Photographer Robert Altman talks about his amazing career, the sixties, Tim Leary, Jagger and Taj Mahal

"The bright light is that the history we created made indelible changes in the hearts and minds of millions."

Robert Altman: Images of Love, Peace and Trips

Robert Mark Altman is an American photographer. Altman attended Hunter College at the City University of New York. After graduation, Altman was taught photography by Ansel Adams.

He was soon hired as a photojournalist by Rolling Stone magazine. Following his early success as chief staff photographer for Rolling Stone he expanded into fashion photography and fine art.

He became a television producer/director for KEMO-TV, an independent station in the San Francisco Bay Area. For a decade beginning in the mid-90s Altman taught web design and Photoshop as adjunct professor for several institutions including San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley.

Altman has exhibited at Abbey Road Studios in London, The Beat Museum in San Francisco, Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, the Newseum in New York City, the Georgia Historical Society. Altman has been published in dozens of books, magazines and newspapers and his work is a part of the permanent collections of The San Francisco Public Library, The Library of Congress in Washington DC, The Smithsonian Institution, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Kodak Rock Photography Collection.

During the summer of 2009, Altman collaborated with Macy’s Herald Square in New York and filled most of the store's 49 windows with 175 images of his work as part of their "Art Under Glass" series.

In May 2010, he was presented with a Doctor of Arts, Honoris Causa, from Digital Media Arts College. Altman's publication "The Sixties: Photographs by Robert Altman is a  point of reference for Acid culture, Summer of Love, Rock, and Flower Power generation.

(Photo by Joyce Mancini: Robert Altman at Altamont Speedway Free Fest, I969)


Interview by Michael Limnios      Photos  © Robert Altman


Mr. Altman, when did you first desire to become a photographer?

I never decided in the first place that I wanted to become a photographer. I was looking for something creative to do. I had graduated Hunter College with a B.A. in psychology and a minor in anthropology and somehow I found a camera, well I bought one, a Pentax Spotmatic, and I took some pictures. My friends and I started a psychedelic shop in the East Village called the Electric Lotus and I put up some stuff on a bulletin board. Happily I got very positive recognition. Someone who knew photography said, "Hey, that's good," and that got me going.


What has "photography" offered you?

Photography has offered me a special, magical passport, enabling me to enter concerts, social events and in general meet some amazing people that I normally would have limited or zero access to.


What are some of the most memorable shoots you've had?

The most memorable shoot that comes to mind was photographing the Rolling Stones in LA at one of their "Let it Bleed" sessions. The album had yet to be released and I was well aware of that, and their astounding new music, which pumped loudly through the best speakers in the Elektra studio, well, that was sensational. I got to hang out with the band, smoke some dope with the boys, and get some cool shots of Mick and Keith singing. I felt like a 13-year-old inside but I kept my professional cool. It was truly amazing.

What did you learn about yourself from photography and music?

I learned that I like photographing people more than I do photographing nature or landscapes. And one of the things that I love to photograph most are people who are great musicians. It's a blessing to be given entre to special events and be able to make great images at the same time that will last more than my own lifetime.


How does the music come out of your lens?

When the luck is running and the forces come together I shoot to make photographs which tell a story. My greatest success is creating a layered picture where there is more than one story going on in the frame.


How would you describe your connection to people when you are "on a project"?

A photographer wears many hats. He is a technician, a director, a psychologist and an artist. As a photojournalist I am very aware of the subjects I am trying to capture. From the get go I have always beamed forth towards the subject that I admire and support them. Hopefully this makes for a more comfortable setting and soon people allow themselves the grace of being more and more expressive.


What was the most interesting period of your life and why?

I would say, without doubt, that the 60s was the most amazing time in my life; not only in my life but in the lives of so many. I was young and full of beans and I took it upon myself to record that era in history to the best of my ability. I cannot say where this mission came from, I only knew that I tapped into it and spent many years being true and dedicating many, many rolls of film to its existence.

                                       (Photo: Robert Altman during the 60's at Boulder, CO)

What was the best moment of your career and what was the worst?

One of the best times in my career was when I was a photojournalist during the tumult of the 60s and when I shot for Rolling Stone magazine.

Not the worst, but certainly a grey area that lasted years was after the bubble burst from the 60s and I wasn't sure what I would do next. Later on I fell into fashion and commercial photography and that was very, very special.


What are the differences between the 60's & today?  What are the similarities?

Knowing that it's not really fair to compare the 60s with today I'll attempt to address this most natural of questions.

The similarities? Well, youth is youth and youth will always be idealistic, restless and hopefully enthusiastic. In the United States during the 60s, and that includes the early 70s, there was one major difference confronting young men ... and that was the military draft was imposed on us. That meant that one could be yanked out of one's peaceful life and placed in harm's way 6000 miles from home. Unless you've lived that, unless you've felt that all pervasive fear in your core in your stomach, you can only imagine it's impact. That was the wedge and the major driving force which fueled the antiwar movement to a nuclear degree in the 60's.


In your opinion what were the events and personalities that made 60's the center of social conquests?

The 60's were a unique, magical time. There will never be another time quite like it and there shouldn't be. All the ingredients came together for the new, young generation on the rise and sometimes on the run. We were young, idealistic, headstrong, restless, brash, convinced of our righteous path and delighted that we were all together making unforgettable noise.

The ingredients that wove everything into one amorphous, indelible mass included shared music over the radio, on turntables and a concert hall; pharmacology and psychedelics; the underground press; FM talk radio; massive celebrations and anti-war movements; colorful clothes; long hair; 16mm film documentaries and of course photography.



Since the 60s - what has changed for the best for our civilization and culture and what has gone wrong?

I used to think that the progress and advancements we had made were permanent, carved into stone. That was comforting. But, ever since George W. Bush came to office there seemed to be a shift in thinking towards the Right by many AmericansŠ too many. It's sad that we seem to be so divided now.

The bright light is that the history we created made indelible changes in the hearts and minds of millions. This history will always be available in books and online; no one can suppress that. Most of the laws that were enacted towards the advancement of all people will be difficult to undo and one can only hope they will sustain.


What is the "feeling" you miss most nowadays from the '60s, "Beat" and "Hippie" generation?

The feeling I miss most is feeling young and vital but what are you going to do? In my head I am still a vigorous, devilishly handsome 23-year-old running around. Sometimes, it's not easy seeing my friends age. But their souls, thankfully, are intact. When I look into their eyes I always see that they are very much there and I am joyous about that.



Of all the people you've met, who do you admire the most?

The heroes who I've met and known (or hardly knew at all) include Fred Astaire, Tim Leary, Ken Kesey, Francis Coppola, Penny Marshall, Jane Russell, Groucho Marx, Werner Erhard, Dick Cavett, Jerry Lewis, Tony Bennett, Bob Hope, Bill Graham, Chet Helms, Jerry Garcia, Joe Montana, Carlos Santana, Herb Caen, Ronnie Spector, Jack Nicholson, Taj Mahal, Ansel Adams, Bob Dylan and, and... I'd like to add Danny Kaye to this list but, in the end, when we did meet, I was so disappointed in who I thought he really was.


Are there any memories of all great people you on met which you'd like to share with us?

Timothy Leary!

It all happened in 1969 when I was a novitiate photojournalist given the opportunity to get up close and personal with my favorite maverick of the day - Dr. Timothy Leary.

To some Tim was perceived to be a genius. To President Nixon he was "The most dangerous Man in America." You might get the scoundrel Tim or the visionary good Doctor; the excommunicated Harvard Professor or the international luminary. The man had many facets.

The Timothy Leary I got to know was the sunny and charismatic Pied Piper Tim. He was simply and always a joy to be around.

How did I get there? Early on fortune smiled my way. With a pinch of God given talent and some extra hard work I became an accomplished photojournalist. And my camera became my passport. This cachet enabled me to meet some of the remarkable movers and shakers of the Sixties.

Once in a while I was granted even greater intimate access to this wunderkind and let me tell you- it was downright intoxicating hanging with these guys.

And for me Timothy Francis Leary topped them all.

Tim possessed a great and original intellect. But that was just the beginning. This guy knew his way around people. He was a charmer cum laude. Socially, the sun always shone when Tim Leary was around. You might say that when he entered a room the air was sucked out and replaced by pure oxygen. Being in Tim's constellation was a unique experience.

One day in 1969, Tim decided to run for Governor of California. Is it no wonder that Nixon didn't know what to do with him? His campaign slogan was "Come Together - Join the Party."

Tim and his lovely wife Rosemary kicked the campaign off with a Press Conference in Berkeley, California which was the ground zero epicenter of the counter culture. I was there to record the affair for the media. After the event ended we lingered. Tim and Ro needed a ride to San Francisco. I was happy to oblige.

I did the driving while my pal Barbara Mauritz rode shotgun. Tim and Ro occupied the back seat. Somewhere in the middle of the San Francisco Bay bridge Tim's arm reached over. I spot a powdered residue in his palm.

"Want some?"

It could only be one substance, no explanation necessary.

"Wow!" I thought. "This is an occasion."

Sharing acid with the great Tim Leary. I needed no second invite and immediately accepted my guest's granular overture. Physically restricted at this 'moving' moment the only thing I could do was stick out my tongue and lap it up.

I was thrilled. Indeed I trilled inwardly "Hey, I just licked acid off Tim Leary's palm!" This would be one of those 'great moments' I'll share with my grandchildren.

Some time now passes. Lively conversation ensues and soon we decide to go out for dinner. A medium priced Chinese restaurant was chosen and we merry four finally sat down to eat. Once again I was beaming. A young fella of 23 delighted to be in my mentor's company. Bon mots flowed as we reviewed the genial nature of the day's events. Tim and Ro's future look promising.

So much was going on that by this time I completely and absolutely forgot that I had just imbibed a powerful psychedelic. This absurd amnesia became the kernel of my next shocking flash.

We were now in the middle of dinner when I found myself gazing at the good Doctor's face. "Hey, what's going on?" I asked myself. All of a sudden I see Tim's physiognomy in a brand new light. Here it was suddenly respirating, undulating, almost liquefying right in front of me!

My God...the only time I've ever seen this kind of thing was when I was tripping! This guy is the real deal. He must have taken so much acid and evolved so far that his presence alone was enough to raise a psychedelic experience in others. No money down. No chemicals necessary. Talk about "Tune In. Turn on." Holy shit!

Couldn't take my eyes off him. Amazing. What a presence!

This kept on for a good ten minutes...indeed it was stupefying and most profound.

Finally the mental tapes of the palm lick got replayed in my, well let's face it, addled brain. Uh oh. How embarrassing.

Ah, the Sixties. If you remember it you weren't there. Seems I couldn't even remember it as it was happening.



Who from the musicians you have shot, had the most passion for the image & camera?

That is thankfully easy to answer, especially when I think of one great artist, who will remain unmentioned, who was seriously immobile for an entire 36 photo contact sheet.

Those exuding great passion which happily translated to the camera and were wonderfully expressive include Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Taj Mahal, Elton John, Iggy Pop and Ray Charles. Happily, they come to my mind's eye instantly.


Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from your shootings at gigs and festivals?

One of the first festivals I ever shot was the Big Sur Folk Festival in 1968 and then again in 1969. I was allowed wide access; popular talent abounded and I was able to come up with some really fine photographs over a 4 day period. In fact, it yielded a Rolling Stone cover photograph of David Crosby. The entire experience and the resultant work is crystal in my memory.


What is the strangest desire someone requested during a shooting?

One desire came from Mick Jagger - "Can we get some pizza?" he asked. But that wasn't so strange, was it?


Which memory during of your shooting makes you smile?

I was assigned to shoot the Gold Rush Festival and my vantage point was the back of the stage, behind the performers. I was taking some cool pictures of Taj Mahal. Security must have been sparse. All of a sudden an audience member made it onto the stage with his viewfinder camera. No one stopped him. He had to put his blanket over his head to shade the sun while he was looking through the viewfinder. I laughed then and I laugh now reviewing the photo I caught of him.

What advice would you give to aspiring photographers?

When asked what ingredient makes a photographer great, I usually say, "Pay attention!"

"The Fan" is an appropriately illustrative.  My focus was the legendary Tina Turner and my assignment from Rolling Stone was to capture her likeness.  I earned a dividend when I spotted this riveted face framed by Tina's legendary gams.  I lowered my lens and that was that.


What advice would you give to aspiring photographers thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Several things come to mind: make sure you possess above average talent; make sure your heart is in it; study professionally if you are able;  be prepared to have a secondary job until you get going. If you were born to do this and have great desire, nothing will stop you.


Is there any shooting where you made mistakes, but now you're proud of?

Here is the deal that probably happens with all photographers. You do a shoot. You think that one or 2 shots were amazing. You hope that you were in focus and had the right exposure; (this was during the age of film.) You hope you did okay. Many many times the shots that I thought were amazing- weren't. The magic happens when you discover a very special photograph that you had no idea was that good at the time of the shooting. That's one of the mystical aspects of photography.



Robert Altman - Official website


Robert Altman's photo from Tim Mantoani's project "Behind Photographs"

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