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October 26, 2022

Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks”: The Story of the 20-Year-Old Who Accidentally Shot an Iconic Album Cover

Paul Till has never met Dylan, but he did shoot the profile image that appears on the cover of Dylan’s perhaps most beloved album: Blood On The Tracks. More impressively, he was only 20.

Blood on the Tracks album cover.

“I was 20 years old at the time, and had been doing photography for about three years and had been using a darkroom for a year and a half or so. I loved the darkroom and learning and using various darkroom techniques. I was also a big Bob Dylan fan, and so when the 1974 tour was announced, there was a mail-in “first-come first-served” process for getting tickets to his show at the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. I took my letter down to actual post office where their post office box was and ended up with quite good tickets. I was directly stage right a few seats from being obstructed by loudspeakers. I was relatively close to the stage, but not really close. I photographed the 2nd of Bob Dylan’s two concerts in - I think it was - January of 1974. I’d never photographed a concert before.

“The camera I was using was a screw-mount Leica III which dated back to the 1930s. It was my dad’s, he’d bought in London in 1945. I had a fast normal lens for it, but not a telephoto, so I borrowed a Canon 135 f3.5 lens from the father of a friend of my sister. Anyhow, I shot about a roll and half of 35mm Tri X - the standard 400 ASA film of the time - and tried to figure out the exposure. I pushed the film to about 1600ASA (ASA is the same as ISO. but that’s what it was called then). I don’t recall if I did the darkroom work to make the cover image in the Fall or Winter of 1974.

“At the time, I was doing a lot of darkroom manipulation of photographs as well as hand-coloring them. I was very familiar with Bob Dylan’s music and I felt that the combination of darkroom technique and hand coloring echoed the old/new dichotomy of much of his work, as well as the notion that it echoed the (sometimes slapdash) off-handed power of his words and music.

“Here’s how it was actually made: The negative was enlarged in the darkroom onto another piece of film in such a way that just Dylan’s head was on it. This would normally result in a positive image on the film which, if you printed it onto a piece of photo paper, would give you a negative print. However, I solarized this piece of film (that is, re-exposed it to light) as it was being developed. This partially reversed the image and also gave it the distinctive line between what was dark to start with and what has made dark by the solarization. Technically, this technique is actually called “the Sabbatier effect”, and the lines are called “Mackie lines”. This resulted in a quite dark and low-contrast piece of film to make a print from. I had to use the very high-contrast grade 6 Agfa Brovira paper to get a print with enough contrast.”

The original photo which the Blood on the Tracks album art is based on.

Later that year, Till decided on a whim to send Dylan his photos. “I looked up his address in Who’s Who at the library,” Till said, and proceeded to mail a few images. “I thought maybe I’ll get a letter from him saying thanks or something.” Instead, he received a letter from Dylan’s art director, Ron Coro. “They said, your picture has been selected for use on the album cover,” Till recalled. He received just $300 in payment. “But the Canadian dollar was worth more then. So I came up with a little less than $300.”

Not much of a payday from having your name credited on one of the greatest damn breakup albums of all time, but the experience did change Till’s life for the better. At the time, he’d been mulling over career options and wanting to write poetry. After his photo graced Blood On The Tracks, “I thought, you know what? Maybe I should be a photographer. You can’t make any money writing poetry.”

Till has no idea where the original print is. He’s convinced Columbia may have lost it. And he still hasn’t met Dylan, but a friend of his went backstage at a later show and mentioned the image to Dylan. According to this friend, Dylan responded kindly: “Tell him it was a good picture!”

1 comment:

  1. I purchased the album on the day it was released at Sam The Record Man in Toronto. When I turned over the album and saw the photo credit, my eyes popped out of my head. I ran across the street and called Paul from a "phone booth" and congratulated him. He said for what... I told him he had the cover.. He told me, that he had licensed an image to Columbia Records, but thought it would be a small incidental image. Not the freakin cover!!! Still one of my favorite albums of all time. Still one of my favorite album covers of all time.




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