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Layla’s Lens

Young, good-looking and in love, photographer and rock ’n’ roll muse Pattie Boyd knew she was in the middle of something extraordinary.

“It was very exciting,” Boyd told S.F. Evergreen of life at the center of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture. “We could sense that we were in a really good place at the right time, historically.”

Boyd gained an insider’s view of rock history unlike any other: In 1966, she married Beatles guitarist George Harrison, who wrote soft-rock radio staple “Something” for her. In 1979, she wed guitar god Eric Clapton, who Boyd inspired to write slow-dance staple “Wonderful Tonight.”

That unparalleled insider access allowed her to capture the intimate images that make up her “Like a Rainbow” photography exhibit, on display at San Francisco Art Exchange through the end of March.

The original painting that served as the cover art for “Layla” — another hit song Clapton wrote for Boyd, while she was still married to his close friend Harrison — is part of the exhibit, on loan from Boyd’s living room.

Another of Boyd’s personal highlights is a series of photographs from a 1968 trip to India, where she and the Beatles studied meditation under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

“They were the first serious pictures I took,” she says, and they were nearly lost. “I had no idea that I had them until 10 years ago.”

Boyd found the negatives in a box where they had waited, incorrectly labeled, for decades. “It was a total surprise. I thought I’d lost them.”

The exhibit also includes more intimate shots like a 1976 Polaroid of Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce sitting in Clapton’s living room for a surprise Cream reunion, and a self-portrait of Boyd and Harrison in front of a wall of blooming roses in their garden.

“Like a Rainbow” is Boyd’s homecoming at San Francisco Art Exchange, which staged the first exhibit of her photography in 2005. Boyd first visited the city in 1967, including a disastrous trip to ground zero of the Summer of Love.

“We didn’t realize George was quite so well known as he was, and we thought we could have a little walk down to the Haight-Ashbury,” Boyd says. “Everybody looked as if they were really stoned out of their minds.”

After accumulating an unwanted entourage of “about 30 to 40 people behind us,” the pair ended up at Golden Gate Park’s Hippie Hill, where somebody handed Harrison a guitar. “I think he was really taken aback by it, because the crowd was expecting him to perform,” Boyd says. Harrison demonstrated a few chords for the crowd before the couple hastily retreated to their car.

A better San Francisco experience was The Band’s farewell concert at the Winterland Ballroom in 1976. Martin Scorsese immortalized the show in the concert film The Last Waltz and it also appears in Boyd’s exhibit.

“In all my negatives I discovered one that had slipped by me. … It’s a quick shot where you can see Joni Mitchell and members of The Band,” says Boyd, who first picked up a camera in the early 1960s while modeling for famed photgraphers like David Bailey and Terence Donovan. “It was exciting. It was very buzzy.”

Although the photographs show several people who are no longer around — including Harrison, who died in 2001 of cancer, John Lennon, and members of The Band — they evoke warm memories for Boyd.

“We were young then, and very good-looking,” Boyd says. “It’s a joy to look at them.”  

Like a Rainbow
Photos by Pattie Boyd
Through March 31
San Francisco Sart Exchange
458 Geary St, S.F.
www.sfae.com