Robert Whitaker (Beatles Photographer) Dies Oct 15, 2011 21:38:02 GMT -5
Post by yerblues1968 on Oct 15, 2011 21:38:02 GMT -5
Sunday 16 October 2011
Robert Whitaker, who died on September 20 aged 71, shot fashion spreads for Vogue and reported on the Vietnam War for Time; above all, however, he was famous as the Beatles’ in-house photographer, documenting the band’s hysteria-soaked last tour.
Whitaker liked to say that there were “about 100 key movers and shakers in the 1960s” and that he had the good fortune to photograph most of them. But he good-naturedly accepted that his career output was likely to be overshadowed by the two years he spent with the world’s most famous pop group.
He had been swept into the band’s entourage by Brian Epstein, the group’s manager, during a Beatles tour in Australia. Whitaker, who had established himself as a photographer in Melbourne, produced an image of Epstein’s face wreathed in peacock feathers, like some latter-day Roman emperor. The shot convinced Epstein to offer Whitaker a job at his NEMS agency, shooting album covers and promotional material for artists including Cilla Black and Gerry and the Pacemakers.
It was a role that often required conventional compositions. But in the Beatles, who were bored by posing in the same way for endless photoshoots, Whitaker found willing subjects for the kind of experimentation that had won him Epstein’s admiration in the first place. John Lennon, for example, was happy to pose with a dandelion in his eye for one arresting image; when Whitaker asked all four Beatles to put on butchers’ aprons to secure another, they readily agreed.
The photo, in which the Beatles clutch joints of raw meat and decapitated children’s dolls, was taken for Yesterday and Today, a 1966 US-release of tracks from Help! and Rubber Soul. It was intended as a metaphor: despite their astonishing celebrity, John, Paul, George and Ringo were only flesh and blood.
When it appeared in America, however, it was interpreted very differently. Some found it in gruesome bad taste, others viewed it as an oblique commentary on the Vietnam War. Either way, a controversy erupted and the cover had to be withdrawn. A new picture, also taken by Whitaker, was pasted over the offending image. Original, unadulterated, copies of Yesterday and Today now command thousands of pounds.
There was less chance to offend on tour, when documentary shots of concerts were mostly what was required. But Whitaker did capture a turning point for the band: fans arrived at concerts to hear the clean-cut hits of the early years, such as I Want to Hold Your Hand, while Lennon and McCartney were already plotting the experimental works that would feature on the album Revolver. Gingerly, through the marijuana smoke, Whitaker built up a rapport with the band members and recorded their transformation. “I learned when to poke a camera at them and when not to,” he said.
Robert Whitaker was born on November 13 1939 at Harpenden, Hertfordshire. His father, Richard, was an Australian who had flown in the Air Force during the Second World War. Robert was educated in London and was encouraged from an early age to take an interest in the visual arts. He was particularly fascinated by the work of Salvador Dali.
In 1961 he became one of the “Ten Pound Poms” who travelled to Australia on a government-subsidised boat passage. There he opened his own photo studio – producing fashion features which appeared in Australian Vogue – and mixing with Melbourne’s creative circle, which included such figures as Barry Humphries and Germaine Greer.
After being plucked from Australia by Epstein, Whitaker returned to London, where he lived in The Pheasantry on the King’s Road. When he left NEMS after the Beatles tour, he set up a studio with the Australian artist Martin Sharp. Together they accompanied the supergroup Cream on a drug-fuelled excursion to a concert in Scotland. During a stop-off at Ben Nevis, Whitaker took dozens of images of the band which Sharp proceeded to cut up and colour with Day-Glo paint. The result, which graced Disraeli Gears, is considered one of the best album covers ever. At the time, however, Whitaker had been annoyed as Sharp wielded the scissors because the prints “weren’t cheap to do”.
Whitaker and Sharp collaborated on Oz magazine, which took on a new, scandalous, lease of life in Britain in the late 1960s. Whitaker also travelled to meet his hero, Salvador Dali, in Spain, where the two became friends.
For the most part, however, Whitaker was reinventing himself as a news photographer, documenting conflicts around the world. He covered the Arab-Israeli war in 1967, Cambodia, and the Indo-Pakistan war in 1971 (when he was briefly jailed). He was wounded by a grenade in Vietnam. “It was important to me not to be typecast as a pop photographer,” he said. “I was keen to go out and photograph the war, but I remember thinking it was only a matter of time before I was wounded. As it turned out I was very lucky to survive.”
In 1972 he married and settled on a farm in Oxfordshire, combining arable and cattle farming. But in 1987 he was injured in a car accident and advised to curtail the physically demanding agricultural work. It was then that he began cataloguing his Beatles archive, which was stored in a chicken shed. The book Unseen Beatles appeared in 1991; it was followed by In the Company of Dali (2007) and, earlier this year, by Eight Days a Week, an account of the last Beatles tour. His work was also the subject of several exhibitions, and forms part of the National Portrait Gallery collection.
Robert Whitaker is survived by his wife, Sue, and by their daughter and two sons.