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’Déjà Vu’ in Novato

Déjà vu all over again

To see more of Tom Gundelfinger O’Neal’s work, visit tgophoto.com.

SVMA’s “California Rocks: Photographers Who Made the Scene, 1960 – 1980” is tentatively slated to reopen in August.

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.

Déjà vu all over again

To see more of Tom Gundelfinger O’Neal’s work, visit tgophoto.com.

SVMA’s “California Rocks: Photographers Who Made the Scene, 1960 – 1980” is tentatively slated to reopen in August.

“When Stephen wanted to do what turned in to ‘Déjà Vu’… it was his idea… he loved the vintage era quality of the photos of 1860s and the Mathew Brady photos… it was his inspiration.” That inspiration required some hefty photographic skills, and Gundelfinger started to do the necessary research.

The old tintypes of the era that Stills liked used a big “box” camera with no shutter, requiring a very long (2.5 minute) exposure. This meant the band had to stand perfectly still. But they had been, shall we say, medicating themselves, and had difficulty standing very still. Gundelfinger planned to shoot five plates, but the band said, “Whoa, whoa….we’re done, that’s it,” after only two exposures.

Famously, a neighborhood dog wandered into the photo shoot, and ended up being the seventh set of eyes staring at the camera. He said, “The dog came into the shot while the guys were posing, I told the guys ‘don’t look at the dog,’” Gundelfinger said. “I always have a backup camera, I just kept clicking away while they were standing very still.”

It turns out that the two tintypes he shot were not acceptable. One of the backup shots was used for the cover. He employed some clever photo techniques, added some sepia tone, and a famous cover was created.

The original album was released in 1970. At the time, it was the most expensive package for a record. The leather-like paper was made at a small family owned mill in Georgia. The gold leaf lettering was hand applied, and the photo on the cover on the album was an actual photo that was also hand applied.

Stills told the record executives not to worry about the cost, as they would get their money back. He was correct, as the album soon had a pre-sale pressing of 750,000, a huge number at the time.

“Teach Your Children,” “Our House,” “Carry On,” “Helpless” and “Woodstock” are just some of the songs from “Déjà Vu.” To date, over seven million copies of the album have been sold worldwide. There are rumors of a 50th anniversary reissue album to be released this year.

Gundelfinger had a chance to revisit the house about eight years ago.

“I was in Sonoma shooting the historic cars at the raceway. On the way home, I drove through Novato trying to jog my memory, looking for the house. I did find it, and the woman who lived there was very gracious and let me in. She was the daughter of the man who owned the house way back then.”

The house was much as he remembered it. “It was quite a moving déjà vu experience for me,” he said.

And the tree where the iconic photo was taken still stands in Novato. “Carry On” indeed.

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