I first photographed The Doors at a small New York club, close to the 59th Street Bridge, called Ondine’s, which was a favorite place for out of town bands to come and play residencies.
It was the winter of 1966 and I was down there with some friends to see a Los Angeles band that Elektra Records had recently signed. I had my camera with me and started taking pictures of them as they played.
No one in New York had heard of The Doors. They had never performed outside of Los Angeles and hadn’t released any records. Because they were unknown and the club was so intimate I had the unique opportunity of being able to get up really close as they played.
It wasn’t Jim Morrison’s looks that struck me first about him. It was the poetry of his songs and the way he would get completely lost in the music. He had this habit of cupping his hand behind his ear so the he could hear his vocals the way the traditional folk singers did. I thought the whole band was great; Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger and John Densmore were all very creative musicans.
Word about the band soon spread, I even remember one night Paul Newman came down to the Scene Club. I learned later that he was checking Jim out for a film role. He sat there watching everything he did with a really intense look. I never found out what film I was, but it obviously didn’t materialize.
They returned to Ondine’s in March 1967 by which time their debut album The Doors and their first single “Break On Through” had been released, and they were getting national attention. In May they played their last residency in New York – three weeks at Steve Paul’s Scene Club.
Because they were from out of town I spent a lot of time just hanging out with them. We’d maybe go down to Chinatown to eat, we’d look around bookstores or they would simply come back to my apartment.
I got to know Jim Morrison particularly well during this time. He had been at the UCLA film school with the keyboard player Ray Manzarek, so we shared a common love of visual images.
The Doors had made some short experimental promotional film for their singles. One I remember showed Jim on the beach tied to a stake with flames dancing around him. Even though they were primitive they were very effective. Jim was a very thoughtful person and we became very deep friends. A lot of that was due to the photography connection.
The image of Jim as a Christ-figure that is now being handed down to us is pathetic, I find it unbelievable. Jim would have hated it. You can tell that by the way he deliberately allowed himself to grow fat and grow a beard toward the end of his life. He wanted to be respected as a poet and a musician, and he believed that this image of him as a sex god was interfering with people’s perception of him as a true artist.
It really all came about through a great looking picture that Joel Brodsky took of him where he was stripped to the waist and wearing black leather jeans. That brought him a lot of attention. I think Jim was encouraged by it at first. He started to read what people were saying about and then tried to live up to what was being said. There were certain aspects of success that he really enjoyed.
But at the same time he resented it. I can remember him coming to me one day in a very disturbed state. He told me all about his background as the son of a Rear Admiral in the US Navy and how much he hated everything that it represented. He also told me that he’d grown up as a fat kid that no one wanted to know and that this had caused him a lot of emotional pain.
Then he explained what had brought it all to the surface. Apparently he had been walking around Greenwich Village that morning and a girl who he knew as a child had spotted him and started going crazy over him. That bothered him because he sensed the hypocrisy of it all. When he was a fat military brat these people had rejected and ignored him but now, because of his new public image, they were fawning over him.
Jim was essentially a shy person. He never thought of himself as resembling the glamorous image that made him appear so confident. Like most of us, he had hang-ups. May be felt deprived of real meaningful love.
Some performers experience rejection in their childhood and they perform to win the love they feel they’ve been denied. But what kind of love is it that you get in this way? Who really wants the love of strangers who you neither respect nor admire? It’s a vicious circle. Many then reject this admiration as shallow and hypocritical and , with Jim, that’s where the drugs and drink began to take over.
When I was taking pictures of Jim with The Doors I never thought I was photographing a rock idol. To me he was an unknown singer with an interesting mind who shared my love of the visual arts. In return I think he saw me as someone who could capture him as he really was, rather than a showbiz person who would add to the glamour surrounding him.
In a funny way this frightened him too. Jim wanted to bare himself in his art and he wanted to be real, but he was unsure as the whether people would love what he revealed. Maybe people would reject his deepest feelings as expressed in his poetry just as they had rejected his overweight body as a boy.
When he first came to my apartment he looked through all my work and he told me to take pictures of him because he could see that I really captured the characters in my subjects.
My approach was to take personal, casual shots. I never intruded. I would never set up false situations. I was just there recording what happened. I became like a band member shoes chosen instrument was the camera.
The last pictures I took of Jim were in March 1968 when The Doors played the Fillmore East. Life magazine was planning a front cover story and wanted me to take color shots of him. I took him to the Cloister, a monastery outside New York, which was a place I liked to hang out in when I felt pressured by Manhattan. It was pouring rain and so we stayed inside, and Jim sat in a window and the light from the courtyard lit his face. The pictures were beautifully poignant.
Martin Luther King was killed two weeks later so Jim never made the front cover.
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