The whole world was there. At least it appeared to be — and later would claim to be.
From August 15th to 17th 1969, the largest rock festival in American history was undergoing at Bethel, New York. The name ‘Woodstock’ would soon enter into cultural memory, but back then, it was simply the name of a nearby town where the promoters had originally planned the festival to be. The town (where Bob Dylan then lived) had denied them a permit.
The town was right to be apprehensive — it didn’t want any gathering larger than 5,000 people, and the organizers had expected ten times that time. Actually, a hundred times that number — half a million people — showed up (publicity partly drummed up by the news that Woodstock had banned the festival).
Among the attendees was Burk Uzzle, formerly a staff photographer at Life, then freelancing for Magnum. Several papers asked him to cover the festival, but Uzzle turned them down. The photographer who would turn 31 on the weekend of Woodstock didn’t want editors dictating to him, and instead decided to visit the festival as a freelancer with his family. He carried two Leicas — one with a normal lens, the other with a medium-wide lens, and as much film as he could stuff into his pockers — 15 rolls.
He had planned for a daytrip to the festival, but was stuck there: he was told that the highway had been shut down due to crowds (At least that was what Arlo Guthrie told the crowd, “the New York State Thruway is closed man.” In fact, the state police never closed it off. It was just jammed from traffic). It was a wet muddy weekend and the family stayed in a makeshift shelter they made by attaching a poncho to a barbed-wire fence. Uzzle realized that he was better off taking photos of the audience, rather than elbow through the crowds to take pictures of musicians performing — something all of his colleagues on assignment were trying to do.
On Sunday, Uzzle woke up at 4.30 a.m and walked around. The photo he took that morning of a hippie couple wrapped in a tight embrace would become an iconic picture not only of the festival but also of a generation. Uzzle remembered:
“It was a hard decade: assassinations, riots, Washington. My archive is full of really bad stuff. And then you get to Woodstock, and here are all the hippies that everyone thought were going to ruin the world, but these people decided to look after each other.”
The bedraggled and blanketed couple would come to symbolize the entire generation known for “beads, beads, blossoms and bells, blinding strobe lights and ear-shattering music, exotic clothing and erotic slogans,” in the words of Time magazine, which devoted a 1967 cover story to the hippies and the “flower power”. For historian Arnold Toynbee, they presented “a red warning light for the American way of life”.
Ironically Nick Ercoline and Bobbi Kelly, both 20, were not hippies. Bobbi was working at a bank and Nick had a construction job. Living near Bethel in Middletown, N.Y., they were aware of the Woodstock controversy — the permits, the tickets, the last minute change of venue — but only decided at the last minute to go. The couple had been dating for less than ten weeks. They would only stay for one night and never saw the stage because they were so far away (in contrast to Uzzle’s family, which arrived early and had prime spots).
Uzzle took a few frames in black and white before switching to color. He remembered:
I walk up and I know the curvature of the hill has to work with the curvature of the heads. And there’s the flag, it’s going to have to be there, and just enough of the people.”
Very slow shutter speed, almost dark, holding myself very still, maybe a 15th of a second, and I was lucky that it was still sharp. But I was not high! So I was able to make the composition and be in focus and take the picture. And then I turned around to find something else to shoot.”
Jefferson Airplane played on stage.
The photo would be on 3-LP Woodstock album released the next year. A friend of Nick and Bobbi bought the album, and they recognized the orange and yellow butterfly. “Then we saw the blanket. Oh, my lord, that’s us!” The couple had picked it up from the street where other festival goers had abandoned their belongings.
Nick and Bobbi got married two years later and were still together until Bobbi’s death in 2023.
The festival attracted famous names: Crosby, the Who, Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin to name a few. Jimi Hendrix was the closing act (although many didn’t see it as it took on Monday morning) but Bob Dylan refused to turn up (the famously grumpy singer was living a reclusive life in Woodstock and didn’t want more people to turn up to his town; he pointedly traveled to U.K a few weeks later to headline for a festival there).
Although it took years for the organizers to profit from Woodstock, it marked the beginning of the commercialization of music on a large scale. The organizers, Woodstock Ventures Inc., was a coolly calculated operation which took care to meticulously and professionally document the festival in sound and film, ensuring a steady stream of income for the next decade with ongoing marketing (one of the editors on the Oscar-winning documentary Woodstock (1970) was young Martin Scorsese) and anniversary festivals, culmulating with the disastrous Woodstock ’99. In that context, the above picture was used (in both black and white and in color), and reproduced on millions of record covers.
If you like what I do and what I write, or simply wants me to write more, you can support me via Patreon. I had tremendous fun researching and writing Iconic Photos, and the Patreon is a way for this blog to be self-sustaining.