Legendary Photographer Elliott Landy

by Brooke Hall

photo: © Elliott Landy landyvision.com  

Famed photographer Elliott Landy is coming to Baltimore on Friday, November 9, as a juror for Maryland Art Place’s Fall benefit and exhibition, LUX gala. Landy has graciously allowed MAP to use his legendary photo of  Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as the face of this event and has donated a special edition print for the evening’s live auction.

Brooke: You’ve photographed many rock-n-roll superstars: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, and the list goes on. Many photographers would kill to have that experience. How did you find yourself in that position?

Elliott: I was working on my own, taking photos of anti-war demonstrations to try and help stop the war and then gave the photos for free to underground newspapers. The rock and roll scene of that period was part of the underground movement – the movement to change the world into a better, more just place, so when I was photographing those concerts, I was really sharing the beauty of an alternative way of being.


photo: © Elliott Landy landyvision.com  

I write about this in my book, Woodstock Vision, the Spirit of a Generation. Here is an excerpt:

There was a terrible war raging in Vietnam in the Sixties. We, the Woodstock Generation, knew it was wrong and fought against it. We didn’t care what the social penalties were — we stood our ground and said, “No, this is wrong. I love my country and will not participate in this immoral action which destroys the principles on which our country was built.

At the same time, music was reaching us. It got us so excited that we felt a deep part of ourselves which we had not been in touch with before. It was wild, and its wildness freed us from cultural restraints, from the uptightness that habits place on a human being. So people were free to be naked in public, to talk about having sex, to smoke grass openly with friends, take acid, have long hair, dress any way they chose, to experiment and explore life freely.

I was a young photographer looking for a way to publish my work. I was a human being, hurt and injured by the injustice of the war. I was a person who smoked grass occasionally and loved to listen to music. When I was stoned, I always wanted to take pictures. I combined all these elements into an attempt to make my life good. I wanted to earn money, make beautiful pictures, listen to music, and help the world.

Everything seemed to be changing. Established ideas and institutions, in every sphere, were being challenged. It seemed like the world was about to change profoundly because people would not be able to go on living the way they had been. It was a time of hope.

The frontiers of consciousness were being expanded. We were exposed to Eastern philosophy, metaphysical books, psychedelics, rock music, and grass.

Rock concerts were rites of passage, where people came to be together, to see the bands, and to get high from the music, the dance, and the drugs. The goal was to transcend the mundane vision of everyday life by reaching an ecstatic state. We were unknowingly using methods similar to those found in the traditions of indigenous peoples throughout history.

Pop music had not yet become an international business and cultural phenomenon. Rock ‘n’ roll was outside the norm of society, part of the ”underground“ culture, and to be involved with it made you an outsider. A new group of people who believed in alternatives to the American Way of Life was galvanized by this new, free form of raucous music. A world of hippies, drugs, free love, metaphysics, and political activism was born.

The musicians themselves could as easily have been members of the audience as performers onstage, and often they did mingle with the crowds after the show. There was a true feeling of solidarity, a unity of purpose, and the purpose was to change the world. “We want the world, and we want it NOW!” was the anthem sung by Jim Morrison. We thought that the freedom to behave as we wished, coupled with the power of music to liberate the soul, would emancipate the world.


photo: © Elliott Landy landyvision.com  

Brooke: What attracted you to the world of photography? Who were your early influences?

Elliott: I saw beautiful things that I wanted to show to other people, ‘Look how beautiful this is!’ So I decided to use a camera to do it. I really had no direct influences on my photographing—on the nature of the photos I took. I had never been a fan of photography, never looked at much of it. I was just inspired to share things with people and picked up a camera to do it.

There is a bit of a mystical thing about it though, because when I was 13 in a summer camp, I was totally attracted to working in the camp darkroom. I had no interest in taking pictures at the time, but the moment I walked into the darkroom I fell in love with it and became the darkroom assistant for the entire summer, mixing chemicals, cleaning trays, helping new campers to develop film. Something about it just totally engrossed me. My parents had a Brownie camera and I took a few pictures here and there, not to take pictures, but just to get a negative to print. I see those pictures now and see that even then I had a sense for taking photos. They were just pictures of my two sisters, but I took them from a low angle, with a playset leaning off the the side—images, which if shown to me by a young person asking whether his/her photos were good or not, I would strongly encourage to keep doing it. Yet, at that time, I had no sense of wanting to take photos.

Excerpt from Woodstock Vision:

I love photography. It has always been good to me. It has taken me to the places I wanted to go, helped me meet some of the people I wanted to meet, and allowed me to share with others some of my deepest experiences.

I was lucky. In the early days of my career I chose to photograph people and events that later came to be socially and culturally significant. But when I was photographing Jim Morrison in the Hunter College Auditorium, or Janis Joplin in the Anderson Theater on New York’s Lower East Side, neither event had, then or now, any meaning for me beyond my momentary love of the music they were creating and the way they looked creating it. The thrill, the inspiration of the moment was all there was. To capture a flickering moment of joyous experience and share it with others — that was the reason I began photographing in the first place, and that is still the reason I take pictures today. I was never a fan.


photo: © Elliott Landy landyvision.com  

Brooke: Many of our readers are artists and photographers. Can you offer any advice for emerging photographers on becoming great photographers?

Elliott: In my opinion you can learn to be a good photographer, a rich photographer, a successful photographer, but “great” is something you either have with you in this lifetime or not. I believe the same is said about the other arts. However, it’s not important whether you are “great” or not, only that you enjoy yourself and if making money brings enjoyment that is as valid as seeing your image huge on the side of a building. In any case, it’s all opinion. I see things in galleries and arts centers that I can’t stand, yet they are considered good enough to exhibit. Many people don’t consider my work to be great. So it’s opinion, like tasting food.

Brooke: Can you explain how and why you make yourself an “invisible” photographer?

Elliott: I can’t be certain of this because I discovered myself doing it, rather than having thought about how to do it and then trying it out. I believe that by going into a quiet or still state, closing down what you are thinking about, you retract your energy field a bit. People, although they don’t know it consciously, are aware of each other’s energy fields. So by retracting yours, by shutting down your thought patterns and only focusing on the one thing that you are taking a picture of, you reduce the mental noise and people don’t feel you as extra noise in the environment. It’s like people are cars going down a quiet street outside your window at night. If you put a muffler on your mind, you won’t be as disturbing as you might be in a normal mode. Something like that—if you asked me again tomorrow, I would probably have a different answer.


photo: © Elliott Landy landyvision.com  

Brooke: Not only did you agree to be a juror for Maryland Art Place’s Annual Fall Benefit Exhibition and Gala, LUX, but you also permitted MAP to use your famous photo of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as the face of this event (and you donated the work for the live auction). Is there a special reason you decide to become involved with MAP?

Elliott: Not a special reason. I was introduced to them by a friend and I am nearly always willing to help a good cause with my works. So it was a normal reason for me to be part of this.

Brooke: During the process of choosing the artists to be exhibited at MAP, did you discover a photographer or certain piece of work that stood out to you as exceptional?

Elliott: Yes, I had a few favorites that I really liked, but then again, it’s all about taste. So what is important is that you, the photographer, love your own work and love creating it. Whoever else likes it is besides the point. If it IS the point, then I wouldn’t call that person an artist. An artist works for himself primarily and then hopes others will agree that it’s worth looking at or being a part of, in some way.

Brooke: What are your thoughts on digital photography and video?

Elliott: It makes the cost of entry into the medium a lot cheaper, so more people do it. If you see these mediums as only artistic mediums, which should on be the province of “artists” then this is a drag because there is so much mediocrity created. But, if you see these mediums as part of life and see the purpose of life to find joy (inner and outer doings) then they are a true blessing for the human race. What matters is the fun that people have while doing this stuff. If they want to call it “art” and try to share if with others, that is a struggle, but just to take it is now easy enough.

Before these digital mediums existed you had to really want to do them. You had to give up a lot in terms of time and money and learning, so if you weren’t inner driven to create imagery, you let it go as snapshots that no one beyond your family, for the most part, saw. For me, one of the necessary elements of something being “Art” is that it was created because the person had to do it.


“Arles, France, 2004” © Elliott Landy landyvision.com  

Brooke: Can you tell us about your new app, “LANDY”?

Elliott: Landy is a new way of creating, controlling and experiencing music and video in a new and innovative manner. Played like a video game or musical instrument, for fun and in real time, the interactive program I have developed allows the user to merge his own music with the imagery so that the motion of the film matches the rhythms, beats and lyrics of the music. About 40 years ago I began shooting some films in Super 8 and playing records and tapes with them in my living room. Some of the chance synchronizations between my films (which were shot without sound) and the music were mind blowing! I wanted to share the experience, but no technology existed that would allow me to duplicate it.

As the years passed and the technology improved, I was able to build the software I needed and in the process created a new art form that I believe will inspire and entertain for years to come.

Brooke: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Elliott: Yes, The Sixties photos for which I have become known were taken in a span of only 18 months or so. However, I believe the same ideals of both personal and social freedom and the spirituality expressed during that period were reflected in my later work with flowers (combining elements of impressionist painting with photography) and in the spiritual imagery of  my family as we traveled through Europe for seven years in a forty passenger bus.

I am especially excited by a new book, Love at Sixty, which is a collaboration with my wife Lynda. (We are negotiating with a publisher at this point.) It features photos I have taken of her in what I call a photo-verite style—pretty moments I see while living together, and her poetic prose which captures the spontaneity of life, the essence of womanhood and the wonder of a love we found in our Sixties.


“Lynda and Elliott, Aix-en-Provence, 2006” © Elliott Landy landyvision.com  

*****************

Catch Elliott Landy this Friday at LUX. MAP’s Gala event, hosted by the Ravens’ Ray Lewis and Juliana Childress, will include music, a live auction of luxury items, silent auction of featured artists, strolling magician  and mentalist, Dick Steiner, a culinary competition coordinated by Chef Jerry Edwards of Chefs Expressions and signature cocktails provided by Kettle Hill restaurant. The evening will exude ‘old Hollywood glamour’ with every guest receiving a luxury swag bag to complete the evening’s festivities. Original, limited edition Ray Lewis prints will be also displayed as guests enter this world-class exhibition and include lush imagery from his “Sun Diaries” series. Tickets are $250 each and can be purchased through MissionTix.com until 5PM, Thursday, November 8, 2012. Tickets can also be purchased by calling MAP at (410) 962-8565. The Gala will take place Friday, November 9th at 7:00PM in the MAP galleries located at 8 Market Place Baltimore, Maryland within the Power Plant Live! complex.