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David Myers, 90; 'Woodstock,' 'Last Waltz' Cinematographer

September 02, 2004|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

David Myers, a cinematographer whose feature-film credits included George Lucas' debut film, "THX 1138," and Alan Rudolph's "Welcome to L.A.," but who was best-known for his camera work on landmark concert documentaries such as "Woodstock," "Elvis on Tour," "The Last Waltz" and "The Grateful Dead Movie," has died. He was 90.

Myers, a longtime resident of Mill Valley in the Bay Area, died of natural causes Aug. 26 in a Marin County hospital after suffering a stroke a week earlier, said Bruce Cannon, his nephew.

In addition to Lucas' 1971 futuristic "THX 1138" and Rudolph's 1977 drama "Welcome to L.A.," Myers' feature film credits included Luis Valdez's "Zoot Suit"; Neil Young's "Human Highway" and "Journey Through the Past"; Bob Dylan's "Renaldo and Clara"; "FM"; "Roadie"; and "UFOria."

Before moving into concert documentaries and feature films, Myers was at the forefront of cinema verite documentary filmmaking in the 1960s. He also traveled the world for United Nations and National Geographic documentaries and was part of the team that shot the Oscar-winning 1972 documentary "Marjoe," about onetime child evangelist Marjoe Gortner.

Starting with "Woodstock," Myers began amassing a string of music and concert movie and TV credits, including the Joe Cocker/Leon Russell rockumentary "Mad Dogs & Englishmen," "Let the Good Times Roll," "Wattstax," "Johnny Cash: Live at San Quentin," "Cracked Actor: A Film About David Bowie," Bob Dylan's "Hard Rain," Joni Mitchell's "Shadows and Light," "Gospel" and "Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic."

"There was nobody who captured the essence of rock 'n' roll and music more than Dave Myers," Mark Fishkin, director of the California Film Institute, which produces the Mill Valley Film Festival, told The Times on Wednesday.

"The way he filmed, moving around with the camera on his shoulder, was like a dance, and that was epitomized by such fantastic concert movies as 'Woodstock,' 'The Last Waltz,' Neil Young's films and 'Renaldo and Clara,' " said Fishkin, a longtime friend.

Myers was part of a team of cameramen who worked on "Woodstock," the Oscar-winning 1970 film about the legendary outdoor rock festival for which he provided memorable comic relief in what is now viewed as a classic documentary sequence.

As the concert continued on stage, the then-55-year-old Myers trained his camera on a middle-age man pumping out one of the Port-O-San portable toilets and talking about his children -- one was at the festival and another was serving in Vietnam. The sequence ends after a hippie comes out of one of the portable toilets smoking a joint.

When the hippie asks the filmmakers what they're doing, Myers tells him they're making a movie.

What are you going to call it? the hippie asks.

"Port-O-San," replies Myers.

That quick response was a classic example of Myers' sense of humor and "ability to relate to people," film producer L.A. Johnson, who was Myers' sound man on "Woodstock," told The Times on Wednesday.

"Woodstock" director Michael Wadleigh also cited the Port-O-San sequence, saying it was "the sort of apotheosis of David."

"You can hear in real time the man's mind and camera clicking," Wadleigh said. "If you analyze that exchange, how swift he was and alert to ironies, societies and values, then what can you say? This man is a cameraman-director. He is a tuned-in person to what's happening before him."

Wadleigh, who also worked with Myers on other films, praised him as "incredibly idiosyncratic, intelligent, inventive and creative."

Johnson, who began working with Myers on a 1968 documentary about a student revolt at the University of Connecticut, called him "just a great documentary cameraman."

"He had the ability to draw in the subject matter and let the equipment disappear," Johnson said. "People in the business revered David."

Born in Auburn, N.Y., in 1914, Myers began his career as a still photographer after viewing the work of Walker Evans at a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1938.

Evans' photographs were "distillations of the feelings and spirit of the times," Myers once told the San Francisco Chronicle. "They were cool but compassionate, a moral analysis of America in the Depression.

"Those two elements in Evans still turn me on: the ability to look at ordinary surroundings and people in ordinary surroundings, and distill the meaning out of it."

While in an Antioch College student work program with the Farm Security Administration in Washington, D.C., Myers began shooting a photo essay on "the low life" of federal civil servants.

A conscientious objector during World War II, he planted trees for the U.S. Forest Service and later worked at a mental hospital in Spokane, Wash., where he photographed the incoming patients.

Myers began his motion picture career in 1954 via his friend, famous photographer Imogen Cunningham, who told the backers of a short film that she wouldn't make it without him.

Myers is survived by his wife, Barbara, a retired painter; and a sister, Barbara Rahn of Toronto, Canada.

A memorial service is pending.

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