By Michael Aushenker
Throughout the 1960s, rock photographer Henry Diltz may have lived off Laurel Canyon, but when he was on assignment on the Westside, he consorted with rock royalty.
The Eagles, The Mamas and the Papas’ Mama Cass, Joni Mitchell, David Geffen, Linda Ronstadt, the Manhattan Transfer and Everclear are among the subjects Diltz photographed professionally and informally across the past five decades.
However, none of his photo sessions were as legendary as the ones he did in Venice for the psychedelic rock band The Doors. Diltz accompanied frontman Jim Morrison and his bandmates on two photo shoots in December 1969: one for their fifth album, “Morrison Hotel,” and another for a series of black and white publicity shots to promote said album.
Before the shoot, when Diltz and his professional partner, art director Gary Burton, asked Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek whether they had any ideas for the new album’s title, the response was “no.” Then, Ray and Dorothy Manzarek had discovered the now-gone Morrison Hotel on 1246 S. Hope St. while driving one day through downtown Los Angeles.
The “Morrison Hotel” shoot proved somewhat rocky. When the Doors arrived with Diltz and Burton at the Morrison Hotel, a man working in the lobby got nervous and told Diltz he could not shoot the band in the establishment without the permission from the owner. As the young man took an elevator to go find the owner, Diltz said he shot the photos in all of five minutes, guerilla style, and the fruits of that session wound up on the cover of “Morrison Hotel.”
Post-shoot, Diltz recalled, “Jim said, ‘Let’s get a drink.’”
They drove to Skid Row, where they found the Hard Rock Café, on 300 E. Fifth St., a holdover from the 1930s. Inside, the pub was crawling with ex-merchant marines and a Native American boy who had fled his reservation, Diltz remembered.
“(Morrison) bought everybody drinks and was interested in their stories,” Diltz said.
Despite the international success of some of the Venice-spawned group’s songs, “they didn’t know who (Morrison) was,” Diltz said.
One of those Hard Rock shots became the rear cover image of the album, which had its sides titled “Hard Rock Café” and “Morrison Hotel.”
“As soon as the album came out (in 1970), the phone rang and there was a voice from England,” Diltz said, laughing. Soon, the Skid Row pub became the namesake for Peter Morton and Isaac Tigrett’s restaurant chain, a global franchise with celebrity partners that dominated the restaurant business in the 1980s and 90s.
Later that December, Diltz said that he and the Doors got into his Volkswagen van, smoked some pot, and hit the Venice Boardwalk for an impromptu publicity photo session that included the Doors under the Venice Pier (where they can be seen watching a surfer riding in with the tide just out of frame) and the band members posing in front of a trompe-l’oeil mural of a row of stores.
“Jim had a bottle of probably Ripple,” Diltz said, laughing.
After shooting a bunch of photos, they all got some food at one of the Doors’ favorite restaurants, a long-gone Mexican restaurant in Venice Beach called the Lucky U.
Diltz remembers nothing out of the ordinary regarding enigmatic Doors frontman Morrison, who died at the age of 27 in 1971.
“He was quirky,” Diltz recalled, “and as much as he liked the limelight, he was shy.”
Even back in 1969, when the Doors were several years into their career as recording artists with international Billboard-charting hits, Diltz and his peers did not foresee the L.A. band as the iconic, ubiquitous and influential pop music legends they became.
“Nobody in the 1960s thought like this,” Diltz said. ‘It was just everyday stuff. Nobody thought it was going to live on.”
Certainly not the Doors, who, in their heyday, did not experience the recognition level enjoyed by The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. Yet since a best-selling biography and a succession of record compilations in the 1980s revived interest in Morrison’s band, the dark pop group has proved enduring.
“I’m not surprised in hindsight,” Diltz said. “He died young, he was a mysterious guy, and left this kind of cryptic poetry.”
Morrison was unpretentious, Diltz confirmed, and the best word Diltz could find to describe Morrison is “bemused. He was quiet. He liked to look at things, drink things in. He was an observer.”
Today, Diltz, based in North Hollywood, runs the 12-year-old Morrison Hotel Gallery out of New York City and a recently opened outlet at the Sunset Marquee hotel, through which he represents some 90 photographers. He also has an image in the Grammy Museum’s current exhibit on Beatles drummer Ringo Starr downtown and, just a few days ago, returned from Las Vegas, where he shot photos of country icon Garth Brooks for an upcoming video release.
Last month, a Los Angeles Times article reported about a mild controversy surrounding a trompe-l’oeil mural on Brooks Avenue in Venice that the Doors stood in front of for a famous Diltz photo during the “Morrison Hotel” sessions. After the mural was discovered under some layers of paint, an artist was hired to restore it since the whereabouts of the original artist had been unknown. Somehow, the original creator caught wind of the project, and he disapproved of the restoration, the Times reported. The artist restoring the mural, the building’s owner, Diltz, and even one of the surviving Doors, drummer John Densmore, were on the same page, while only the original artist apparently objected on the grounds of band exploitation, according to the Times article.
If it weren’t for the mural winding up in Diltz’s photo, “there would be no record of that mural and there would be no re-painting it,” Diltz said.
Diltz has no problem with the mural using the likeness from his original photograph and, like Densmore, he doubts Morrison would have objected or have viewed it as an exploitation of the group.
“I’m an advocate of the artist,” the photographer said. “I’d like to see them in the picture. It makes their spirit live on.”