Mystery Photographer: Who Is the Altamont Filmmaker?

Crowd of people at side of stage on a sunny day

Mick Jagger (in red) and Keith Richards (in shades and white shirt) at the Altamont concert. Photo: Image from newly discovered home video.

This is a guest post by Mike Mashon, head of the Moving Images Section.

We’ve been gratified by the international reaction to our having discovered a never-before-seen home movie of the 1969 Altamont concert, one of the darker hallmarks of the 1960s.

That story, picked up by several national media outlets, has triggered an international mystery: Who was the heroic filmmaker? Who shot this remarkable 26 minutes of footage, from right at the stage, dropped it off for processing but never picked it up? Is it possible, more than half a century later, to identify that person?

Possibly. We’d love your crowdsourcing help. Ready?

First, more than 300,000 people showed up for the free, day-long show, featuring Carlos Santana, Jefferson Airplane, the Flying Burrito Brothers and, of course, the Rolling Stones. The concert was the subject of “Gimme Shelter,” the Maysles brothers 1970 documentary. There was news coverage, too, and lots of the young fans took their cameras, so there is plenty of documentation of who was on and near the stage. Despite all that, there is no wide-shot film of the stage for the entire concert.

The images we have reveal four primary contenders, all appearing to be young white men. Here are our limitations: We have yet to come across an image or footage that show all of them at once, which might us identify the filmmaker by matching his position with the home footage. The images of the filmmakers are not entirely clear, and in one instance is just the back of the guy’s head. There may be images of one of these men on the home footage itself — we haven’t verified that yet — which would rule that person out as our filmmaker.

Still, we have some good clues.

Mystery filmmaker #1. Image from “Gimme Shelter,” documentary by the Maysles brothers

Filmmaker #1: Blue Shirt Man, seen here in a screen grab from the Maysles film. He’s in the correct place for the daytime scenes (stage right, house left), so that makes him a solid contender. But our film experts note he’s using a Keystone K-27 camera that didn’t shoot Super 8 film. The home movie footage is Super 8. So, unless he was working with two cameras, he’s not our guy. Nice smile, though!

Mystery filmmaker #2.

Filmmaker #2: Brown Jacket Man. He’s in the correct place, too, and appears to be using a Super 8 Kodak Instamatic camera. Right camera, right place, right time. He checks out. There’s nothing we’ve seen to disqualify him.

Mystery filmmaker #3.

Filmmaker #3: Green Shirt Man. This gentleman is using a Super 8 camera—a Canon 318, we think — so he definitely makes the first cut. But he appears to be camped out at center stage. All of the daytime footage in our mystery video is shot from stage right. That apparently rules him out … unless there were two cameramen and his footage got separated from our film. See below for more on this theory.

Mystery filmmaker #4. Screen image from “Gimme Shelter.”

Filmmaker #4: Night Shooter. This guy, with the beard and blue shirt at the bottom left, appears in this, another shot from “Gimme Shelter.” He’s shooting with a Super 8 camera, a Technicolor Super V, which could have shot our footage. He’s at center stage, just in front of Stones guitarist Keith Richards. This is a different position from where the daytime footage was shot, but it roughly matches our nighttime footage. Can’t rule him out.

So there you have it. The footage is in two reels. It was dropped off at Palmer Films in Los Angeles and never picked up. Collector Rick Prelinger bought all of Palmer’s stock when they went out of business and eventually donated it to the Library as part of his vast collection.

Now, as some of you have theorized, it’s possible that the two reels were shot by different people – say, two or more guys on assignment for an as-yet-unknown client – and turned their film into Palmer for processing. The client, in this scenario, is the one who never picked it up.

Or, possibly, there was much more footage shot for this client, by multiple filmmakers, and said client picked up all of it … except for our two orphan reels, which had gotten separated from the rest of the footage. (In this scenario, yes, that would mean there’s a heck of a lot more Altamont footage out there that’s still never been seen, presuming it still survives. Also possible it was thrown away or lost years ago.)

At the moment, it’s our best guess that our mystery man is #2, Brown Jacket Man with the Instamatic. He’s in just the right spot working with just the right camera. As luck would have it, he’s the only one whose face we can’t see.

That’s it from us. Put your thoughts  in the comments, identifying each guy by the filmmaker’s number, one through four. We’ll track down any reasonable ideas, and thank you in advance.

Meanwhile, we hope you’ll check out some of the other titles in the National Screening Room. They’re not as buzzy as this, but they’re still fascinating. And your friendly national film preservation institution encourages you to preserve your own home movies. You never know what they might turn up.

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