Thanksgiving 1976–Photographing The Last Waltz

dylan-danko-rr-5400.jpg Bob Dylan, Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson, The Last Waltz. Copyright 1976 by David Butterfield. May not be reproduced, copied or linked.

Many people have asked me about photographing The Last Waltz, especially since I’ve recently revisited my archive of black and white negatives and color slides, producing a 38th anniversary limited edition of fine art prints. A sampling of these can be viewed and purchased on my website:

Easy to buy fine art prints direct from the site. Find the image you want, click add to cart, pay securely with PayPal. Shipped free in USA.


I was and still am a devoted fan of and musically influenced by The Band. I’d been to two concerts in 1969-70 and was looking forward to their scheduled performance in San Francisco, in November of 1976 for which my wife and I had tickets. Then, about a week before that scheduled show, an announcement appeared in the SF Chronicle: “Band show cancelled, but hang onto your tickets….” Over the next two weeks the details trickled out: The Band was breaking up, they were going to have a big finale at Winterland–the same venue they first played as The Band. Lots of rumors about all-star party, then Scorsese enters as the filmmaker. But the best news of all: tickets for the cancelled concert would be honored for admission to “The Last Waltz.”

Cameras would soon be banned at most concert venues but amazing enough, even with Bill Graham and Martin Scorsese in charge, I was allowed into Winterland, 31 years ago on this date, with a Pentax Spotmatic, a Nikon SP with motor drive, six lenses, ten rolls of tri-x and four of hi-speed Ektachrome. My wife and I quickly ate our Thanksgiving dinner up in the balcony seats and went down to where a band was playing waltz music and people danced in a barracaded area in front of the main stage. We ended up standing by the barracade of saw horses which when removed allowed us to walk right up to the stage, right below Levon Helm’s drums. Very quickly we were sandwiched like sardines, fortunate to have the stage to lean on for the next four hours. We were in good company. Annie Leibovitz was about fifteen feet from my spot, waiting with her step ladder. Photographers were everywhere, especially cinematographers. Marty Scorsese had talked 12 of the very best DPs in the world into giving up their Thanksgiving at home and coming to document the historic event we were about to witness.

I began to take in some of the details– the La Traviata backdrop, footlights, lots and lots of lighting fixures around the hall. Lots and lots of Panavision cameras, assistants with film magazines, tripods. Lots and lots of activity. Two hours later the house lights dimmed and the show began. A few times in my life I’ve been in the right place at the right time with my camera and this was the best of all times. The planning and effort put into lighting and dressing the stage was very immediately apparent. It was as if they’d done it for me. Constantly changing the color and light levels on the background helped me get a variety of “looks” while being physically stuck in one spot. That lighting was a gift to every photographer in the house. The energy, emotion and talent on that stage comes across dramatically. It was truly historic, many think the best rock concert ever and I was lucky enough to be there to record it my way.

I invite you to look at the photos on my site. Enjoy.

About David Butterfield Photography and Fine Art

Director of Photography/HD Video Camera, Fine Art Photography/Painting, Big River with DJ Butter Podcast, butterphoto, High Desert, CA.
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