He never saw it coming, his fame as “the official photographer of the Woodstock Festival.” In fact, Elliott Landy claims that he’s not famous; it’s his pictures that are well-known – so well-known that in this 50th-anniversary year, he has been barraged with requests and opportunities to show the work all over the world. In addition to participating in local exhibits and celebratory events, he is having at least five 166-print exhibitions with text featured from his book Woodstock Vision: The Spirit of a Generation – highlighting not only the Woodstock Festival but also the whole cultural shift that led up to it.
Landy tells me that before 1969, he was working with underground newspapers, publishing photos of peace demonstrations. His first job was on a feature film in Denmark. “When I came back to the US, I had these great clippings to show. I got a few assignments from magazines like Newsweek. The reason I came back was to help stop the Viet Nam war. My first thought was: I’d go to Viet Nam and show people how bad war is. My second thought was: I don’t want to do that – be shot at or killed. I don’t want to be anywhere near this stuff.
“So, I decided I’d take photographs of peace demonstrations, which were going on, but you didn’t see any information about in the papers. There could be a significant demonstration in New York City, and The New York Times – a liberal newspaper – would only have two inches in the middle of the paper with no photographs of it. I felt I could take pictures and communicate to the citizens of the US that there were a lot of people against the war. The media was not reporting these things yet. I took my pictures to the mainstream news agencies, but nobody was interested. So, I started working with so-called underground newspapers, all local. They qualified for a New York City police press pass. With that, I had free rein to take pictures anywhere without being arrested. I published them, sometimes showing the police brutality that was not shown anywhere else.
“One night, after putting the Rat Subterranean News to bed, I was walking on Second Avenue and saw a the Anderson Theater marquee that said, ‘Country Joe and the Fish Light Show.’ I said, ‘What’s Country Joe and the Fish?’ I had no idea. I walked over to the box office and heard this loud music coming out of the auditorium. I had my press pass with me, and I walked into this unbelievably beautiful light show and incredible amplified sound. I was smitten by it. I had my camera and went up to the front of the theater and started taking pictures. That was the beginning. The following week was Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company.”
Landy’s work segued into shooting pictures of rock ‘n’ roll musicians, who were all about protesting the war. He says that the music and the antiwar movement became a part of the same mind-space. “The performers were against the war, as was the audience. When you went to the Fillmore East, it was like joining an alternative universe of experience. Everyone welcomed each other, were considerate of each other. People shared joints as if it were not illegal to do that. And you were one with a group of like-minded people.
“When I published photographs from those concerts, I was proselytizing, inviting people to come to the concerts and experience this music. It expanded your brain, expanded how you perceived and felt things. And you were free to dance any way you wanted. You didn’t have to follow the waltz rules. It was a different kind of life-space. That’s what the whole ’60s culture was about: the intention being to stop the war and to change the way society was treating its members.” What soon followed was a call from Michael Lang to engage Landy and photographer Henry Diltz to document the upcoming Woodstock Festival out in Bethel, which became a legendary collection of pictures.
So, what does one do after photographing the ultimate ’60s happening? “What happened for me was I simply got bored with taking music photographs, being in the music business. Two things stick out in my memory. I was taking a photograph one time for an assignment. As I was taking the picture, I was thinking about what the art director wanted. That was a big gong in my head, and it stopped me from taking the picture. My love of photography is very deep. When someone else’s structure gets in the middle of my connection to the picture itself, it is painful.
“And the second thing that happened was when I caught myself thinking about how I could sell a picture while I was taking it. I’m a very intuitive, instinctual person. When I photograph, I go to where I want to be and don’t think things out. Looking back on [leaving the music photography business], I see that I had an artist’s attitude – even though I never thought of myself as one – because the first qualifier of art is that it has to be different.”
Landy has always allowed himself the freedom to follow the artist’s path. After the Woodstock Festival, and still in his late 20s, he opened a gallery in Woodstock where he says he didn’t want to sell his rock ‘n’ roll pictures. He didn’t want to be locked into that identity. “So, I took pictures of nature, some trees in black-and-white. I had no talent for it whatsoever. I also started painting and found out about spiritual books at the same time, and was so moved by them; they verified feelings I had my whole life so my art gallery became a spiritual bookstore. I lost my interest in taking pictures for a while. Now I take gorgeous impressionist photos of food and flowers. Really nice stuff, really far out.”
When his wife became pregnant early on, his mission was to show people how beautiful pregnancy and motherhood are. Ongoing subject matter has been photographing his children and his travels, and dabbling in other artforms. “And all along I’d been shooting these Super 8 films, doing it in a different way than people usually do it. The first time I had a Super 8 camera in my hands was right on the Village Green in Woodstock. I didn’t follow any rules – just did it my own way. And I’d play records and cassettes with it and get an extraordinary magical music/visual experience. Since then I’ve pursued this technique, and 48 years later I have an app that I developed myself which allows me to play and show film and music the way I have to do it. It works on Mac and the iPad. I am showing films that I make with this app at Utopia Studios every day all summer long. The show at Utopia is called ‘Elliott Landy’s Woodstock Vision.’ The app is called LandyVision.”
He says that for the upcoming European exhibitions, all the photographs that preceded the Festival – of peace demonstrations and rock ‘n’ roll musicians – lay the groundwork to show what Woodstock emerged from. “It came from the seed, the entire ’60s culture, the mind-space people were in. It’s a very spiritual thing. To me it’s the essence of spirituality, what hippies were about: to share and care for each other, and to teach and learn, to take the best part of young children’s behavior – being trusting, being interested, eternally curious, wanting to touch things – and make that a part of your adult way of being. In the ’50s you couldn’t touch anybody. There were all these structures that society had been formed by, and that had to be broken. They still have to be broken.”
Landy’s work has been published in nine books, albums, calendars and on the covers of Rolling Stone and Life. His book Woodstock Vision, The Spirit of a Generation was available in CD-ROM set in 1997. Woodstock ’69: The First Festival, also authored by Landy, came out in 2009. Landy says that the cultural changes that took place in the ’60s worked for some people and not for others. Now there’s more work to be done. “The basic underlying principles of human decency, of humanity and spirituality – the purpose of our government should be to help its people.”
Landy will be at Mirabai Books to celebrate Woodstock’s 50th anniversary, marking that momentous time in history when “an extraordinary consciousness enveloped the Woodstock Nation – a realization of inner- and outer-directed harmony and peace.” When Landy went from photographing underground protests to documenting the wave of musicians telling it like it was, he witnessed the rising careers of Bob Dylan, Janice Joplin, the Band, Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Frank Zappa and many others. His book, Woodstock Vision: The Spirit of a Generation, hands that experience to readers in 224 pages of photographs and text.
Landy will be at Mirabai on Saturday, June 22 to discuss the spiritual component of that event 50 years ago and the possibility that “we all can still reach that same place through meditation and right thought.” The talk will conclude with one of his subtle energy, meditation-like sessions, which he calls “Sharing Stillness.” Afterwards, Landy will sign copies of Woodstock Vision.
You can also see Landy’s work at the Center for Photography at Woodstock this summer. “Elliott Landy: The Spirit of a Generation” will be exhibited from June 29 to September 2, with an opening reception and lecture on Saturday, June 29 at 4 p.m. His music films, presented by WDST and called “Landys,” will be shown daily during the summer, beginning on June 22 at Utopia Studios in Bearsville.
In Celebration of Woodstock 50: Book Talk with Elliott Landy, Saturday, June 22, 2 p.m., free, Mirabai Books, 23 Mill Hill Road, Woodstock; (845) 679-2100, www.mirabai.com.