By Gillian G. Gaar
It was a case of right place, right time.
Ed Caraeff had been taking photos of musicians since he shot The Seeds’ arrival at LAX while still in high school, during his lunch break. Fast forward to 1967, when he’d just turned 17, and Caraeff found himself heading to his first rock festival with his friends (including perennial scenester and DJ Rodney Bingenheimer), shooting a colorful cornucopia of performers at the Monterey International Pop Festival.
A German photographer advised Caraeff to “Save some film for that Jimi Hendrix cat!” Caraeff duly planted himself in front of the charismatic lead singer/guitarist when the Jimi Hendrix Experience took the stage, and watched in amazement as Hendrix ended the set by dousing his guitar with lighter fluid and setting it alight. Caraeff snapped away, and ended up shooting one of rock’s iconic images: Hendrix, kneeling before his blazing guitar, arms held up as if raising the flames higher. Trying to ward off the heat, “I kept the camera right in front of my face and crouched down lower,” Caraeff says.
The picture, in its original black and white and colorized version (Caraeff was only shooting black & white film that day) is the first in an amazing series of photos featured in his new book “Burning Desire: The Jimi Hendrix Experience Through the Lens of Ed Caraeff” (ACC Editions, $49.95).
After Monterey, Caraeff dropped by the Los Angeles motel where Hendrix was staying to show him the photos. He found a “soft-spoken” Hendrix lounging by the pool in his swimsuit, looking just like a newly minted rock star: a cigarette in one hand, a glass in the other (“I don’t think it was water; let’s put it that way”), and two blonde women in bikinis on either side.
After seeing Caraeff’s shots, Hendrix called his co-manager, Michael Jeffery, down to the pool area. Jeffery was equally impressed, and Caraeff found himself granted photo access for six other Hendrix shows in California. And while there’s plenty of onstage excitement, the off stage shots are particularly nice, showing a relaxed Hendrix casually shooting pool, or warming up backstage. Clearly, Hendrix had warmed to the young photographer: “Look how comfortable he is in those photos,” Caraeff says.
As the shows got bigger, they got wilder. Caraeff has shots of fans swarming into the moat in front of the Hollywood Bowl stage in 1968. And the Newport ’69 festival at Devonshire Downs in the San Fernando Valley descended into chaos, a “crazy scene,” as Caraeff recalls. “That was a strange concert.”
Caraeff worked as a photographer for 14 years, then worked as an executive chef. His shot of Hendrix burning his guitar found new life when “Rolling Stone” colorized it and used it on the cover of the June 4, 1987 issue. “Nobody really cared about it until Jann Wenner picked it to go on the cover of ‘Rolling Stone,’” says Caraeff. “He made it famous, without a doubt.” He points out there aren’t other known shots of Hendrix burning his guitar.
Caraeff’s archives may yield other books someday. In the meantime, he maintains his interest in photography. “Basically, I’m an artist, who’s done different stuff. I just saw photography as a way to express myself. And I still do — with my iPhone.”