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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.


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