Pros:interesting personal observations by Freeman; gorgeous, LARGE photos
Cons:layout is odd where a small photo is centered amongst text, professional talk bored me
The Bottom Line: one of the best collections of Beatles photographs I've seen; a perfect gift for Beatlemaniacs and fans of pop music photography
It's one of the most memorable and most imitated album covers in the history of entertainment. The Beatles' photographer Robert Freeman's stark black and white photo of their faces John, George, Paul and an offset Ringo posing with uncharacteristically serious faces against a black background was used for the cover of their second Parlophone release With the Beatles. And just as nearly everything the Beatles did in their early years influenced music and pop culture, this photo had an impact on art design, advertising, and other visual arts.
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Meet the Photographer
The photo is used as the cover of Freeman's photographic retrospective of the halcyon days of The Beatles, The Beatles: a private view, and is presented without a title or any other markings, just as Freeman (unsuccessfully) wished it would appear for the cover of With the Beatles. In fact, Freeman presents several famous photos of the band as he wanted them to be seen; for example, a monochrome version of the "earth tones" photo used for the cover of Rubber Soul. By telling his own story of his days with the band alongside strikingly large reproductions of his photos, Freeman engineers his own mix of the lives of the Fab Four.
As The Beatles' official photographer from 1963 to 1966, Freeman was allowed enviable access to the band in the Abbey Road recording studios, their hotels and dressing rooms during tours; his coffee table ready book of photography provides a fascinating and large-scale perspective on the Beatles days of innocence. Freeman quickly found a rapport with the band and with their manager Brian Epstein, and this allowed him to capture the many highs and the rarely publicized lows of The Beatles daily lives.
Please Please Me
Freeman's photography speaks for itself; his portraits are beautiful, often quite simple and striking all at once. He also seemed to have a knack for capturing the candid moments of the band, catching just the right facial expression at a the right moment. The oversize dimensions of the book (at nearly 13" by 13" square, the book is slightly larger than a Beatles album) provide ample space for large prints and room for Freeman to do interesting layouts reminiscent of the styles used during the Beatles' career; for example, head shots repeated across a single page echo the filmstrip style cover of A Hard Day's Night, and a photo of Ringo is cropped into a long strip and replicated four times side by side for effect.
One quibble I have with the layout of the book occurs when a small photo is centered amongst some text. To read the text as it goes past the photo, you have to read the text on the left, move back up to the text on the right and then continue underneath the photo. To me, it is disconcerting and unnatural my eye wants to jump over the photo and read the text from left to right all the way down it took me a moment to figure out what to do.
While Freeman's mostly black and white photos are evocative and fascinating, his equally black and white approach as an author falls flat at times, mostly when discussing his photography and the sessions with the band. Perhaps this is an unfair critique since I am only a casual photographer, and probably less interested in such details. Freeman explains simply about what happened at some photo sessions, discussing his vision as a photographer, and the methods he used to get the results he wanted. You can judge for yourself here is an example from his description of shooting the With the Beatles cover
Neil Aspinall arranged for them to come down at mid-day wearing their black polo-necked sweaters. It seemed natural to photograph them in black-and-white wearing the dark clothes they were into at the time. There was no make-up, hairdresser, or stylist just myself, the Beatles and a camera a Pentax SLR, with a 180 mm telephoto lens. The aperture was set a F22 to ensure depth of focus and the effect of the telephoto was to compress them into a tight group shot. They had to fit into the square format of the cover so rather than have them in all in a line, I put Ringo in the bottom right corner since he was the last to join the group. (pg. 56)
More interesting to me than his professional stories are Freeman's personal observations of Beatle life on the road, and at home. These tales are more interesting to me than the details of producing publicity photos or album covers, and his discussion of his friendship with John Lennon provides the most intimate glimpses into Freeman's thoughts about his experiences.
The day before John died a portrait of him (opposite page) fell off the wall of my studio in Hong Kong. When I learnt what had happened to him I felt a numbing sadness, a sense that there were still things to talk about, questions to ask and the answers were now lost forever. (pg. 74)
and in the end
Robert Freeman's The Beatles: a private view is a book of his photography and his observations of the band, both professional and personal. His photos are wonderful, and presented here in large format, they allow for close examination and consideration of their fascinating subjects. Freeman's professional discussions are a bit dry, but will certainly interest those who can appreciate the job of a professional photographer. I find his personal observations of his three years working with the Beatles and his continuing friendships with the members of the band to be more interesting, but I can appreciate Freeman's desire to discuss both aspects of his involvement with the band.
The book is widely available, and is quite a bit cheaper now than when it first came out fifteen years ago. I highly recommend it as a great gift for the Beatles fan in your life, or for anyone who appreciates the art of celebrity photography.
The Beatles: a private view - Robert Freeman, author and photographer
Published in 1990 by Mallard Press
Hardcover, large format, 176 pages
All text quotations are Copyright © 1990, Robert Freeman
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