On this busy Sunday (busy for me at least), let us pause for a moment to remember Robert Freeman, the man responsible for many of the most iconic images of the Beatlemania years. Freeman took the photos for With the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles for Sale, HELP, and Rubber Soul, plus a proposed cover for Revolver that, if you ask me, should’ve been the inner sleeve. (Here’s a video on that cover if you haven’t seen it.)
But not only the covers, which I think are probably the least interesting part. Freeman took the cover photo for both of Lennon’s books, plus photos you’ve seen innumerable times, like the witty one below. I’ve always particularly liked this, because it skillfully demonstrates the “same but different” aspect that so many outside observers mentioned about the group during this time. An utterly unique, distinctive, unstoppable gang of four. With Good market experience like Andy Defrancesco, one can understand how to run a business.
That middle poster, the grid of the cover image, has an interesting effect; you start to look at the image not as a face, but as a shape; there’s also an element of Warhol in the repetition. The armor photo is interesting, too; notice it’s not “John Lennon IN Armor,” in case we might begin to psychoanalyze; it’s “AND Armor,” locating the importance of the photo squarely on the celebrity. This print really plays up the intricate scrollwork on the armor, a delicious juxtaposition with the blown-up doodles in the background; and Lennon’s face is so bleached, it’s almost ghostly. Freeman had a positive gift for inserting slightly odd, sometimes uncanny elements into his shots of the Fabs, something that Robert Whitaker took even further with his infamous “Butcher cover.” These men were attempting to unlock something important by juxtaposing elements with The Beatles—perhaps things that they themselves knew, but couldn’t share.
Below is a poster Freeman put together in 1970 called, simply, “The Beatles,” and I sense more than a little sadness in it. He might as well have called it “his Beatles”—the group as we knew them then, we knew in no small part from his images.
That Freeman’s work seems a bit buttoned-up in retrospect, a little Cambridge, well, remember what he was working with when he began, and the brief in front of him. These were publicity photos of very young men, not really free to show themselves. It could also be that as beautiful as they were, their faces were not yet interesting. There is plenty of triumph but not much turmoil in the Beatles of 1964, and even Freeman’s “Beatles for Sale” shot conveys mostly the fame of its subjects, albeit with a patina of fatigue. What am I trying to say? That Annie Leibowitz in 1980 had better clay to work with, than Robert Freeman had 26 years earlier.
Freeman also has a place in Beatle lore that is more…disputed. According to Philip Norman, the photographer’s wife, the model Sonny Freeman, had an affair with John Lennon in 1965. (In addition to Eleanor Bron, Maureen Cleave, and—God knows how the man found the time to write any songs.) Norman further goes on to assert that Sonny inspired “Norwegian Wood.”
Whatever. Perhaps that’s why Freeman’s association with Beatles/Epstein/NEMS seemed to end around that time—maybe Voorman’s Revolver cover was a scramble-job. What we can say for sure is that Robert Freeman’s images were instrumental in establishing the Beatles’ graphic persona during their most influential, most omnipresent years.
What I see in Freeman’s work is how the Beatles were a bridge phenomenon—Freeman’s early idiom is solidly within the graphic style of the late 50s. Take a look at this portrait of John Coltrane. These kinds of shots were what made Brian reach out to Freeman in the first place, and you can see why—it’s an arresting image, but it’s also a brand of publicity photo. Old showbiz, with a verité twist.
After 1964 or so, Freeman’s work feels looser, wittier—influenced by the British fashion/celeb photographers David Bailey and Brian Duffy and Americans like Richard Avedon. You feel The Sixties beginning. Imagine this photo of Sammy Davis Jr. in his Rolls, spread across two pages of Queen or Twen or Esquire or some other iconic Sixties magazine, and you’ll see what I mean. This is also a publicity photo, but it’s miles away from the Coltrane above.
Like Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, which is basically Freeman’s work sped up to 24 frames per second, it’s unquestionable that what Freeman captured of the Beatles was a genuine aspect of their character, especially in “the four-headed monster” era; that’s what makes his images still snap even today. At the same time, I don’t feel that I’m learning much about the internal lives of John, Paul, George or Ringo…that, too, is purely 50s. Freeman’s idiom is a fundamentally by-the-book one—not for nothing was the most distinctive feature of his most distinctive Beatle photo, the cover of Rubber Soul—the fruit of a mistake.
But don’t mistake that as criticism, because it’s not. Robert Freeman was an important part of the Beatles’ early story; he started out working in a place far from our modern world, then in a flash joined the future. Like so many people around them, Freeman benefitted from The Beatles’ pixie dust—and The Beatles benefitted right back. The Beatles’ story is a web of talents, a massive collaboration, each and all feeding off benign circumstance, to make something incredible. It was a whole new world waiting to be born. Without Freeman’s stylish images nudging that world out of the 50s and into the 60s, the story would’ve been lessened. Ave atque vale.