Famed Photographer Jerry Schatzberg on How His Association (And Friendship) With Bob Dylan Started
The photographer-director also talks about his unused snaps of the Beatles.
For an extended period throughout the early 1960s, photographer Jerry Schatzberg kept hearing about a fledgling singer-songwriter his friends said he just had to check out. "An aspiring model I knew named Sara [Lownds] kept talking about this guy named Bob Dylan she was seeing," Schatzberg recalls. "But I didn't get around to listening to him." Eventually another friend, German actress and singer Nico (who sang on the first Velvet Underground record and appeared in Fellini's La Dolce Vita), implored Schatzberg to do the same. "I remember she once called me in my hotel room in Paris and was like, 'Jerry, have you heard Bob Dylan yet?!' I said, 'I will!' And I did. I was absolutely knocked out."
At the time, Schatzberg was an in-demand photographer who would frequently hobnob with the legends of the day. "I had a fairly large career before I actually met Dylan," says Schatzberg, who is now 91 years old and resides in New York City. "I always said that once I photographed the ex King of England (Edward VIII), what was left?" The answer lied in the form of a spur-of-the-moment meeting between Schatzberg and Dylan, set up by the aforementioned Sara who'd later become the singer-songwriter's first wife. "I think Sara (talked me up), because I was invited to meet him while he was recording Highway 61 Revisited," explains Schatzberg of Dylan's 1965 landmark album that featured the iconic "Like a Rolling Stone." "I went to the studio, I don't remember what song he was working on that day, but he just stopped playing and wanted me to hear the album. He's usually a bit snarky with the press (but was genial with me), so I started taking pictures. I arrived in the morning and was there the entire day."
That impromptu photo session began not only a close friendship with the closely-guarded Dylan, but a working relationship that saw Schatzberg photograph the singer-songwriter throughout a turning point in his career, including the cover of his 1966 album Blonde on Blonde. Many of his photographs are chronicled in the new book, aptly titled Dylan by Schatzberg, which features a treasure trove of both famed and rare images of the icon. "I don't know why we connected, but we sort of got along," muses Schatzberg of the collaboration. "I'm sure it helped that I knew Sara and he felt cool with me."
Throughout clubbing together and getting drinks at places like New York's Kettle of Fish, Schatzberg and Dylan forged a bond, with the photographer witnessing a legend in the making. Shortly after Dylan famously went electric to the shock of the traditional folk crowd at the Newport Folk Festival in the summer of 1965, Schatzberg was present for his follow-up performances in New York, which elicited a similar reaction. "I remember they booed him at Forest Hills too. Afterwards, we all went back to his manager Alan Grossman's apartment and Dylan said, 'I don't care (what they thought). I'm gonna do what I want to do.' And he did, and wound up being right."
Tandem to having a front row seat to Dylan's rise to legendary status, Schatzberg is bursting with stories of working with a bevy of the biggest name in '60s culture, whether Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix or Andy Warhol. Take for instance Schatzberg at an intimate lunch in London when a scraggly-looking chap came in. "He wasn't too clean; had long hair and long fingernails and introduced himself as Mick Jagger," remembers Schatzberg of the Rolling Stones frontman. "We started talking and he said he was playing later that night at a club outside of town."
With that, Schatzberg, the Stones and their entourage bussed to the venue only to realize they couldn't get close to the stage door due to the throngs of fans waiting outside. "So Mick left the bus and made a run for it, and they were all pulling on him and tore his sweater." Once their entourage took the seats in their theater, two British bands took the stage before the Stones: one in matching yellow outfits and another in matching blue outfits. "We figured the Stones were changing into their outfits, but when they came out on stage they were wearing the same things they had on earlier in the day, with Mick wearing the same torn sweater. You knew immediately they were different."
Schatzberg also crossed paths with another British band that was making waves around the world at the time. "Esquire magazine wanted a Christmas cover, so I went back over to London and had a half hour sitting booked with the Beatles." After running into the Fab Four at a club and hitting it off the night before, Schatzberg found the next day they had clammed up. "There were other people there to shoot them like me and I was suddenly just another photographer to them." Despite being decked out in velvet top hats and scarves, an ode to Charles Dickens, when Schatzberg's editor at Esquire asked how it went, the photographer was frank. "I said I didn't think I got what I wanted. He said, 'Okay,' and didn't even ask to see the pictures. Two years later, I looked at them again and they were terrific, but at the time I felt I hadn't really done it." To this day, those pictures have never been seen by the public. "I recently reached out to Apple to see what they'd want to do with them."
It was Dylan, though, that became one of Schatzberg's favorite subjects, a Camelot period that ended when Schatzberg left the world of photography behind for filmmaking (he directed Al Pacino in the '70s classics The Panic In Needle Park and Scarecrow) and Dylan began taking on a low profile after a motorcycle accident in Woodstock, NY, nearly cost him his life.
Looking back, Schatzberg is nonchalant about a distinguished career. "I think when you're in the business, you just get used to it."