’Déjà Vu’ in Novato
The current exhibit at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art has been shuttered by the COVID-19 pandemic. The exhibit was open to the public for about one week, and was titled “California Rocks: Photographers who made the scene, 1960 -1980.” Out of a total of 70 images, it included eight photos shot by the well-known Los Angeles-based photographer Henry Diltz.
One of the images that Diltz is best known for is the cover shot for the self-titled debut album by Crosby, Stills and Nash. The trio was captured sitting on a sofa in front of an old house in West L.A. It was a photo that millions of listeners poured over when it was released in 1969.
Diltz also was responsible for the 19 photos inside the gatefold of their second album, or technically, the first album by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Called “Déjà Vu,” the album was released in 1970. Diltz shot those photos at the home of Stephen Stills and in the recording studios where the legendary album was cut.
However, the groundbreaking cover photo, showing the band wearing period garb from the Civil War era, was taken by Tom Gundelfinger. The tree the band posed in front of was in the backyard of a home David Crosby was renting in Novato at the time.
Gundelfinger, 78, was reached by phone while relaxing in his Carmel Valley home. He spoke at length about his career as a rock and roll photographer, and later as a commercial photographer. (Today, the photographer works under the name Tom Gundelfinger O’Neal, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll use simply Gundelfinger, the name credited when the ‘Déjà Vu’ photo was taken.)
There was one caveat to the conversation, “I just want to tell you, I cannot reveal where the house is,” Gundelfinger warned me, “the owner does not want it to become some sort of shrine.”
Gundelfinger was raised in the Los Angeles area, and went to art and design school in Chicago. Rock and roll was just about to kick into high gear in early 1967. While staying with a friend in Pacific Grove, he had the occasion to drive to San Francisco to see the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service. Quite enamored of this new, exciting style of music, he wandered into a record store in Carmel one day to browse.
At the time, he was teaching himself photography and possessed a firm background in design, but had not developed his own direction.
“I started to look at albums, and one caught my eye,” he said. “It was by the Mamas and Papas and was called ‘Deliver.’ It was a very animated cover. I looked at it and said to myself, ‘This is what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna be a rock and roll photographer and I’m gonna do album covers.’“
Gundelfinger lacked the necessary connections to make it happen but this was the 1960s; anything was possible.
One day, he spotted a short article about a proposed music festival to be held in Monterey. A public hearing was scheduled.
“A limo pulled up and these very rich hippies climbed out. I had never seen people dressed like that,” he said. Luck found him standing near the would-be producers, Lou Adler and John Phillips, as they pitched the idea to the Monterey police department.
Adler was a very successful L.A. record producer and Phillips was one of the “papas” in the Mama and Papas. Timing was perfect, the connection was sealed, and Gundelfinger found himself on stage a few weeks later photographing the Monterey Pop Festival.
“I was about 10 feet away from Jimi Hendrix when he lit his guitar on fire,” Gundelfinger said. He is not the one responsible for the iconic photo of the incendiary guitarist kneeling on stage before his inflamed Stratocaster, but his time on stage with the camera opened many a door.
He shot several rolls of action photos of the Byrds, who also appeared that weekend. Gundelfinger got to know their manager, started hanging out with David Crosby, and cemented his role as the photographer of that circle of musicians.
Lou Adler and John Phillips were the producers of the festival and it went on to spawn all these other rock festivals around the world. Ah, connections.
The Byrds soon broke up. The legendary meeting of ex-Buffalo Springfield member Stephen Stills, ex-Hollie Graham Nash and ex-Byrd David Crosby at Joni Mitchell’s house led to the first rock supergroup.
Gundelfinger was able to spend time with CSN as they prepared for their famous debut at Woodstock. Gundelfinger followed the trio to Bethel, New York, where he was one of the official photographers of that era-defining rock festival.
Gundelfinger was busy with other projects when Diltz shot the first cover for CSN. But when it came time to assemble the cover for the next record, after Neil Young had been added to the group, they turned to Gundelfinger.