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Rock photographer reflects on his friendship with Tom Petty and other iconic subjects

For Henry Diltz, a self-trained photographer to rock ‘n’ roll legends, it was always about the friendships.

In the mid-1960s, he wasn’t thinking about famous portraits or his work gracing the cover of Rolling Stone.

He just liked to hang out with his friends and capture the moment with fellow folk singers and upstart bands.

“When I started taking pictures in 1966 I would be the only photographer,” Diltz said. “When I shot The Doors at the Hollywood Bowl in ’68, I still was the only photographer there. There just weren’t a lot of people with cameras. Now, everybody is shooting photos.”

Diltz is showcasing his work and telling stories on Oct. 13, beginning at 6:30 p.m. at the Ranch at Laguna Beach. Tickets start at $25, which includes a free beverage, and are only available online at henrydiltzshares.eventbrite.com.

With more than 50 years of intimate, behind-the-scenes access to a who’s who of classic rock royalty, Diltz, 79, can tell stories all night long.

Like his work, Diltz is generous and authentic. His photography reflects the warmth and trust he earned from his subjects. There’s a natural ease that makes it seem as if you’re sitting in the same room with Joni Mitchell, Neil Young or Tom Petty.

The reason, most of the time, was that he was not just a photographer. He was their friend, including Petty, who died Monday.

“Our kids went to elementary school together,” Diltz said. “We used to stand in the back of the school auditorium when they had the ‘Spring Sing’ – me to take photos and him because he would come in late. So the two of us would be back there and talk about how the sound system wasn’t very good.”

Diltz chuckled at the memory, then added, “So he donated one to the school.”

“He was a friend. I photographed him on TV shows and concerts. Great singer. I love his music,” Diltz said.

Diltz told me this story the day after Petty died. That’s happening often for Diltz now; he’s outliving a lot of his friends and acquaintances from the heyday of the ’60s and ’70s.

Mama Cass, Janis Joplin, Frank Zappa, Lou Reed, Michael Jackson, Jerry Garcia and countless others. For a sample of his work visit his website at www.henrydiltz.com.

At first, Diltz never thought about making money with his photography. He was a folk singer himself in the early ’60s, so it took him a number of years to even consider himself a photographer. He started out wanting to document the fun times.

When he first saw one of his photos projected on a wall during a slide show at a friend’s house, he could hardly understand it.

“It was so entertaining,” he said. “More than that it absolutely blew my mind. The first picture of mine when it hit the wall, 8 feet wide and glowing, it just absolutely amazed me. It was magic. In that moment looking at those pictures, I was hooked immediately.”

Diltz couldn’t wait for the next slide show party. He started to quietly take candid photos of friends, singers and bands.

“Since I wasn’t a trained photographer and didn’t use lights or tell people where to stand, it was just whatever I saw,” he said. “If it looked good to me, I wanted to capture it without disturbing the situation.”

Throughout his career, and even to this day, Diltz remains loyal to this maxim: Don’t be a boor at a party.

“Don’t be too quick to take the picture,” he said. “If I’m going to photograph somebody, I want to meet them. I want to go over their house or meet somewhere and have a cup of coffee. Talk a little bit. And then usually, while we’re talking before they know it, I just lift the camera up and go click.”

Diltz remembers one time when a record company wanted him to take publicity shots of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Little known at the time, neither the band nor Diltz knew each other.

So when he walked into their dressing room, camera and backstage pass in hand, the party pretty much stopped.

“If I had started clicking away, they probably would have kicked me out right away, but instead I just sat down on the edge of the couch and looked around a bit,” he said. “Pretty soon everyone went back to what they were doing. Then five minutes later when you see something interesting, take the picture. But don’t be aggressive. Just relax. Acclimate and get in the groove of what’s going on.”

Besides blending in, Diltz says he’s always been genuinely curious about others. More often than not, he’s talking with people rather than taking photos.

“I’m very curious about people. That’s translated into photography. They say having a camera is like having a passport into people’s lives.”

One time he was on a TV show with Henry Rollins, and his job was to take production stills.

“Henry is a very amazing, intelligent, astute guy,” he said. “In downtimes we’d have little conversations, and he would tell me how he just rode the Siberian Express for three weeks, completely white outside the window, and he went to Vladivostok and he checked out the Russian fleet. And all he had was a backpack full of books. He’s kind of a hero of mine.”

Random, unexpected, charming stories are what’s filled the life of Henry Diltz.

“It’s like the time Rolling Stone called and asked me to go to Truman Capote’s house in Palm Springs. I knock on the door, and I’m thinking, ‘My God, I read Truman Capote’s short stories in college, but what the hell am I doing here?’

“But he expected me and was very gracious, and we spent the afternoon visiting, and I got the cover of Rolling Stone. It was wonderful. I love those moments because you get to talk and hang out with these people. You talk about life and what their take is, what their sign is, what their Chinese animal is, and we get into all kinds of good conversations about what life is about.”

For Diltz, now, you get the sense he just wants to pass it along, these colorful, life-altering stories that don’t have to be about famous rock stars.

“Wherever you go every day, whoever you meet, you’re going to learn something from others, no matter who they are, even in the most unexpected moments.”

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at hansen.dave@gmail.com.

An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated that photographer Henry Diltz met the late singer Tom Petty at a "Spring Thing." It was a "Spring Sing."
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