De Ja Vu All Over Again

by Steven Shepard

Tom O’Neal

July 01, 2011 — Never mind that Tom O’Neal helped teach songwriter Joni Mitchell how to drive a stick shift, or that we had to rearrange our phone interviews a couple of times because one week he was shooting a portrait of Laura Bush, and the next Al Gore. Or even that he has a very successful wedding and event photography business in Carmel, CA, or that he regularly has gallery showings of his jaw-dropping fine art work. Forget all that. In 1970, Tom O’Neal shot the cover image for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s iconic Déjà Vu album. As careers go, he could have stopped there.

I met Tom at a resort in western Virginia. I had arrived to give a keynote speech, and we ran into each other in the parking lot of the hotel. He was unloading photo gear for the event he was about to shoot. We chatted for about an hour, talking about the things that photographers talk about, after which we exchanged business cards.

His was beautiful, a classic wedding shot surrounded by his contact information. “But the image on the back side,” O’Neal says, “is the one I’m sort of known for.” Turning the card over, I found myself looking at an image that had become one of the most memorable symbols of my generation: the tintype-like portrait of David Crosby seated in a rocking chair with a rifle across his lap; Stephen Stills in a Civil War-era uniform; Graham Nash leaning on Crosby’s chair; and Neil Young with his serious side already shining through. I was speechless. This was the first album I ever purchased as a teenager. Forty years later I still have the vinyl.

Rock ’n’ Roll
Tom O’Neal was a fine art major in college. After graduation, he began pursuing opportunities in the music industry as a rock photographer. From 1967 to 1984 he created some of the most iconic images of the rock generation, traveling with and photographing Joni Mitchell, The Doors, B.B. King, Jim Croce, Steppenwolf and, of course, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young [CSNY].

Tom is an easy-going guy with a passion for his craft unlike any photographer I have ever known. For him, the image- capture process is all about the subject, not the camera or the photographer. He engages the subject, gets to know them, and ensures that the final product reflects the person he has gotten to know. “When I met Al Gore,” he says, “I asked if I should call him the shoulda-coulda-woulda-been president or Mister Nobel Peace Prize winner, or just Al? Gore smiled, and said, ‘Al would be great.’ So, for a moment I had him there, one-on-one, guard down, and the portraits reflect that. Then the wall went up, and he was Vice President Gore again—cautious and careful.

 “I also photographed Karl Rove. The guy really surprised me. He is mister personality—he’s dangerous! He’s engaging and really friendly. I liked the guy—which just proves that everyone has different faces. And with Laura Bush, before we took any pictures, we talked about our memoirs. She wanted to know how I was approaching the writing of my own. So because of photography, I had total access to a really remarkable person. I love that. I’ve met some amazing people one-on-one, thanks to this craft. The truth is that I’m still a gee-golly-gosh kind of guy because of the wonder of it all. For that single moment—that 1/125 of a second—I have total access to that person and to that moment, something that I treasure every time. The same was true with the CSNY picture; I had total access to the band. Think about it, I made them sit still for two-and-a-half minutes, and they were willing to do it. That’s what makes the photo so great,” he says enthusiastically.

Great indeed. Tom walked me through the planning and creation of that image, a process that took more than two months. “When I got the opportunity to do the album cover I went up to San Francisco to see the band,” he remembers. “They were recording in [legendary recording engineer] Wally Heider’s studio, so I met with them there. I asked Stephen Stills whether he wanted to have more of a traditional look, and right off the bat he said, “No.” He explained what he wanted to do. Stephen Stills is fascinated by the Civil War, especially the Confederacy. He is intrigued with that era and the look of it—the family albums with those frozen, stoic faces, and he wanted the album to have that look.

“I had never really done any research before, and obviously this was way, way before the Web. So I went to the library to research old photographic techniques, daguerreotype and tintype mostly, as well as the Talbotypes and sunprints that Fox Talbot had perfected. The processes turned out to be pretty complex, but after a few weeks of work I was ready to proceed using Talbot’s techniques.”

Because Stephen Stills wanted a period accurate, realistic look, O’Neal decided to go all the way, capturing the portraits of the band on a camera and using emulsions that would have been employed during the Civil War era.

 “I rented a Matthew Brady camera from a store in Hollywood that used it as a movie prop. I took a bunch of test shots and got it to the point where I was able to make a decent tintype. I mixed up a bunch of chemicals, cut a bunch of 5 x 7 tin sheets, and headed from L.A. up to the Bay Area.”

The Shoot
Things have changed quite a bit since then when it comes to air travel. “I had hair down to my shoulders and was dressed in ratty jeans with flowers around the cuffs (I was sort of a hippie back then) and I boarded the flight from L.A. to San Francisco carrying the liquid emulsion chemicals with me. I had six big amber-colored bottles with the chemicals in them, all stuffed into an old leather letter carrier’s pouch. Nobody at the airline gave them a second glance.

“I got to San Francisco and rented a car, and then drove up to Novato, where David Crosby’s house was. Once I got there I set up all of the equipment I would need to do the shoot. I had rented costumes from Western Costume Company in L.A., a company that supplies realistic outfits to the movie industry. Everything felt homemade and real.

 “When the time came to actually do the shoot, the guys were really into it. They had been recording all night, so they got up around 1 p.m. and had breakfast while I set everything up. It was nerve-wracking, but I was ready to get this done.”

I asked Tom about the possibility of his “science experiment” failing, given the sensitivity of the chemicals he was using as his emulsion. “Oh, I definitely had other cameras set up to make sure I was covered in case of a failure,” he explains. “Even though I had every intention of using the tintype image that would hopefully come out of that Matthew Brady box camera, I backed it up just in case with traditional 35mm SLRs. So, while they were posing in front of that old camera during the long exposure, I was snapping away.

 “So we did two takes,” Tom recalls. “I couldn’t expect the guys to sit for more than that. After I took the first shot I ran into the makeshift darkroom that I had set up in David’s [Crosby’s] house by putting foil over all the windows. I knew from experience that I had 10 minutes to get it done; that was the interval I had to work with before the chemistry became a problem. Then, after I knew I had a usable image, I prepared a second emulsion-coated plate and went back out and did a second shot.”

Sadly, the original negatives from that day were lost, but there is a happy ending to this story. “Those negatives disappeared for about 25 years and nobody knew what happened to them,” Tom says. “But about five or six years ago Joel Bernstein, the archivist for Neil Young, called me and said, ‘Hey, Tom I have great news for you.’ The negatives had shown up in a box in a barn outside of L.A., and one way or another had been returned. The box contained pictures by all the photographers who had shot the band, including Henry Diltz (who shot well known images of Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix, as well as the cover of the first Crosby, Stills and Nash album) and me. So I drove up to Berkeley with my wife and we had dinner to celebrate finding such an important piece of our lives. Needless to say, I did a high-res drum scan on those negatives, and they’re now in five different places on various DVDs all over the country.”

The album, of course, became the symbol of an era, with such memorable songs as “Teach Your Children,” “Our House,” and “Woodstock.” The album went platinum seven times over, and while that is gratifying to Tom O’Neal, it means more to him that the album seemed to symbolize something special for people.

“I would walk into houses where people had framed the album as a symbol of the cultural upheaval that was going on in the world,” he smiles. “And the truth is that that album almost immediately started working for me. For example, at one point I was in London on tour with Steppenwolf. I was walking down the street one evening and I passed a record store. In those days they would often display the hottest album of the time by covering the entire window with it. Well, this particular store had a front window that was 50-feet wide. Half of it they had covered with the Déjà Vu album; the other half was covered with the latest Steppenwolf album, which I also shot. Did I take a picture? No…but it was pretty cool. I wish I had had a camera with me at the time.”

Today Tom devotes most of his time to fine art photography and no longer photographs rock legends. He is completing a book about his life and his art that will be released in this year. Tom’s good friend Graham Nash has agreed to write
the foreword.

To learn more about Tom O’Neal and to see a gallery of his work, please visit www.tgophoto.com.


Steven Shepard is a photographer and writer, and the author of more than 50 books and hundreds of articles on a wide range of subjects. He can be reached at Steve@ShepardComm.com; his photography is at www.shepardImages.com/.

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