Positively Scottish Humans of the US: the celeb snapper on first-name terms with Lennon and Jacko

John Lennon in LA in 1974. Picture copyright: Cyril Maitland

IAIN LUNDY writes:  Landscape paintings by Cyril Maitland, a Scotsman who lives nearby, are regularly displayed in the Lithia Artisans Market in Ashland, Oregon. Many people from the area have become collectors of his work – but how many of them know the remarkable story of his professional life?  Before he turned his hand to art, Cyril, originally from Larbert in Stirlingshire, was a ‘celebrity snapper’ – a press photographer who specialised in pictures of the rich and famous. Cyril was on first-name terms with Michael Jackson, John Lennon, and many others. He even got high with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys! He photographed Hollywood royalty such as John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Barbra Streisand, Burt Reynolds, and Robert Redford. His incredible back catalogue includes Princess Margaret’s tour of Asia, Winston Churchill’s funeral, and the Monterey Pop Festival. Now 88, he can look back on an action-packed life.

As a boy I liked to lose myself in taking pictures with a small Kodak my parents gave me. Most of my early memories however, centre on my youth in Hillington. My parents moved there when I was about 11. It was during the war and our row house was on a hill overlooking the town near the Clyde.

As a boy I remember we would watch the German planes coming to bomb the port and we would race to the shelter. There was just enough room for me, my parents and a few neighbours. I don’t remember anyone in our neighbourhood ever being killed, but on a few mornings I remember waking up and seeing blocks of buildings gone. It was frightening, but for a boy my age, more exhilarating than anything.

At the Scottish Daily Express, I was hired as a copyboy then joined the dark room to develop and print for the photographers. One day they were short. There was a fire. So they sent me out on my first assignment. I didn’t look back from there. At the time I mainly covered news stories, such as car accidents and local problems. But my career really opened up after I served my time in the Royal Navy, and moved to London.

I joined the London Daily Express. One of my early assignments was to follow Princess Margaret on her Asian tour. It was exciting because I was still a young man and it was an important assignment. It was surreal in some ways because I never imagined my photography would allow me to travel the world.

The Churchill funeral cortege (in 1965) stands out because of the extraordinary circumstances under which I was able to get the picture. There were thousands of people gathered to see Churchill’s funeral. I noticed there was a gigantic photograph blown up on the front of one of the buildings facing the boulevard where the funeral cortege was moving. As it came closer to me, I was perched on the building across the street.

I suddenly realised that it was a picture of him looking down and if I positioned the camera correctly, I could capture a picture of him watching his own funeral. I frantically waved to the people filling in around the portrait across the street and pointed to my camera. They actually figured it out and moved just in time for me to snap the picture. It launched my career.

The photographer that really inspired me was Henri Cartier Bresson. I always loved his use of light and shadow. Black and white is definitely my favorite photographic means of expression. You can capture nuances and moods that aren’t possible with colour.

One of the stars who gave me the most difficulty was Barbra Streisand. I was on the set of Hello Dolly several times. Streisand resisted giving me any pictures until I spoke to her directly and told her I just wanted to capture her at her best and that the costumes she was wearing were timeless. She finally agreed. I also photographed Julie Andrews and found her to be quite the opposite: gracious, welcoming and a joy to photograph.

I began to focus on getting photographs with TV stars in the 1960s and 70s and took several covers for TV Guide. In that capacity I photographed all the top TV stars of the day, and was friendly with Jane Seymour, Della Reese, and a number of the actors who appeared in westerns, including John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.

A friend introduced me to Derek Taylor, the Beatles’ publicist. He was planning to accompany them on their early tours and suggested I go to the US to cover the wave of rock groups invading from Britain. He said he would arrange for some photo shoots I never looked back.

I began to freelance for every type of newspaper and magazine including Paris Match, Time, a number of British tabloids, and many teen magazines. I photographed all the major British rock groups and many concerts. Too numerous to recall. I do remember one of the first was the Monterey Pop Festival.

I was very friendly with the Beach Boys, particularly Brian Wilson. At our first meeting he refused to let me photograph him until I got high with him. I wasn’t a pot smoker, so it was a challenge for me, but at the time it was a trust issue.

I photographed the Byrds, the Yardbirds, Chad & Jeremy, the Dave Clark Five, Mamas and Papas, on and on. I was very impressed by the young Michael Jackson and photographed him on a number of occasions. We became so friendly he called me “Scottie.”

Picture copyright: Cyril Maitland

Ironically, it’s the photographs that never got published that stand out to me the most, and that was from my trip to Guyana with freelance writer Gordon Lindsay to photograph Jim Jones and his followers. I got pics from our plane circling the compound and on the ground. We had been sent by the Enquirer. The irony is that they were always looking for scoops and they pulled the story before the whole tragedy went down and it was probably one of the biggest scoops of all time.

There is also my Yoga pose shot of John Lennon. It was the day after he and Harry Nilsson were asked to leave the Troubadour in West Hollywood for obnoxious, drunken behavior. John was feeling quite contrite the next day and I caught him in a somewhat pensive pose, on a couch at a friend’s house in the Hollywood Hills. It was during that time he began to take stock of his life and realised it was time to grow up. Shortly thereafter I believe he returned to Yoko.

Picture copyright: Cyril Maitland

I tired of the Hollywood press in the late 1980s. I continued to take photographs and worked under a small agency my wife and I started, Proof Positive Productions. I mainly took black and white photos for the LA Actors’ Theatre.

Lucie had just spent three years touring Canada. She returned to LA in the mid-80s and was singing in a small nightclub/restaurant in West Hollywood. I used to frequent the bar every evening. I would come in with my cameras slung over my shoulder wearing a John Lennon cap and a tweed coat. From the other end of the bar, she thought I was Russian.

Cyril with his wife, Lucie

One evening I bought her a Courvoisier between sets. We sat and talked and discovered we had been at a number of the same events: she as a young woman accompanying her father after her mother had died, me as a working photo-journalist.  We were at the first of Frank Sinatra’s endless “final” performances at the Music Center, the Monterey Pop Festival, many film premieres, the Oscars and the same concerts, including the Beatles.

In fact while I was drinking at the Cock and Bull, a famous pub on the Sunset Strip, many nights a week, Lucie was there dining with her father and yet we hadn’t met. We have been together 35 years and were married in 1993. In 1997 we decided Los Angeles was becoming a dangerous place to live.

Lucie and I made a trip to Ashland Oregon in the mid-90s and fell in love with the small-town atmosphere and cultural bent. We visited the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and toured the town, bought a place and stayed. It was then I seriously began to paint landscapes of the surrounding area.

I began quite prolifically turning out paintings and, amazingly, they began to sell. Eventually I was named president of the board of the Lithia Artisans’ Market and remained in that position for 10 years. Many Ashland residents have small “collections” of my paintings. It was mainly just another form of self-expression for me. I think my photographer’s eye helped.

The US has treated me just fine. It was not a problem becoming a citizen back in the 60s. I felt comfortable with Americans and was very interested in American politics for most of my career. I photographed Nixon and Ford and others.

But now, it is just a mess. I have never understood Americans’ fear of socialism and I really don’t know what to think of the country now. I think the election was telling of the times, but I was disappointed in the outcome.

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