older person who understood the [youth] culture. So when Max Yasgur, this farmer in his early 60s, got up onstage, it was a wonderful moment, probably the high point of the festival for me.¡± Landy adds, ¡°He was so good, he let us use his farm when no one else would allow a concert for young people. At the time, hippie culture and the antiwar movement were really looked down upon by mainstream America.¡±
The State Museum exhibit will also explore the social ramifications of the festival. ¡°Woodstock epitomizes the era,¡± says Siegfried. ¡°There¡¯s so much folklore around it, ¡®the weekend of peace and love.¡¯ The antidraft movement, abortion rights, civil rights, everything sort of came together at Woodstock. It¡¯s a great symbol of the times.¡±
Surprisingly enough, the museum has never before done a Woodstock exhibit, despite its proximity to the festival grounds. ¡°Certainly, a lot of people from this area went to Woodstock, or tried to,¡± Siegfried says, referring to the site¡¯s 20-mile traffic jams. ¡°But this is a good anniversary to do it. Part of the exhibit¡¯s significance is that there are real similarities between now and what was happening then. We¡¯re at war, and there are concerns that we can see parallels in. And there¡¯s someone running for president who fought in Vietnam and came back and led protests against the war.¡± Woodstock panel discussions are in the works, along with a series of tie-in concerts; possible performers include Joan Baez, Country Joe McDonald, John Sebastian, Richie Havens, and Arlo Guthrie.
Asked what the youth of today might get out of the exhibit, Landy seems to already know the answer: ¡°Young people will be reminded what a potent force spirituality can be in society. Woodstock was a magical event of peace and love that really showed the world what can happen when nearly 500,000 people of like mind get together.¡± ¡ö
Spirit of the Woodstock Generation runs June 19-Sept. 6. Additional tie-in events are expected to include a Woodstock karaoke caf¨¦ and tie-dye activities. A gala reception, ¡°A Taste of New York,¡± will be held on June 22. For a schedule of events, visit the State Museum Web site at www.nysm.nysed.gov. To see more of Landy¡¯s photos, visit www.landyvision.com.