It was truly the best and worst of times. While the government spouted lies and distortions to rationalize a pointless war, and the flag-draped coffins came home in droves, hippies and other dreamers shared an uncanny sensation of building from scratch a new world where peace and love were not just cliches. Something was in the air, a sense of an impending utopian bliss tinged with a hint of the apocalypse, and the incredible music and massive protests were part of it. New York-based Elliott Landy, who documented both, was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, and with enough talent to make some truly epochal photographs.
The beatific Nashville Skyline cover image of Dylan with his hat and guitar symbolized a time when alternative communities sprung up in the countryside and when bohemian enclaves such as Woodstock, N.Y. -- where Landy had migrated from Manhattan -- became even more so. It was a time when he was friendly with a notoriously reclusive Dylan, whom he photographed at home there with his family. The Dylan connection also put him in touch with the Band at its Big Pink residence/recording studio, before the group was famous. When its album finally appeared, Landy's images graced the jacket.
It was actually his initially stormy relationship with rock producer Albert Grossman that ultimately led to some of the most iconic images ever made of Dylan and the Band, but his reassuringly personal touch yielded memorable images of many others, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, John Lee Hooker, Roger Daltrey and Albert Ayler. Interspersed among them are grim black-and-white shots of protests with helmeted riot cops in gas masks glaring at picket-wielding demonstrators.
It is a selective yet representational portrait of an age, and of course no portrait of that era would be complete without photos from the Woodstock music festival, that rain-soaked and overcrowded (400,000) mega-event for which Landy was an official photographer. It was a mud-, pot- and LSD-saturated heaven/hell realm where vast numbers in close quarters really did seem to experience peace and love along with wet clothes and soggy food. Woodstock was the end of the beginning, as well as a beginning of the end, for a generational ideal, and also for Landy, who would move on to Europe and another way of life. But he left us with some superb images that now resonate like extinct species perfectly preserved in amber -- images of Jimi, Janis, Van, Dylan and the Band, all respectfully and respectably reproduced via the most recent digital technologies.
If the subjects of the photos at The Big Top seem a tad more parochial, that is because they are of mostly local musicians. Reggie Scanlan, a co-founder of the Radiators, gives us an insider perspective. His shots of marching groups, gospel singers and individual musicians display a solid documentary approach with a near-historical tone and a compositional style that may invite comparison with longtime local music photographer, Michael P. Smith. Arkansas native and Big Easy resident Bob Compton has a gift for making public performance shots come across as accessible and personable, almost intimate, portraits of his subjects at work. And Louisiana native Zack Smith offers engaging views of the likes of Charles Neville and George Porter Jr. as well as traditional street bands in an archaic bromoil process that renders his subjects in ghostly sepia, lending them a sense of being simultaneously in the past and present -- as if some local Rembrandt with a camera had been on hand during a rousing rendition of "Hey Pocky A-Way."