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Up close with Morrison, Hendrix, Jagger and Joplin


Published: Dec. 2, 2011

WITH A front row seat to one of rock ’n’ roll’s defining moments — the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967 — Tom O’Neal picked the perfect time and place to launch a career as a fine art photographer.

O’Neal, a Carmel Valley resident whose candid black and white images offer a fascinating look at the faces behind the soundtrack to the Summer of Love, unveils a collection of his work Saturday, Dec. 3, at Mountainsong Galleries.

“I was just a young photographer caught up in the music,” said O’Neal of the unique opportunity he had. “It was an incredibly fresh and exciting time.”

In the year that preceded the festival, San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood became the epicenter of a countercultural explosion that transformed popular music. After two years of the British Invasion and the legions of mop-tops it inspired, the world was ready for something new — and that turned out to be a hybrid of rock ’n’ roll that was louder, longer and more colorful than anything that preceded it.

Just 24 at the time, O’Neal was drawn to the new sound and traveled north to San Francisco to watch the Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and others perform at Bill Graham’s legendary Fillmore Auditorium.

And then, shortly before the Monterey Pop Festival, O’Neal visited a record shop in Carmel. While thumbing through its merchandise, he looked at an album cover by the Mamas and the Papas and saw his future.

“This is what I’m going to do,” O’Neal said to himself. “I’m going to make album covers.”

When the three-day festival arrived in Monterey, O’Neal was there with his camera. And while he captured striking images of the Airplane, Joplin, the Dead and others, he missed out on taking what could have been his most famous photograph.

“I was so shocked when Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire that I missed taking a photo of it,” O’Neal conceded. “I didn’t have the killer instinct.”

But while ’rock ‘n’ roll immortality may have eluded O’Neal in 1967, who was known as Tom Gundelfinger at the time, it crossed his path again two years later when he was offered an opportunity to shoot an album cover for a new group called Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

“Stephen Stills had always been interested in the Civil War era,” O’Neal explained. “He loved tintypes, and he wanted me to create one.”

The photograph that landed on the cover of the landmark “Dejá Vu” record was shot beneath the spreading branches of an oak tree in the yard of a house David Crosby was renting in Marin County. O’Neal assembled the musicians, who had to remain motionless for two minutes while he created the “antique” image. Despite the effort, he couldn’t get the contrast he needed.

Thankfully, O’Neal took a few shots with his 35mm camera as a backup plan. Using a photographic technique from the 1850s, he was able to print the negative onto a piece of fiber board, which he later exposed to the sun. The trick worked — and “Dejá Vu” had its famous cover photo.

“I’m immensely proud of being part of the album,” O’Neal said. “It’s an iconic album that represents that era in such a beautiful way.”

In addition to creating the cover art for “Dejá Vu,” O’Neal worked for many other aspiring musical acts from 1967 to 1974. He created artwork for more than 80 album covers and took countless publicity stills. While many of his subjects barely dented the pop charts, others were just beginning their ascents to pop stardom. One such act was a singer-songwriter named Joni Mitchell.

“I met her at [Ventana Inn founder] Larry Spector’s house in Coldwater Canyon,” O’Neal recalled. “She had pretty much finished recording her first album, but nobody knew who she was. After the photo session, she asked me if I’d like to hear her new record. We sat in the living room, and she sang me the entire album. By the second song, I put the camera down and tears were streaming down my face. Talk about an ‘Oh, God,’ moment. I was transfixed. I felt like I was a boy and she was an old soul. I never met anyone like her.”

O’Neal photographed many musical legends during the era, including Mick Jagger (“We met one-on-one”), B.B. King (“He was the perfect Southern gentleman”) and Jim Morrison, the unpredictable Doors singer, whom O’Neal described as “courteous” and “down to earth.” Meanwhile, the photographer’s confidence in working with rock superstars was growing.

“They are putting themselves in your hands,” added O’Neal, who recently opened a studio in Monterey’s Ryan Ranch. “They’re putting their trust in you. If you’re intimidated, you’re going to lose that trust. You have to own the moment.”

Mountainsong Galleries hosts a public reception for O’Neal at 7 p.m. Two private receptions will be held at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. For more details, call (831) 626-0600. The gallery is located on the south side of Ocean between Mission and San Carlos. For more information, visit