Photos by Elliott Landy | Landyvision Inc.
In his photographs of famous rock musicians and the Woodstock Festival, Elliott Landy created some of the most iconic images of the 1960s. Dylan tipping his hat down at us from beneath a breezy blue sky on the cover of Nashville Skyline and the stark black-and-white portrait of the hollow-eyed, hirsute Band members, hands jammed into pockets against the wintry cold, on the sepia cover of the album simply titled The Band inspired a whole generation with an alternative vision. It was a vision of life that was more spontaneous, less materialistic, unhitched from the corporate juggernaut and rooted in nature and folk traditions (what happened to that vision is another subject).
That was a long time ago, and the Woodstock-based photographer has since moved on, pursuing other subjects, the most recent of which is his wife Linda, whom he met when both were in their 50s, 15 years ago. She wrote a wry, confessional text to his intimate, erotic shots brought together in a book, Love at Sixty, which they are attempting to get published. He has published six books, including Woodstock: The Spirit of a Generation, has created an interactive, customizable music video system that he’s currently marketing and is committed to his “spiritual energy work,” as he calls it. Yet Landy, who resides in a rambling, rustic-style home in the woods and works out of a two-story converted garage, believes that there’s still more grist to the mill when it comes to his most famous work.
As the exclusive photographer of the Band during the height of their popularity, Landy took 8,000 photographs, only a fraction of which have been published. Frustrated with his failed attempts to get a publisher interested in a quality coffee-table book of a portion of that work, Landy is finally realizing his dream, thanks to crowdsourcing. On December 15, he launched a Kickstarter campaign and in five days met his goal of $65,000. Four weeks into the six-week campaign, he had raised $129,000. It’s the second-most-funded photography project in Kickstarter’s history, according to Landy. “It’s fabulous and unbelievable. Now a few publishers are approaching me,” he said.
The 128-to-144-page book, valued at $75, will also be sold in a deluxe edition with a slipcase, accompanied by an eight-by-ten signed print of the Band. That’s one of the incentives for donating at the higher levels. The highest donation of $10,000 comes with lunch and a visit to his studio; so far, the highest amount that has been donated is $3,000. There have been a lot of $1, $5 and $10 contributions, for which he’s equally grateful, he said. The initial printing order will be for 1,500 copies.
“I never lost my love for what I did in the beginning of my photographic career,” remarked Landy, sitting in his studio one recent overcast morning. “Just like you always love your children, it was the same with that body of work. Those guys were really beautiful to photograph because they were so harmonious. They knew who they were, and they didn’t want to suck up to anybody.”
Landy discovered photography after he graduated from City College, when he was still living with his parents in the Bronx. His inspiration was simply “to share a beautiful moment,” as he put it, which came to him one day when he was walking down the street on the Upper West Side and admiring the façade of the Ansonia Hotel. He took a class in darkroom techniques at the Camera Club of New York, followed by a class at the New School. Bored with his job in the Garment District, he lucked out with a trip to Scandinavia after bumping into a Danish film crew who liked him and his pictures and invited him to be their official photographer.
When he returned to the US seven months later, Landy photographed peace demonstrators as a personal protest against the Vietnam War. “I went to Associated Press and the big magazines, but nobody was interested in these pictures. So I started to work with the New York Free Press and became photo editor of the underground magazine The Rat, in the East Village. They’d pay for the film and the processing. My rent was $85 a month. Ed Sanders once said, ‘The ‘60s ended when rent went up.’”
One night in 1967, as he was walking home from work with friends, he passed a marquee reading “Country Joe and the Fish Light Show.” Not knowing who they were, he went in. “We were hit by a barrage of color and sound. I went up front with my camera and started to shoot.” The conditions were challenging, but Landy had the technical chops, thanks to having worked as the darkroom assistant to photographer Lawrence Shustak. “It was very low light. Back then the lenses and film were slower, so it was technically hard, but I knew what to do,” he said.
He sold one of the color photos of Country Joe to the magazine Escapade. The next week he shot Big Brother and the Holding Company and sold more pictures. But shooting rock musicians was never about the money, he said. Rather, it was an invitation to a movement. “Rock ‘n’ roll was part of an underground culture. It was about changing the way you live, smoking grass, being free and not spending your life in bondage.”
Albert Grossman, Janis Joplin’s manager, approached Landy one night at a concert and asked if wanted to photograph a new group, which didn’t yet have a name, that weekend at a recording studio in the City. The group was the Band, and although Robbie Robertson said that the photographs that Landy subsequently took “weren’t exactly what he was looking for, he saw I was a good photographer.”
He was invited to take a picture of the group and their next of kin in Canada for their upcoming album cover. (All the members except Levon Helm were Canadian.) “Everyone was rejecting their families, but the guys in the Band were saying, ‘We don’t hate our parents. They helped us.’” He shot them at a farm outside Toronto, and then came to Woodstock to photograph just the band members, who were experimenting in their home studio in the basement of the building that gave the album Music from Big Pink its name. It was Easter Sunday of 1968.