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David Myers: Cameraman To The Rock Stars

Randall Robinson By

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If you analyze that exchange, how swift he was and alert to ironies, societies and values, then what can you say, This man is a cameraman-director. —Michael Wadleigh (Woodstock)
Of the film documenters of rock's history, cameraman David Myers was the one truly at the epicenter of rock film nirvana. Just one of Myers' major friends and filmic collaborators was Bob Dylan, who in April 2008 received an honorary Pulitzer Prize, cited for his "profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power." With Dylan having a banner year, it might be appropriate to take a look at Myers' film work. Myers was one of Dylan's close friends and a trusted collaborator on many of his film projects.



Chapter Index

  1. Cinematographer David Myers
  2. Mt. Tamalpais California
  3. Woodstock
  4. Neil Young on Film Making
  5. Cinema Verite'
  6. Elvis on Tour
  7. The Grateful Dead Concert
  8. Gimme Shelter
  9. THX 1138


Cinematographer David Myers



Long before MTV, music videos or the mobile camera, there were a handful of San Francisco and New York film makers stretching the film envelope, utilizing innovative breakthroughs in film technology. First, the Auricon 16mm camera (sound on film) allowed documentary and news reel cameramen to shoot in locations not previously practical given the availability of only large studio equipment.



The introduction of the French Eclair 16mm NPR , the first silent running reflex camera, allowed the documentary avant-garde film makers exciting new horizons with which they carved the way to a new era in entertainment. David Myers was one of the first to embrace the use of the hand—held camera, a talent he excelled at, and with his dry wit, always walking up shooting while never turning his camera off, he caught wonderful cinematic moments in film.



Born in 1914 in Auburn, New York, Myers began his career as a still photographer after viewing the work of Walker Evans at a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1938.



Evans' photographs were distillations of the feelings and spirit of the times. They were cool but compassionate, a moral analysis of America in the Depression. Those two elements in Evans still turn me on: the ability to look at ordinary surroundings and people in ordinary surroundings, and distill the meaning from it.

—David Myers



While in an Antioch College student work program with the Farm Security Administration in Washington, D.C., Myers began shooting a photo essay on "the low life" of federal civil servants! Later, as a conscientious objector during World War II, he planted trees for the U.S. Forest Service and then worked at a mental hospital in Spokane, Washington, where he photographed the incoming patients.



After the war, he continued his career as a still photographer, becoming friends with the famous photographers Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham. In 1954, the latter was asked to make a short film. Cunningham told the producers that she would not make it without Myers, thus starting his career in movies. In 1957, Myers also shot a twenty minute documentary on Ansel Adams.



Myers was finding that when he looked at his 35mm contact sheets, he was more interested in his mistakes. He started seeing the contact sheets as movie frames. He eventually began shooting television newsreel coverage. He soon discovered the 16mm Bell and Howell, " A tough, simple little camera," as he describes it. He quickly displayed a unique flair for capturing real—life events on film, and in the 1960's he was considered one of the pioneers of the cinema verite movement. Myers also made documentaries, all over the world, for the United Nations, the National Geographic Society and Richard Nixon's presidential campaign (in 1968).



 



Internationally renowned photographers, Imogen Cunningham and Ansel Adams

From then on, Myers came to be known as the "Cameraman to the Rock Stars." He worked with and became close friends with legends such as, in addition to Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Crosby Stills and Nash, Santana, Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker and Leon Russell.



As a Director of Photography, his feature-film credits include George Lucas' debut film, THX- 1138, and Alan Rudolph's Welcome to L.A., but he is still best known for his work on landmark concert documentaries, such as Woodstock, Elvis on Tour, Johnny Cash in San Quentin, The Last Waltz and The Grateful Dead Movie. One director called him "incredibly idiosyncratic, intelligent, inventive and creative."

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Mt. Tamalpais California



[The writer, as a cinematographer, has been able to meet many of the greats in the film industry. This interview took place in the late 1970s. There are also, included in the interview, quotes from other figures the author has interviewed—AAJ].



It's 2:30 in the afternoon when we make our way to the Mill Valley hillside home of the cinematographer. Surrounded by giant redwoods, at the foot of the Dip Sea Trail, the house has a warm country feel with it's whitewashed walls, wood floors and a grand wooden dining table. Myers places a bottle of vodka on the table which he claims will not give us a hangover no matter how much we drink. He is also famous for his cowboy coffee, made in the style of "around the camp fire." We are joined by Barbara, his wonderful wife of some fifty years, an artist in her own right. Her oil paintings adorn the walls of the Myers home. Our interview begins with the back story on the making of Bob Dylan's music feature Renaldo and Clara (1978).



All About Jazz: You two are the perfect couple. Where did you first meet?



Barbara Myers: I first met Dave when Imogen Cunningham photographed me. I am originally from Chicago Illinois, but I moved to San Francisco and was living around the corner from Imogen, I think on Polk Street at that time. I used to see her when I would walk by her house. One day I was picking flowers in front of her yard and she came up and asked if she could take some photographs of me.



Dave was good friends with Imogen and came over to her house the day Imogen was taking my picture. Dave asked her "Who's that cute little girl?" Those were his exacts words, I remember, and that was fifty five years ago. We all we great friends, along with Ansel Adams. We would all meet over at Imogen's house, it was a wonderful time. Of course Dave made that film on Ansel [Ansel Adams, Photographer (1957)].



I just finished an oil painting in honor of Dave. The Mill Valley Film Festival loves it and wants to have it on display at this years event.



AAJ: Bob Dylan was know to improvise as you were shooting the film Renaldo and Clara?



David Myers: Bob has a genius way of getting interesting people together [Allen Ginsberg, Ramblin' Jack Elliott)]then saying, "Do your own thing!" Dylan had Sam Shepard write some skits for the picture. We had a half dozen heavy duty women on the show, Joni Mitchell was there, Joan Bias and Sara Dylan [Dylan's wife], a very intellectual lady.



We were shooting at the famous Hotel Chateau Frontenac in Quebec. When I first walked in the room I exclaimed, "This looks just like a brothel!" The room was decorated in red wall paper, red velvet curtains and red carpet. The set was perfect, so we staged a whore house scene! The women really got into it, they really seemed to enjoy themselves. Then at one point they stopped and laughed, realizing they were acting as whores, when they were supposed to be making a women's lib film.



AAJ: You had a long friendship with Bob Dylan, how did you find him to work with?



DM: Bob is a very private man. One time he and I were in the screening room when my crew walked in. Bob looked over his shoulder at them then turned and asked me about them. I told him they were cool.

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Woodstock



Some of his most interesting stories were his experiences during the filming of Michael Wadleigh's famous ground breaking, now historic Woodstock movie. Myers was part of a team of cameramen who worked on the Oscar—winning 1970 film about the legendary outdoor rock festival on Yasgur's farm, New York, for which Myers provided memorable comic relief in what is now viewed as a classic documentary sequence.



 



DM: My hotel room was ten miles away from the site. I unpacked my bags and prepared to leave for the concert, with my NPR (Eclair 16mm camera), T-shirt, a pair of jeans, an emergency space blanket and a tooth brush stuck in my pocket. I had no idea I was walking into history.



AAJ: The concert managers expected maybe 100,000 young people, but instead 500,000 showed up. For four days and nights, a half a million people listened to the music of their generation, while they danced, ate and slept together.



DM: I found myself a place to sleep under Jimi Hendrix's trailer during the rain storms. I thought highly of Hendrix: he was an intense and very talented artist—musician. After days working and living in those conditions I managed to talk a helicopter pilot who was shuttling the VIPs to fly me over to a famous Jewish resort nearby, so I could get a room and wash up.



I had just finished shooting the famous overall aerial shot in the film. I got many strange looks as I was walking down the halls at the resort to my room. But I washed my T—shirt and got a good meal. I was ready to climb back aboard the helicopter when the grandson of the resort owner came running up and begged me to take him back to the site. I agreed thinking it was the least I could do.



AAJ: Hendrix ended the concert playing "The Star Spangled Banner" at sunrise. Myers standing backstage, was moved hearing Hendrix's rendition.



DM: I felt I should try to shoot an ending for the picture. Everyone was out of film except for some 100 foot loads. So I grabbed an Arri S and Wadleigh's 5.7mm lens. The aftermath was truly amazing, with sleeping bags everywhere covered in a foot of mud. I had a little film left, enough for one last shot. I went up to a couple of garbage men, crawled into the back of their truck, and told them to dump the garbage right on top of me. They did and that was the last scene in the film.



As the concert was continuing on stage, the then 55 year-old Myers trained his camera on a middle-age man pumping out one of the Port-O-San portable toilets. The man talked about his children— one was at the festival and another was serving in Vietnam. The sequence ends after a hippie comes out of one of the portable toilets smoking a joint.



When the hippie asks the filmmakers what they're doing, Myers tells him they're making a movie. "What are you going to call it?" the hippie asks. "Port-O-San!" replies Myers.



Two law-suits came about from the footage of Woodstock. The most serious was instigated by the wife of the Port-O-San cleaner. Myers interviewed the man cleaning the toilets asking, "You're getting a little behind on your work, aren't you?" The man's wife claimed that their reputation was ruined: apparently the couple lived in New Jersey under false middle-class pretensions.



DM: She had told everyone that he was a Sanitary Design Engineer. She was devastated seeing her husband on the big screen in New York cleaning toilets.

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