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Who shot the mystery film of the Rolling Stones at Altamont?

Internet sleuths try to figure out the person behind the newly unearthed footage of the notorious 1969 concert

An image from “Gimme Shelter,” a documentary on the Rolling Stones' 1969 U.S. tour, shows a man filming at the Altamont concert. (Maysles Films)
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Was it the man in the blue shirt with the mustache and sideburns holding up the small, three-lens movie camera?

Was it the guy with curly brown hair and a tan shirt aiming a black camera at the Jefferson Airplane?

Was it the man in the light green shirt, squinting with one eye as he filmed right in front of the stage?

Was it someone else?

After the Library of Congress announced on Jan. 4 that it had unearthed never-before-seen film of the notorious Rolling Stones 1969 concert at Altamont, near San Francisco, the question became: Who shot the footage?

The newly found reels of the notorious 1969 concert near San Francisco were discovered in February 2020. (Video: Library of Congress)

“Immediately, we started getting … tips: ‘I wonder who the cameraman could be,’ ” said Mike Mashon, who is head of the library’s moving-image section and unveiled the find in a blog post. “It’s a super-interesting question.”

“As a next step, I would absolutely love to” find whoever made the film, he said, although “there’s a part of me that wonders if this person is still alive.”

If the person was 20 in 1969, he or she would be over 70 today. This is a “hunt for a face in the crowd,” Mashon said.

Rolling Stones Altamont concert footage found in Library of Congress archives

The free Dec. 6, 1969, concert at the Altamont Speedway was a dark milestone in the fading social revolution of the 1960s — a scene of stunning violence, a killing, three accidental deaths, and rampant drug and alcohol abuse. About 300,000 people attended.

Asked in a telephone interview how important it was to find the filmmaker, Mashon paused and said: “Honestly, not terribly important. But we would like to acknowledge this person. … It would enhance our enjoyment of the footage.”

“We’d love to know more about this person and their story and to be able to thank them,” he said.

The film is 26 minutes long. It’s silent, on two reels, and was probably shot by someone on or very close to the stage. Both reels seem to come from the same camera.

Mashon said the “Super 8”-type 8-millimeter film was considered “abandoned” when it was acquired by chance in 2002 in a huge batch of reels from a film archivist.

The archivist, Rick Prelinger, got it in the 1990s when he acquired a cache of old reels from Palmer Films, a San Francisco company that was going out of business.

The film had apparently been dropped off there to be developed in 1969 but was never picked up.

Held at the library’s Packard Campus of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Va., it is now considered the property of the American people, Mashon said.

The first reel, filmed during the day, features Santana; the Jefferson Airplane; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; and the Flying Burrito Brothers.

The second reel, shot at night, features the Rolling Stones.

Sleuths on the Internet — including one in Australia and one in Spain — as well as a photo archivist in California have found four people who might have made the film.

The first is a man in a blue shirt who was spotted by Chris Haskett, a musician originally from Washington now living outside Sydney.

After seeing a Washington Post story about the discovery, Haskett spotted the man while reviewing the 1970 documentary about the concert, “Gimme Shelter.”

“I’m a huge music fan,” he said, adding, “I’m very familiar with ‘Gimme Shelter.’”

When he saw the new footage, he said he thought: “Oh, my God! This is fantastic! Look at Santana.”

“I’d forgotten about all the other bands that played,” he said.

“They are just wailing,” he said. “You’re like, ‘Oh my God. … I really wish I could hear this.’ … I was blown away. I am guitar player. … I was just kind of nerding out.”

A screenshot he provided from “Gimme Shelter” shows the man holding a small camera with three lenses.

But after some investigation, Mashon said in a blog post Thursday that the Keystone K-27 camera the man had did not shoot Super 8 film.

“So, unless he was working with two cameras, he’s not our guy,” Mashon wrote.

The second candidate is a man seen only from above and behind in a photo from the concert. He was spotted by João Gil, a Portuguese marine biologist living in Blanes, Spain, northeast of Barcelona.

The photo was taken by Bill Owens, a freelance photographer hired by the Associated Press to cover the concert. He lives in Hayward, Calif.

The candidate has wavy brown hair and a light brown jacket and appears to have a black Super 8 Kodak Instamatic camera.

“Right camera, right place, right time,” Mashon wrote. “He checks out. There’s nothing we’ve seen to disqualify him.”

Gil said he was “almost sure” it’s the person who took the footage. “It sure is a captivating story,” he said, “a quest to find the … author of such an interesting document picturing a turning point” in modern culture.

The third candidate was spotted last week in a photo provided by Owens’s archive. The man is wearing a green jacket and has what looks like a Canon 318, which used Super 8 film, Mashon said.

The man is so close to the action that he’s leaning against one of the music monitors at the front of the stage. He is clearly seen in profile, squinting with one eye as he films.

“But he appears to be camped out at center stage,” Mashon wrote on his blog. Much of the daytime footage in the mystery film seems to have been taken from left of the stage, as viewed from the audience. “That apparently rules him out,” Mashon wrote.

The fourth candidate is the man with a beard wearing a blue shirt, also spotted in “Gimme Shelter” by Haskett. The man is seen at night, during the Rolling Stones’ performance. He is in partial profile, his face slightly obscured by his camera.

“He’s shooting with a Super 8 camera, a Technicolor Super V, which could have shot our footage,” Mashon wrote of him. And he is roughly in the right spot to have shot the second reel. “Can’t rule him out,” Mashon wrote.

There were probably many others with home movie cameras there that day. But thus far only these candidates have emerged.

“At the moment, it’s our best guess that our mystery man is #2, Brown Jacket Man with the Instamatic,” Mashon wrote. “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.”

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