Before he captured Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix on stage, got to know Bob Dylan and then The Band when they played a Woody Guthrie tribute at Carnegie Hall in 1967, or even heard of Woodstock and some Aquarian Festival still more than a year off in the smoke-hazed future of the late 1960s, the photographer Elliott Landy was seeking out ways to support himself with his craft.
“In 1967 I had my first job in Denmark on a Danish feature film,” he says in anticipation of the upcoming launch event for his new book of pre-rock and roll images, “Opening Night,” at the Kleinert/James Arts Center this Saturday, July 4. “The Vietnam War was going on and I felt a pull to come back to the States and stop the war. My first thought was that I could go and shoot in Vietnam. My second thought was that I didn’t want to go and get shot at.”
Instead, Landy took to photographing the antiwar demonstrations of the time, which hadn’t yet pulled the nation’s full attention. He got a press pass from Westside News, and then became photo editor at Rat Underground News.
Soon enough Landy realized he needed a steadier stream of income and decided to use his press pass to get into celebrity press events and sell what he could. The result are what’s in Opening Night, a new limited edition book published by Imperial Pictures LTD — 1960s images of Faye Dunaway, Dustin Hoffman, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor at openings for their early hit films, Andy Warhol events, Marlene Dietrich after her one woman show. Big black and white images of the ermine-enshrouded, black tie and begowned stars of the day.
The book has an almost visceral sense of the works commenting on the celebrity culture Landy was out to capture.
“Now, in retrospect, I realize that who I am doesn’t let my camera lie,” he says. “I wasn’t aware of what the pictures were looking like at the time, but later the essence is what comes out from them.”
Each shot plays off an innate sense of tension between stars and their audiences, stars and their handlers. The world of the time feels surreal, as if putting on a face to look past the times they were taken in.
Landy says he felt everything was absurd in that world he briefly entered. But he was never sure whether his subjects felt the same way, although he recalls a time when Dustin Hoffman said as much. And you can see it in many of the eyes captured here.
“Many times the scene would be so crowded, all I could do was raise the camera over my head and click the shutter,” he adds. “But then you see what’s there — an eyeball at the edge of the frame; Richard Harris before a smiling crowd one second, and that same crowd’s attention moving on the next.”
Landy moved on from the celebrity shoots as soon as he found access to the rock and roll culture of the time, which felt like it was in the same world as antiwar demonstrations. It seemed to matter more. And the young photographer liked the people he came to shoot, eventually moving with Dylan and crew upstate, where he continued shooting the scene through the Woodstock Festival into 1970, 1971. After which he again stopped.
“Look how great this other way of being is…I was shooting to show what paradise looked like,” Landy recalls. “But that only lasted another 18 months before I lost interest. I found I didn’t like the business side of rock and roll, and how hard it was to get paid properly for what I was doing. I got less and less consideration from the bands and the record industry.”
The photographer notes how he started feeling raped by what he was doing, on the one hand, then estimating how much he could make on a shoot, on the other. So instead he just took pictures of his wife.
So why is all this coming together now?
“I’ve long wanted to combine these and the protest images, as I did in Woodstock Vision in 1994,” Landy says of his dream book as yet in need of a publisher. “To me, both are really important for setting the stage for what rock and roll became at that time. I’d call it Hollywood Peace.”
Landy was approached by Amy Hood and Jonathan Leder of Imperial Publishing, which had branded itself interested in “showcasing the complex beauty of classic American iconography.”
“I did it because I love the work,” said Landy, who’s now working to complete a long-awaited 160 page book of all his photos of The Band, with memoirs. “They made it easy for me.”
The 60-page Opening Night will be available in a limited edition of 1000 copies. The release party for the book, complete with slide lecture, takes place 6 p.m.-7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 4 at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts located at 36 Tinker Street in Woodstock.
“In retrospect, seeing how the culture has evolved over the past 50 years, the message of these photos is more relevant than ever — that we, as a society, pay more attention to physical glamour and fame than to wisdom,” Landy adds, in conclusion, reading from his own introduction to the new work. “There are relatively few hero philosophers and spiritual leaders in the popular culture. These images shed insight into the true nature of what we value and perhaps, becoming aware of this will help us change.”