The story behind Woodstock’s most iconic image


“It was hard, and it was fun, and it was extraordinary,” photographer Burk Uzzle said of Woodstock, where he captured one of the most famous images of the festival, featured on the cover of the soundtrack album for the documentary film of the same name.

Mr Uzzle was 31 years old that weekend; formerly a staff photographer at Life, he had left the magazine to freelance with the Magnum photo agency. (His clients in 1969 included The New York Times, he said.)

While a host of publications tried to send him to the festival on assignment, Mr Uzzle turned them down because he disliked how editors “tell you what you should be seeing and doing, and I find that irritating,” he said recently, with a smile, in his cavernous studio space here.

Instead, Mr Uzzle took his family – including his two sons, then 9 and 10 years old – camping on a friend’s property in the Catskills, next to a trout stream.

The morning of Friday 15 August 1969, they woke up early and drove half an hour for what Mr Uzzle intended to be a one-day freelance visit to the Woodstock festival.

Woodstock festival 1969

Show all 5

They brought along a small knapsack with some snacks for the kids (crackers, candy bars, tinned fruit) and a poncho in case it rained (which it did, abundantly). He carried two Leica cameras, one with a normal lens, the other with a medium-wide lens. “And then I stuffed my pockets with as much film as I could get in, which I discovered was 15 rolls,” he said.

The Uzzle family, among the first to show up at Woodstock, even got a prime parking space. But soon after they arrived, they heard that the New York State Thruway had been shut down because of the immense crowd.

“It was very quickly apparent that we weren’t going to get out anytime soon,” Mr Uzzle said.

When their supplies ran out, they lined up at the festival’s food stands like everyone else.

“Nobody was getting a lot to eat,” Mr Uzzle recalled. For shelter on a wet, muddy weekend, they built a lean-to by attaching the poncho to a barbed-wire fence on some nearby hills, digging a drainage trench around it. “And it worked!” he crowed. “We were dry when we needed to be dry, and we were wet all the rest of the time.”

Mr Uzzle visited the stage where musicians were performing but quickly decided that the story of Woodstock was out in the audience. He could not convince friends on assignment to join him, so he settled for cadging some rolls of colour film from them.

Wandering through the crowd of hundreds of thousands, he found people cooperating to build tents, skinny-dipping in a nearby pond and curling up together in bales of hay.

Mr Uzzle was a classical music fan who did not drink or smoke pot, but he found a utopia at Woodstock anyway.

“It was a hard decade: assassinations, riots, Washington. My archive is full of really bad stuff,” he said. “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.”

His iconic Woodstock photo is of a couple wrapped in a blanket, embracing each other at dawn, oblivious to the camera and the chaos surrounding them. He did not speak with his subjects, but they were later identified as Nick Ercoline and Bobbi Kelly – who at the time had been dating for just 10 weeks but now have been married for 47 years.

Mr Uzzle took the picture in the early hours of Sunday morning. He woke up around 4:30 am and was walking around, looking for interesting subjects, being careful not to burn through his film too quickly.

When he spotted the couple from a distance, he checked the light and zone-focused for a distance of 15 feet. His mentor, Henri Cartier-Bresson, had told Mr Uzzle to study the Quattrocento painters for their detailed compositions, and that homework paid off: “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.”

He took a few frames in black and white before switching to colour. Five decades later, Mr Uzzle still remembered the details, down to the f-stop of 1.4: “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.”

The New York Times