Baird Bryant: Film-maker who captured the killing of a fan in the Rolling Stones documentary 'Gimme Shelter'

The Maysles brothers' documentary Gimme Shelter followed the Rolling Stones during their US tour of November 1969 and captured the group's performances at Madison Square Garden in New York. But the film became much more famous for the disturbing footage of the chaotic free concert the band gave at Altamont Speedway on 6 December 1969.

Baird Bryant was one of 20 camera operators involved in the project – a young George Lucas was another – and the most in tune with the Maysles' cinéma vérité approach to film-making. When the Hells Angels hired by the Stones as security guards turned on both crowd and performers, Bryant kept filming the ensuing mayhem from the top of a bus. As the Stones played "Under My Thumb" in the middle of their set his camera captured a scuffle in front of the stage. Close examination of the footage revealed he had filmed the fatal stabbing of a fan named Meredith Hunter by a Hells Angel named Alan Passaro.

Closer examination confirmed that Hunter had been brandishing a revolver and Passaro's plea of self-defence was accepted in court. Gimme Shelter's editor Charlotte Zwerin suggested showing the tragic events to Mick Jagger on a film viewer and including the singer's reaction in the finished movie, which was released at the end of 1970.

A landmark documentary, Gimme Shelter came to represent the end of the Sixties and of the hippie dream shown in Woodstock: Three Days Of Peace And Music, filmed at the festival the previous year. Coincidentally, Bryant worked on two other important music documentaries first screened in 1971: Celebration At Big Sur, shot in California in 1969 and featuring Joan Baez, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Joni Mitchell – who premiered her song "Woodstock", inspired by the festival she hadn't performed at – and Jimi Plays Berkeley, filmed in May 1970 and released after the death of Hendrix in September that year.

Bryant was involved in several other notable projects, shooting freewheeling 16mm footage in a New Orleans cemetery for the "trip scene" in Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider (1969), working as cinematographer on the award-winning documentary Broken Rainbow (1985), about the forced relocation of the Navajo Indians in Arizona in the mid-1970s, and filming Heart Of Tibet (1991), a profile of the Dalai Lama.

Bryant's work spanned several counter-culture movements. In the 1950s he lived in Paris and was an associate of the Beat writers William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Using the pseudonym Willie Baron, he wrote Play This Love With Me (1955), one of the "dirty books" published in English by the infamous Olympia Press, run by the notorious Maurice Girodias, and did the first draft translation of Pauline Réage's controversial erotic novel The Story Of O.

Born in Columbus, Indiana, in 1927, Bryant was a graduate of Deep Springs College in Inyo County, California, and later studied at Harvard University. While serving in the Navy, he saved up to go Paris and moved there with his first wife in the early 1950s. Bryant spoke French and Spanish and was one of several Anglo-Saxon free thinkers who hoped to recapture the spirit of the decadent Thirties in the French capital. There, he fell in with Gregory Cosmo, the youngest of the Beat writers, who introduced him to Ginsberg, and Alex Trocchi, a Scot who edited Merlin, a literary magazine run on a shoestring budget.

Though only a few issues appeared between 1952 and 1954, Merlin printed works by Samuel Beckett, Pablo Neruda and Jean Genet and gave emerging writers like Christopher Logue and George Plimpton a home. Bryant was already painting and taking photographs, with which he experimented during the developing process, producing proto-psychedelic abstract images, and he contributed to Merlin as associate editor. This brought him into contact with Girodias, who took over the ailing publication and paid him $600 to translate The Story of O, but he then asked the Marquis de Sade translator Austryn Wainhouse to revise his version.

Bryant was more successful with Play This Love With Me for Olympia Press's "Traveller's Companion" series which exploited a loophole in French law regarding the publication of erotic material in English (the books couldn't be confiscated).

"We presented our most lascivious desires to the world under our noms de plume," Bryant said. "I came up with a cast of characters: Willy the sculptor, the erotic renaissance man who has multiple talents as an illusionist, a photographer, film-maker and sculptor. The Baron, a phony nobleman whose darkest desire is to become the Devil, or at least play the role of the Devil in a dream that comes true, thanks to Willy's nefarious machinations. Lila, the con-woman who gets conned, but plays the game to the hilt. I just turned these characters loose and they had one of the farthest out, sexiest, funniest romps."

In Paris, Bryant also took copious amounts of drugs with Burroughs, jazz musicians like Chet Baker and the avant-garde sculptor Shinkichi Tajiri, with whom he made a short film entitled The Vipers. Built around a track by the pianist and bandleader Stan Kenton featuring the trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, and shot with a 16mm camera, the experimental film, bursting with ideas and random visual effects, won awards at European festivals and helped Bryant get work with the underground film-maker Shirley Clarke when he went back to the United States. In particular, he was the cinematographer on The Cool World (1964), a gritty film about teenage delinquents Clarke wrote, directed and shot in Harlem.

Bryant had met Albert Maysles on the boat back from Europe in 1959 and hooked up with him and his younger brother David to work on Gimme Shelter 10 years later. Bryant had already completed the filming of Celebration At Big Sur, which documented a smaller event than Woodstock and remains a nice time capsule of West Coast hippiedom, though it has yet to be reissued on video or DVD. Bryant's penchant for inserting other material into the films he edited came to the fore again in Jimi Plays Berkeley when he spliced footage of student demonstrations into Hendrix's tour de force "Machine Gun".

Bryant was sound effects editor on The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972), about a Bigfoot creature in Arkansas, and director of photography on Heart Of Tibet, a project that was close to his heart, and worked on around 100 films, including several documentaries with director Richard Cohen (Taylor's Campaign, with narration by the actor Martin Sheen, highlighting the plight of the homeless in Los Angeles, won two awards in 1998). Bryant enjoyed reading his Souvenirs Of The Beat Hotel script at Beat conferences in the US.

"Alex Trocchi, Bill Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso are all gone. That in itself is a lesson in impermanence," he said. "Another lesson learned: be yourself. Ultimately, the greatest lesson for me was that behind the illusion is emptiness. Ask the Dalai Lama whether that's true or not. I did."



Wenzell Baird Bryant, film-maker and writer: born Columbus, Indiana 12 December 1927; twice married; died Hemet, California 13 November 2008.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
The teaser trailer has provoked more questions than answers
filmBut what is Bond's 'secret' that Moneypenny is talking about?
Sport
football This was Kane’s night, even if he played just a small part of it
Travel
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
News
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
media
News
Threlfall says: 'I am a guardian of the reality keys. I think I drive directors nuts'
people
Voices
voices The group has just unveiled a billion dollar plan to help nurse the British countryside back to health
News
The Westgate, a gay pub in the centre of Gloucester which played host to drag queens, has closed
news
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss