Doors and Woodstock photographer Henry Diltz’s 'accidental' journey to fame

The Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, and many other musicians have stepped in front of Henry Diltz’s camera. Diltz was the official photographer for historic concerts like Woodstock and Monterey Pop. His archive is said to feature over 800,000 photographs of iconic musicians.

One of his most famous shots is turning 50 this year: the cover photo for The Doors’ 1970 album “Morrison Hotel.” It was shot in downtown LA.

Henry Diltz, now age 81, visits KCRW. Photo by Amy Ta. 

Getting the iconic “Morrison Hotel” cover photo 

Diltz tells Press Play that at the time, the Doors apparently saw the cover photo that he and graphic artist Gary Burden did for the Crosby, Stills and Nash album. 

He recalls, “They called us and said, ‘We want you to do our next album cover. So we went over to their little sort of clubhouse office, and we met Ray Manzarek and Jim Morrison there. I had known them around town. We said, ‘Okay, do you have a title?’ And they said no. We said, ‘Well, do you have some idea of what you want on the cover?’ They said no. And then we're scratching our heads kind of thinking what's next?”

Then, Diltz says, Manzarek shared that he and his wife Dorothy saw a “funky old hotel” called Morrison Hotel during a recent drive through downtown LA, and he and Burden decided, “Wow, that sounds so perfect.” 

Diltz says he then went to the hotel that same day to check it out, along with Burden, Manzarek and Morrison. He came back a week later with the entire Doors band, and they went into the lobby to take photos, but the young man at the reception desk said that wasn’t allowed unless they had permission from the landlord.  

“So I said, ‘Okay guys, we're gonna walk outside and stand in front of the window. They can't stop us.’ And I walked out, and then I saw a light go on through the window. I looked through the window. I said, ‘That's the elevator light. The guy left the desk. Quick you guys, run in there!’ And they ran in, jumped behind the window. Click, click, click. One roll of film. And we got out of there,” Diltz says. 

Realizing he could be a pro photographer: Two epiphanies

When Diltz shot that “Morrison Hotel” album photo, he wasn’t a professionally trained photographer. He was a banjo player in a folk music group. He says that one morning when his band was on the road, they went into a secondhand store and saw a table full of used cameras, and one of the members decided to buy a camera. 

“I thought, ‘Yeah, why not me?’ Grabbed a camera and that was it. Total accident,” Diltz says. 

He says the group then bought film in the drugstore next door, took photos for the next week or two on the road, and developed the film in LA. 

“Lo and behold, they were little slides, little transparencies. I had no idea. I never thought about what it was going to look like. And so I said, ‘Well, let's have a slideshow.’ And when I saw that first picture hit the wall glowing in the dark, eight feet wide, it just blew me away. It was absolute magic,” says Diltz. 

He says at that time, shooting was mainly for slideshows among friends: “I was photographing all my friends in Laurel Canyon who were fellow musicians like David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Mama Cass. … I would take their pictures … so we could have a weekend slideshow.”

He continues, “And then accidentally, one [photo] got used in a magazine, and they paid me 100 bucks and I thought, ‘Wow!’ That was the second epiphany.”

How did musicians respond to Diltz photographing them? 

The Doors in front of the Hard Rock Cafe. Credit: Henry Diltz. 

Diltz says he thinks musicians didn’t even notice him shooting. “I'm more of a documentary type of guy, and I'm fascinated by people. So I don't jump in there and take over because I don't want to make a photo. I want to photograph something that's really happening. So they didn't really notice me as a photographer because of that, and because I was really a musician friend. And musicians, It's a club, really. … Musicians hang out for three-quarters of their life. … I would just hang out until I saw something I wanted to photograph and then very quietly take it.”

Shooting today

The Doors in Venice Beach. Credit: Henry Diltz. 

Diltz says he now has nearly 1 million photos, and half of those are music-related.

“I take at least 100 pictures a day. … I've taken 50 pictures here in the NPR building. … I've been walking around photographing the furniture and the signs, and sneaking pictures of people. I'm stealthy.” 

When asked if there’s anyone he wanted to photograph but couldn’t or didn’t, he points to John Lennon. He says he never photographed the Beatles as a full group, but he shot individual members after John Lennon died. 

“I've photographed … Paul McCartney a lot; Ringo [Starr], I've been on the road with him; and George [Harrison] a little at the concert for Bangladesh. But never photograph John Lennon,” he says. “But no, I'm happy with whom I've photographed and whom I'm photographing and will photograph.”

-- Written by Amy Ta, produced by Rosalie Atkinson