I still remember the first time I heard Bob Dylan, 16 years old and in the backseat of a hire car, rain lashing on the windows. I couldn’t really picture Memphis, I didn’t really know what the blues were – at least not properly, clinically defined ones – but that didn’t really matter. In the seven minutes of “Stuck Inside Of Mobile…”, imagery passed by with such vivid colour that it felt as if I had lived through every verse, even if I didn’t really understand a word of the lyrics and probably never would.
Taken from his 1966 album Blonde on Blonde, the song is arguably Dylan at his creative peak. Released shortly after he first went electric and recorded around the time he was peaking on acid and amphetamine, it is part of a trilogy of albums – the big, influential ones that you’ll see in all the old folk rock magazines – that were created before he had a motorcycle accident and disappeared from the public eye for almost eight years, reemerging a little more sad and a little more weathered.
Though he’s since taken on several different images – born-again Christian, weird dude in a Victoria’s Secret commercial, never-ending touring icon – the Dylan you have in your mind’s eye is likely the Dylan of the 60s: the tall man with the big hair and the cigarettes and the thin trousers. This is the Dylan of documentaries No Direction Home and Don’t Look Back, the Dylan of “Like A Rolling Stone”, and the Dylan in all the banging rock photography that doesn’t seem to exist in the way it did back then.
As one of the people behind the lens of those photographs, Jerry Schatzberg helped bring that era to life. Now in his nineties, he’s lived the kind of artistic life most people can only dream about. As well as photographing Dylan, most famously for the Blonde on Blonde album cover, he co-owned the club Ondine, which hosted everyone from The Beatles to The Doors to Jimi Hendrix when he was still Jimmy James; and he’s also directed a bunch of films, including Panic in Needle Park, which introduced the world to Al Pacino. Plus he shot The Beatles at their infamous Shea Stadium concert and took the first (and maybe only?) photograph of the Rolling Stones wearing dresses.
Jerry is releasing the book Dylan by Schatzberg, a collection of his most famous Dylan photographs, so I called him up from London to chat about how he got into photography, how you prep for shooting an icon, and what New York was like back in the 60s.
Noisey: You got into photography quite late, right?
Jerry: I was married, I had two kids. I was 27. I was in the family business, they were furriers, and I hated it every single day. I would do what I had to do, the minimum of it. I used to hang out in retail photography shops, not that I’m a technical nut or anything like that but it was the closest thing that interested me. I worked there for four or five years, then I saw an ad in the New York Times for a photographic assistant. I didn’t know what that was about, but I called, he was a headhunter, I told him my story, he laughed and said ‘Come on in, I’ll see what I can do.’
What interested you about photography? I guess you must have been shooting before then, as well.
Very little. I had a plastic camera, I took pictures, some of them were quite good. Then I got a 35mm camera and I did some pictures of the kids, but I wasn’t really interested in it, I didn’t explore it at all.
It’s wild that you didn’t know much about photography, then you went to the New York Times. Did fashion photography and your work with Vogue come next?
The first place that New York Times headhunter sent me was Lillian Bassman’s studios; she’s a wonderful photographer but back then I didn’t know who she was. Her studio blew me away: everything was black and white with a touch of red and a touch of orange. It was something that I’d never heard about when I was in school. She interviewed me for her husband, who was in France at the time. They were interested in employing me and I was interested but they could only offer me $25 at the time, and that was just too much of a burden for me to carry with a family.
How soon after that did you start shooting for the big fashion magazines?
That was about two and a half, three years later.
You met Dylan through Nico, right? It’s crazy to me that you were hanging out with these people. Is that just how New York was back then or had you gotten into the right crowd?
By the time that happened I had already been working. I had worked for Vogue, I had worked for Glamour, I had worked for McCall’s. I didn’t meet Dylan until 1965, but I started working with my own studio in 1954. I was doing fashion and I did a lot of tests of young ladies who were coming into the city and wanted to be models. The model agency had about ten or 15 assistants that they would call up to do tests on these potential models, which gave them photographs and gave us people to photograph. Nico was a model, so I met her through work.
How did Dylan come into it?
We were friends; Nico and I – and her and another gal I was doing test shots for were both into Dylan. Between the two of them, they were like, ‘Have you heard Dylan yet?’, and I would reply ‘Yes, yes, I will.’ I remember being in Paris and Nico called me from the desk downstairs – she knew I was in Paris – and she said, ‘Have you heard Dylan yet?’ It was a running joke with us. I said ‘I will’, and I did. I was amazed, he really blew me away.
It’s almost like he’s a painter, the way he uses words to create a portrait.
Yeah, abstract expressionist.
You owned a club too, right? And it was the hot spot in New York back in the 60s?
I was part-owner in a discotheque called Ondine. We were quite successful for a while. By that time I was already friendly with the Stones and a lot of musicians. We had Diana Ross, The Stones, The Beatles – they all came here. They were here to have fun. They knew they wouldn’t be hassled.
How do you shoot an icon like Dylan? How did you feel comfortable?
By that time I was quite experienced, and I always used the metaphor – I photographed your Duke of Windsor after he abdicated the throne, so I photographed the former king of England, I don’t have to worry about anything anymore. Each sitting is different, but I try to communicate as much as possible to make people feel at ease.
What’s something you’ve learned from photographing Dylan?
It’s difficult to say. We had a relationship, we were friends, we’d hang out, we’d have meals, we’d go to clubs. The thing that I like is that people look at photographs, and according to what they know he’s supposed to be difficult, but he wasn’t difficult. We got along. One of the people that recommended me was Al Aronowitz and he was a premier rock’n’roll journalist and we got on really well. And the other was his wife, who I knew long before he did. She was one of the two women who was telling me about Dylan all the time.
What’s one photograph in the book that stands out?
I think the cover of Blonde on Blonde stands out for me. I started doing that in the studio, then felt I wasn’t getting anywhere, so I asked Dylan if he would come out with me into the streets. He was wearing this light suede jacket. I put on a light jacket also. But it was quite cold, it was February, it was freezing, and it took me a lot of concentration to get the camera steady. I got four or five images that were moving and out of focus and one of those is the image he chose [for the cover.]
I wonder why he picked that one.
I wonder why he uses the lyrics he uses. That’s Dylan. He saw something unique and he hadn’t seen any other covers that looked like that and wanted something special.
He had such a distinct look in those days and in all of your photographs.
Oh, he set the pace in those days. Everyone was trying to dress like him, look like him. It surprises me that he’s changed so much and why he’s desperately trying to look like an old cowboy now.
Let’s also talk briefly about the picture you took of Rolling Stones in dresses, which is also in the book. How did that come about?
Their manager called me up one day and they had a single called “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby (Standing In The Shadow)”. He thought maybe they would dress them like their grandmothers and all of that appealed to me. What I didn’t want to do was make it British, so I made them dress American. They loved it. I photographed them backstage and they wanted to wear the underwear: they wanted everything.
Thanks Jerry, it was great to chat.
You can find Ryan on Twitter.
'Dylan by Schatzberg' is available now, via ACC Art Books.