He shot Monterey Pop

Jun 2, 2017

The 50th anniversary of the Monterey International Pop Festival will be marked with a return of the event later this month. The original Monterey Pop not only became the model for later festivals like Woodstock and Coachella, it also launched the careers of rock legends like Jimi Hendrix and the photographers who were there to capture the moment. 

The photographs of Tom Gundelfinger O’Neal and six other Monterey Pop photographers go on display June 2 at the Monterey Museum of Art.

At his home in Carmel Valley, Tom Gundelfinger O’Neal flips through a photo book of Monterey Pops with the wistfulness of someone flipping through a family photo album.

Monterey Pop was O’Neal’s first big photo shoot. He had just started his career less than a year earlier. In fact, he shot in black and white, not for artistic effect, but because he couldn’t afford to shoot color.

He stops on a picture of Janis Joplin.

O'NEAL: Now that is not very becoming of her, but it shows the tremendous amount of energy that she put into her singing. She gave it everything from the very inner part of her soul. I caught her just before a breath. She has dropped the mic and she is getting back up ready to belt it out right there at the end.

Next he shows me a shot of Jimi Hendrix.

O'NEAL:  Nobody knew who he was. Now when he came off the stage he had transformed himself in that one performance into this giant rock star. When he got down to burn his guitar, I was so shocked; in such a feeling of awe and bewilderment. And how can this be? Why would anybody burn a prized possession? 

McKNIGHT: What was it about Jimi Hendrix burning his guitar that so stands out? 

O'NEAL: First of all, He did it in such a poetic choreographic way. Like he had a choreographer that said this is how you do it. Throw it down here. Come down on your knees. Ok, in one gesture take out the lighter fluid. Don’t fumble with it. Just take it out squirt it. Ok, now one match; one match only. Just take it (and) drop it on. Drop it on (and) it erupts. Now lean back a bit. Fan it with your fingers. Give it as if it is a sacrifice to your muse as you watch it go up into the sky. 

McKNIGHT: When someone says Monterey Pop to you is there a moment or individuals or something that immediately pops in your mind?

O'NEAL: Well, I think about where I was standing by the side of the stage and I think about how good I was feeling and happy. You know Monterey Pop probably put the stamp, the official stamp, on the summer of love. And Lou Adler who was the co-producer with John Phillips told me all over the country, so many cities, are celebrating the summer of love, but there is only one city, in the world really, that can claim the celebration, the true celebration, of the Monterey Pop Festival . 

Monterey Pop not only launched the careers of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, it also launched the career of Tom O’Neal. He went on to shoot album covers for rock and roll. And 50 years later he’s still a professional photographer.

Monterey Museum of Art’s exhibition “Who Shot Monterey Pop!” opens Friday, June 2 at the Pacific Street location in Monterey. It continues through mid-September.