PHOTOGRAPHING TWO OF THE BEATLES
January 1965 — What could be hotter at that time than The Beatles and the Space Race? Combine them and you've got a sizzling idea. Paul McCartney as an astronaut? Ringo Starr as Caesar? That's what famed photographer Richard Avedon set out to do in January 1965 on assignment for Harper's Bazaar magazine. As his studio manager and prime assistant I went along on this trip to frozen, wintry London. These are my recollections of that long-ago event:
The first thing we needed was a space suit. A real one, not a costume. Fortunately, someone high up at the publisher had connections with NASA, so they loaned us one. The guys would have to be photographed separately in this one item. I packed it, along with our equipment and a supply of high-voltage batteries for the strobes, in a huge case that I checked in on the flight.
January 24, 1965, JFK Airport, New York. I'm off on BOAC to London. Halfway across the Atlantic the pilot got on the intercom and announced that Sir Winston Churchill had just died, and that the funeral would be in London in a few days. People from all over the world would be descending on the city for the event. Of course, I had a confirmed hotel reservation, so no sweat.
As we approached England, the pilot came on again, this time to announce that all airports in Britain were closed due to heavy weather. We would go on to Amsterdam instead. A few minutes later that option was out, as all airports in western Europe were now socked in. So it's on to Prague. But then the storm broke and we landed in Amsterdam, spending the night there in a hotel. The next morning we took off again, this time for Scotland as London was still closed. Luck was with us as London Heathrow came back into service.
Going through customs, my huge shipping case attracted attention. The agent took one look inside, stared at the space suit and dozens of 512-volt batteries, shook his head, closed the case and passed me through without saying a word. He didn't want to know what that stuff was for.
When I got to the hotel a day late, my room had been given to someone else and the best they could do was not satisfactory. I called around, and secured a room at the Piccadilly, not my first choice but okay. Avedon had come a few days earlier, and was staying at the Ritz.
The sitting, which began with some fashion shots around a space theme (using the space helmet) for the magazine, was planned for the next day using the studio of photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones (now Lord Snowdon), who at the time was married to Princess Margaret, the Queen's younger sister. The studio was a sort of penthouse, perched atop the London Sunday Times Building (Thompson House) at 200 Grays Inn Road.
I arrived early, along with Dick Avedon and China Machado, an editor of the magazine. A few other people were there also, including Tony Jones. The equipment got set up, Dick did the fashion shots, and then Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr arrived. Everything went smoothly and the guys were fun to work with.
After the photo session was over, only Ringo Starr, Avedon, China and myself remained in the studio. Then Ringo decided to challenge Avedon to a drinking contest. Now, Dick was not much of a drinker, but he was game, and so they started downing vast amounts of whisky. This could only end in disaster. Or two passed out bodies, which it did. I took a few pictures of the results, which resurfaced recently and which I played with in PopArt Plus to give it a real Sixties feel. Yes, I know — this style is way past its use-by date.
A short time later, as I was packing up, both Ringo and Avedon were laying on the floor — one in the bathroom and the other in the kitchen — oblivious to the world. What to do? To make matters worse, a group of Beatles fans were at the street entrance, waiting for Ringo. China made some calls, and arranged to have a private car go to the service entrance on Gough Street, out of sight of the fans. To get Ringo there, I had to carry him across the rooftop, and take him down the goods lift (freight elevator), depositing him in the waiting car.
Avedon was not so lucky. I carried him ignominiously to the main entrance, passing the fans, got a cab, and took him to the Ritz Hotel.
The next morning I slept in, watching Churchill's funeral on the telly. Then back to the studio, and off to another studio in Chelsea to develop the film. After that, I flew over to Paris to see how the new darkrooms that I had designed for Harper's Bazaar were coming along. We would be needing them in a few month's time. CLICK HERE and scroll most of the way down to read about the new Paris darkrooms.
The photos by Avedon from this session seem to have vanished — at least I have not seen them since the sixties. I left his studio in 1965 to form my own, after which Avedon had several more sessions with the Beatles. One of these, in 1968, resulted in the famous solarized color images that are still frequently seen, and were made into popular posters that are still being sold.
CORRECTION: I got to see the photos in October 2009 at the Avedon Foundation in NYC. They were everything I remembered, and more.
UPDATE: During the infamous 1965 session China Machado, the fashion editor, had taken some 8mm home movies of the event, which none of us had ever seen and which were presumed to be lost. In early 2010 they reappeared and China gave them to the Avedon Foundation, who had a DVD made of them. On my next visit there, in summer 2010, they showed it to me. The flick even showed me taking photos of the inebriated ones with a 35mm Pentax camera which I think belonged to Ringo as none of us had that model camera. Anyway, the shot of him above is from that roll, which I developed the next day and made a few prints for myself.
Photography's Golden Age ended long ago but remains very much alive in my memory. From 1952 through 1965 I assisted Avedon during his most creative period, and do I ever have the stories to tell! Now, at the end of 2015, is the time to reveal all, while I'm still alive and kicking. Tales of personalities, motivations, intrigues, and even the fine details of how it was all done.
What I need to make this a reality is a co-conspirator to aid in getting the whole, true, uncensored story published -- either as a book, an e-book, or even a documentary.
Anyone interested? Leave a comment and I'll get back to you.
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