Meet the Photographer Who Caught Bob Dylan in His Prime
Jerry Schatzberg shot everybody who was anybody in the ’60s, from Hendrix to Castro, and went on to make great movies. But his photographs of Dylan are in a class by themselves.
A creative career that arcs from accomplished photographer to celebrated filmmaker is hardly unique. Robert Frank, Chris Marker, and Stanley Kubrick, to name a few, all began as still photographers and then made the leap to moviemaking. But few artists have left as indelible a mark on both pursuits as Jerry Schatzberg. In the ’60s, he photographed cultural icons—Jimi Hendrix, Edie Sedgwick, Fidel Castro—for magazines like Esquire, Vogue, McCall's, and LIFE. In the ’70s, his earliest movies—Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970, with Faye Dunaway), The Panic in Needle Park (1971, with Al Pacino and Kitty Winn, who won Best Actress at Cannes), and Scarecrow (1973, with Pacino and Gene Hackman; Palme d'Or at Cannes)—would become touchstones of a fraught era.
But for sheer, sustained excellence, Schatzberg's portraits of Bob Dylan stand alone. In an 18-month supernova of creative energy, from early 1965 through mid-1966, Dylan recorded and released three of the most influential albums ever made: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. Schatzberg met Dylan in the midst of that astonishing run, during the Highway 61 sessions in New York in '65, and photographed him through '66. (The famous, out-of-focus portrait gracing the cover of Blonde on Blonde is Schatzberg's.)
A beautiful new book, Dylan by Schatzberg (ACC Art Books), brims with the best of those pictures. In an interview with The Daily Beast, the 91-year-old Bronx native discusses the rewards and challenges of working with Dylan, the real story behind that Blonde on Blonde picture, and making peace with his own fame—or lack of it. The interview, conducted by phone and at the Upper West Side apartment where Schatzberg has lived for five decades, has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity. — BC
How did you first meet Dylan? And were you already a fan when you started photographing him?
I was a fan—but I came to his music kind of late. Two gals, models I'd photographed in the early ’60s, kept telling me I had to listen to him. One was Nico—who went on to sing with the Velvet Underground, of course—and the other was Sara Lownds.
Sara, as in "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" Sara.
Right. She inspired some great songs, and later married Dylan. Anyway, every time I saw either Sara or Nico I'd hear about how amazing Dylan was. So I finally listened to him—and they were right. I was just knocked out. It was like nothing I'd ever heard.
Why did it take you so long to really listen to his music?
That's a good question. I don't know. I might have rejected it because people wouldn't stop hounding me about him. Perversity, I guess. [Laughs] Maybe I was tired of hearing about how great he was.
But that changed when you paid attention to his lyrics.
Oh, yeah. The first time I really listened to him I was in my studio and, almost absent-mindedly, put on Bringing It All Back Home. I'd had the record for a while but never listened to it. I started to have this uneasy feeling. I didn't know what the hell was going on. I didn't understand what he was singing about. So I stopped, put the needle back on the record, and it hit me. "So this is Dylan!" From that moment, I was a fan.
Not long after that, Al Aronowitz [the rock journalist famous for introducing Dylan to the Beatles] and a disc jockey named Scott Ross [a "left-wing Jesus freak," according to Aronowitz, and now a TV host on Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network] were in my studio. They had been with Dylan the day before, and out of the blue I said, "Hey, next time you see him, tell him I'd like to photograph him." The next day I get a call from my old friend Sara, who was living with Dylan at that point, and she says, "Bobby hears you want to photograph him." She gave me the address of the studio where he was recording, and off I went.
Did you and Dylan hit it off? He's always had a reputation as a prickly guy. Was that your experience?
No, that wasn't my experience at all. He gets annoyed with bullshit, with journalists asking him the same questions over and over, and I understand that. But we got along right away. The first thing he said when I walked in was, "Oh, you gotta to hear this," and he played me the last thing he recorded. I don't remember what song it was—I wish I did.
He did that with a lot of people. For example, Phil Ochs dropped by my studio one day when Dylan was there, and right away Dylan tells Phil he has to hear this new song he's been working on. Phil didn’t like it, and said so, and for the rest of the day they were going at each other over that one song. But it has to be that way with creative people—otherwise, you don't have real friendships, and you don't get real results.
You were photographing Dylan for much of '65 and well into '66. Then he had a motorcycle accident and was out of commission for a while, and you were gearing up for your first film. But for two years you documented an artist who was clearly on fire, recording and releasing one groundbreaking record after another.
That's right. It was an amazing thing to witness, and I was lucky to be there when he was, as you say, on fire.
I want to talk quickly about the Blonde on Blonde cover photo, not only because it's so recognizable, but because there's been speculation for years that you were trying to make a statement—maybe about the drug culture—by intentionally shooting Dylan out of focus.
None of that stuff is true. I was hired to shoot the cover for Blonde on Blonde, but none of the pictures I was getting in my studio were all that special. They were good, soulful, but I didn't feel that any of them would make an album cover. I remembered going to the Meatpacking District with my parents when I was a kid, and I always thought it was a really interesting part of town. So I asked Bobby if he wanted to go there to take some pictures, and he was all for it—even though it was early February and he only had a jacket and a scarf.
I could have put on a heavy coat, but he was in his little jacket, and for some reason I figured I should be in my little jacket, too. So we're outside, both of us freezing, and a handful of the pictures came out blurry because my hands were shaking. It turns out he liked the blurry ones and chose one for the cover. I thought the record label would never go for it, but Dylan had a lot of sway by then and could make those decisions. I just loved it.
So one of the most famous pictures in rock history was taken by a photographer whose hands were shaking because he was cold?
That feels sort of like a rock and roll moment in itself.
[Laughs] I guess it does.
So many of the pictures in the new book capture how striking Dylan was back then—almost like he stepped out of a Pre-Raphaelite painting or something, with that hair and those fine, intense features.
It's amazing how many women who have seen the book have said to me, "Oh, he's so beautiful!" But even if I thought that myself at one time, I got past it and was trying to get to Dylan's soul, his sense of humor—the inner man. And I think I did. I hope I did.
You were a photographer who moved into filmmaking. Can you talk about the skills needed for both? What's similar, or different, between the two endeavors?
The most important thing in filmmaking is the script. Everything flows from that—then the acting, the lighting, the cinematography, all the rest. The corresponding element in still photography is the subject, the subject matter. When taking pictures, that's my script—the person in front of me, whatever it is about them that makes them special. Sometimes it takes a while to find out what that is.
You know, I'm always asked what it felt like to be part of the revolution in cinema in the early ’70s, but I didn't know anything about that. I was just trying to make movies. I had some stories I knew I wanted to tell, so I moved from photography into filmmaking. There was no grand plan.
You mentioned having to find out what makes a person special if you're going to photograph them, and there are definitely other famous figures in the new book besides Dylan, like the Stones—in drag—and there's a wonderful portrait of Edie Sedgwick. She looks happy, and the portrait is filled with cool elements—like the long, long ash on her cigarette and the drops of liquid falling from her glass. Did you like working with her?
I didn't know Edie very well when she came to my studio. I'd met her before, though, and when Albert Grossman [legendary manager for Dylan, the Band, Janis Joplin, and others] asked me to photograph her, I said sure. But when I asked him what it was for, he said, "I don't know, I just feel there's something there." He was right. There was definitely something there. She was special. It's no secret that people took advantage of her. I ran into Andy [Warhol] on the street with [filmmaker] Barbara Rubin a day or two before she came to my studio, and when I mentioned I was going to photograph Edie, there was this heavy silence. Andy liked to possess his superstars, and to control their fame when it was attached to him.
Anyway, Edie was in a great mood during the shoot. I approached photo sessions like they were conversations, collaborations, and it was that way with her. Afterward I asked if she wanted to go up to the Apollo Theater to see Otis Redding, so we went up there and had a great time. I just thought she was a sweetheart.
You say that nonchalantly. "Yeah, I took Edie Sedgwick to an Otis Redding show at the Apollo."
[Laughs] Well, if she didn't want to go, I would've gone by myself.
Your Dylan pictures have been out in the world for a long time. It's probably safe to say that millions of people have seen at least some of them. But hardly anyone knows who took them. Does that bother you? Or is it just a drawback of the job—that so few photographers, alive or dead, are known to the general public?
I can answer that this way: One of my best friends didn't know that I shot the Blonde on Blonde cover until a couple of months ago. It's true. We were here at my apartment, and I had the album out for some reason and when I said something about shooting that photograph, he stops me and says, "Wait. You took that photo?" He had no idea!
Most people don't stop to wonder who takes photographs of models, or rock stars—even if a photo ends up on the cover of an album like Blonde on Blonde. That's the way it is. But Jeff Rosen, who's been Dylan's manager for years, has always said that the pictures in this book are the best photographs of Dylan he's ever seen. And that's something. [Laughs] I'll take it.