In July of 1964, just one year before he made his controversial switch from acoustic to electric, 21-year-old photographer Douglas R. Gilbert spent a period of time living alongside Bob Dylan.
Having pitched the idea to LOOK magazine, Gilbert was commissioned to spend time with Dylan at his home in Woodstock, New York, in Greenwich Village before ultimately joining him for an iconic performance at the Newport Folk Festival.
During his time with Dylan, who was only 23 years of age at the time, Gilbert would encounter impromptu renditions of some now-iconic songs, be present for conversations between the likes of Joan Baez, John Sebastian and Alan Ginsburg as he was handed an intimate experience in the early life of one of the music influential figures in pop culture.
Despite Gilbert going behind the scenes with Dylan, his article was never published LOOK magazine. After submitting his piece after what must have been a whirlwind few weeks, editors reviewed his proposed layout before coming to the conclusion that Dylan’s image was “too scruffy for a family magazine” and killed the story.
For years Gilbert sat on his rolls of film, not releasing the images to the public despite Dylan’s astronomical rise to fame in the years that followed their meeting. In 2006 though, after being approached by author Dave Marsh, Gilbert finally collected his historic images of a young Dylan and created his book Forever Young: Photographs of Bob Dylan which chronicles his early rise.
We’re focusing on your series of images of Bob Dylan, could you explain how you came to be in this position to photograph him?
“I went to work at LOOK in April 1964 and at the end of that month I went to the editors and proposed a story on Bob Dylan. I told them that I thought he was going to be a very important figure in music, and though he wasn’t very well known now he was going to be and really take off, and I think we should do this story on him. They said, ‘Okay, we’ll let you know’. They had their meeting where they decided on a lot of stories, and they came back and said, ‘Okay, we want you to do it’.
“They assigned a writer who arranged for me to meet with Dylan and the rest is history. I went to meet with him in Woodstock and spent about a week and a half, altogether. He came to New York and I photographed him in Greenwich Village and then up in Newport Rhode Island at the Newport Folk Music Festival.”
Detail, if you could, how your relationship with Dylan developed. How did you work together when you were creating your series? How was Dylan’s mood in the different locations that you were shooting him?
“I knew that Dylan was not fond of the press, so I told him verbally that I didn’t want to interfere with him and that I wanted to be an observer, just a fly on the wall—off stage stuff (there was a lot of on-stage stuff already), and he just said ‘Alright, that’s cool’.
“He seemed to enjoy sitting around the café with friends and just talking – about anything. Just relaxed and enjoying the company and not being on stage.
“At the house he was living in, he was relatively relaxed. I don’t recall any negative things or emotions at the house. Friends would stop by in the evenings – one night he spent awhile watching TV all by himself. That’s when I got the photo of him watching Dean Martin with a glass of wine. He watched for a bit and then joined his friends in the kitchen for some snacks.
“Because much of my time with him was not on stage – he had more variety of moods but they were quite relaxed. Before performing – he was like many musicians, he shut down the outside and moved inward to prepare psychologically for the performance.”
You spent time with Dylan before his music changed from acoustic to electric, did you sense that he was going through a transitional time in his life?
“Transitional time in his life? No, I don’t think I was aware of it. In retrospect, I had a nagging feeling that he had taken his music to a certain point where he couldn’t keep repeating the same music he had been doing. He had to reinvent or change before too long. Where can he go next?
“While I was with him, he only played electric at the café in Woodstock with John Sebastian. I was surprised he turned electric but I wasn’t angry about it as some die-hard folk fans were. I thought it was an interesting progression and obviously successful.”
What did you seek to capture most in your series with Dylan? how did you want to make your work different from the thousands of images that had been taken of him at that point?
“When I approached the editors for permission to do the story and told them about Dylan (because they never heard of him). I felt he was going to be really big and they would get a leg up. The angle I wanted, which is rare even still, was I wanted to play down the stage stuff. Who is this person? Who are his friends? What does he do in his downtime? Where is he allowed to be 22? A few onstage, of course, to tie it in – this is what interested the editors.
“I wanted to connect the reader to the person not just the performer. Something they could latch onto as a little bit like themselves.”
Please could you run us through your creative process? What distinctive imagery are you looking for in your work?
“I always begin with an idea or concept that I can work on overtime in a way that allows me to explore many aspects of the idea until I find the one that seems most capable of leading me into a seemingly never-ending exploration. It’s a process of discovery thru examination over time with my subject.
“For a project like Dylan, I went in with some knowledge gleaned from reading and fans to get a handle on who he was. Then I might make myself a list of 3-4 things for exploration that would lead me to discover who the person really is. Lots of unobtrusive observation of the subject interacting with people close to him. Then looking for situations which arose naturally where I could see these things played out through his interactions. I do very little interruption of the subject. I let the subject lead me. As a result, I find there are more cooperation and trust built as the story develops.”
Looking back, reflecting on your time with Dylan, what stands out the most in your memory? Do you have any interesting stories from your time with him?
“There was one day where I drove Dylan and John Sebastian around in a little Dodge car. I remember Sebastian in the back seat and Dylan in the front seat. Sebastian was playing ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ well before it was ever released while Dylan sat smiling and nodding his head. I was surprised to hear it when it was released on the next album as I recognised it from that moment. At one point, in that same car ride, Dylan yelled for me to stop the car which I did in the middle of an intersection. He jumped out and we watched him grab a National Enquirer out of a newspaper stand. He read it for a moment, put it back and got back in the car and said: ‘Nah..’
“The purpose of our drive was to go to a record shop in a town about 20 miles away to pick up a record that was just released by a British female artist that Dylan wanted to get. While we were all in the store browsing around he was approached by a woman who had been watching him and, a bit starry-eyed, she sputtered out, ‘Are you…? You’re ummm..? Are you him?’ And he looked at her and said, ‘No, I’m not him’. And we all left.
“There was another time when we were at the house with a few of his friends and Alan Ginsburg. They were headed out to the pool so I ran ahead to set up at the edge of the pool. I heard laughing but didn’t know what was going on. I looked behind me to find Ginsburg standing over me with a large tree branch as if he was going to use it to toss me in the pool. Thankfully he didn’t but we all got a good laugh out of it.
“Once after an afternoon concert, on a small stage, Dylan was getting ready to leave and I asked if I could go with him. He said yes and we all got into a car that was waiting only to discover I am sitting across from Joan Baez. She never spoke much the few times I saw her but it was a little unexpected to run into her that way.”
What attracts you to a certain subject or field?
A sense of mystery that is just under the surface of the appearance of things. The light plays a major role in revealing or hiding the mystery. he task is: ‘How can I come closest to finding that mystery and making it visible?’ Ultimately, you can’t describe it in words.
“The more words you use the more you take out of the image and the more erroneous you are – you can’t just name what it is. We are a very verbal culture and it seems as if everything is reduced to words. Words make the mystery more and more elusive because it is not experienced in words.”
Is there a specific moment that you can recall that made you want to pursue photography?
“What got me really interested was when I was in the 7th or 8th grade, I went to a school with 3 grades in one room and we would have these show-n-tells. And, one kid had come to class who had made some photographic prints from materials that his uncle, who worked at Kodak in Rochester, New York, had sent him—like old out-of-date paper and chemicals for him to just mess with. Well, I was intrigued.
“We were friends so I asked him if I could see how that worked. So, I went home with him that afternoon and he showed me what to do: exposing the paper, then dipping into the developer, then the stop bath, fixer, and finally washing it. Because I was interested, and because he had so much of it, he gave me a bunch of paper and chemicals that I took home that afternoon.
“Well, I wasn’t planning ahead very well, so I was looking around for something to put all these chemicals in once I mixed them up. I got some old cereal bowls from my mother and I took them into the basement at night, where it was rather dark. One of the first things I did was to hold up a live chicken against the paper while I turned the light on and off really quickly. I developed it and saw this shadow-gram of my hand holding a chicken and thought it was pretty amazing.
“I started making shadow grams of different things, but then I wanted to make some prints from negatives.”
What do you think makes a certain photograph stand out from the norm? What makes a certain photograph memorable?
“I feel like you would have to be looking at concrete examples. If you are looking at portraits you have a whole range of attempts to show the personality of the person you are photographing. Those that remain at a very superficial level, in terms of understanding of the person being photographed, as opposed to being drawn in and moved by a portrait of a subject that the photographer spent time with and worked at drawing out.
“Landscape that has a sense of order in what was included in the photograph, printed well by the photographer – paying attention to, among other things, the lighting. It really begins to get at something more interesting and complicated than a casual snapshot.
“In summary, the person that makes photographs that are studied and presented well in terms of composition, creative use of lighting and a distinctive way of looking at that landscape, is what I look for.”
How have you developed your own distinct aesthetic within photography?
“Practice, practice, practice!”
To view more work by Douglas R. Gilbert visit his official website, here.