MILESAGO - Profiles
Robert Whitaker, born in Britain in 1939, describes himself as "one part Aussie lad" since his father and his grandfather were both Australian. (According to Whitaker, his grandfather built the Princes Bridge in Melbourne.) Although he has worked mostly in Britain, Australia and Australian connections have been a major feature of his work and career.
Robert began work in London as a photographer in the late ‘Fifties but he moved to Melbourne in 1961 where he began studying at the University of Melbourne and became part of the small but flourishing Melbourne arts scene. According to art historian David Mellor, it was his three years in Australia that transformed Bob’s work as a photographer. A major influence was undoubtedly his friendship with two of the leading figures of the Melbourne art world, Georges and Mirka Mora, and through them he came into contact with other major figures in Australian art and letters including John and Sunday Reed, Ian Sime, Charles and Barbara Blackman, Barrett Reid, Laurence Hope, Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan and Joy Hester, as well as his own peer group including Martin Sharp, Richard Neville, Barry Humphries and Germaine Greer. Robert’s photographed many of these people including Georges and Mirka Mora and their three sons, Philippe, William and Tiriel (a prominent actor who has starred in FRONTLINE and THE CASTLE).
Robert was running a freelance penthouse photo studio in Flinders Street, Melbourne when he had his fateful meeting with The Beatles and their manager Brian Epstein, during their 1964 Australian tour. His meeting came about more or less by accident, when he accompanied a journalist friend to an interview with Brian Epstein for an article for the Jewish News. The picture was published with the article, which led to his meeting with Epstein and his first shots of the Beatles -- pictures of Paul McCartney and George Harrison each holding up boomerangs presented to them by their Australian fans.
Bob accepted the job three months later, but before he left he spent one final Sunday at the Aspendale beach house of his friends Georges and Mirka Mora, taking a set of historic pictures which were exhibited for the first time in the Monash Gallery of Art's 2003 exhibition of his work. In one photograph, Aspendale Beach, the Mora family - Georges, Mirka and their sons Philippe, William and Tiriel - are pictured in slouched, single file on the beach with Martin Sharp and architect Peter Burns. In another photograph, Goodbye Bob, the same group of people sit holding a sign which reads: "GOD bless thee and keep thee … ASPENDALE 1964".
On his arrival in England in August 1964, Whitaker set to work photographing the members of the NEMS stable including Billy J. Kramer & The Dakotas, Gerry & The Pacemakers (including cover shots for the How Do You Like It and Ferry Across The Mersey LPs) and Cilla Black (including cover shots for the Cilla and Cilla Sings A Rainbow LPs). Bob also did several photographs of the hugely successful Australian folk-pop group The Seekers, including the cover shots for Seekers Seen In Green (1967); his Seekers photos were also used for the CDs Live At The Talk Of The Town and The Seekers Complete boxed set and a more recent photo of Judith Durham was used on the cover of her 2001 solo CD Hang On to Your Dream.
But it was with The Beatles and especially John Lennon, with whom he became
close friends, that Bob created his most famous and enduring work. On of his
first assignments was photographing The Beatles during their triumphant
second American tour, including the historic Shea Stadium concert in New
York. He spent the next two years travelling with the Beatles and shooting
them at work, at rest and at play -- on their tours, at home, in the
recording studio, during private moments, and in formal photo-sessions. Some
of the best known shots from this period are shown below:
With almost unlimited access to the most famous and popular band in the world, it’s no surprise that Bob Whitaker quickly became a key figure of the London underground scene, capturing “the creativity and excess of London in the sixties”. He has been quoted as saying: "There were about 100 people who ran the Sixties" and he was fortunate enough to meet, work with and/or photograph them virtually all of them.
As the group's 'court photographer' Bob was able to photograph the Fab Four in many moods and situations. Several of the photographs he took during 1966 were used on the cover of their classic Revolver LP and incorporated as part of the famous Klaus Voorman collage on the front cover.
Bob also accompanied The Beatles on their 1966 tour of Japan. In Tokyo the
promoter gave Bob a Nikon 21mm wide-angle lens with which he took numerous
shots of The Beatles relaxing in their hotel room at the Tokyo Hilton. These
include several photographs of the four Beatles at work on a collaborative
painting “Images of A Woman”, the only such artwork they ever undertook, and
a colour photo of the group inspecting antiques, which was used on the back
cover of the compilation album A Collection of Beatles Oldies.
This now-legendary image, probably the single most famous image of the group, was originally conceived as one of a triptych of photographs, and intended as a surreal, satirical pop-art observation on The Beatles’ fame. Whitaker’s inspirations for the images included the work of German surrealist Hans Bellmer, notably his 1937 book Die Puppe (La Poupée). Bellmer’s influence can be seen in the images shown below, which were first published in the French Surrealist journal Minotaure in 1934. Whitaker has also cited Meret Oppenheim as another important influence, notably her most famous creation Lunch In Fur (1936), a disturbing creation in which she covered a cup, saucer and spoon entirely in fur.
It has often been claimed that The Beatles intended the Butcher Sleeve to be a protest at the way their music was being “butchered” by their American label, Capitol Records. In a Nov. 15 1991 interview with Goldmine magazine, Whitaker discussed the Butcher Sleeve at length, and unequivocally put the “protest” claims to rest:
Quoted at the time (1966) in the British music magazine Disc and Music Echo, Whitaker said:
Bob was later quoted as saying that the basic motivation for making “A Somnambulant Adventure” came from the fact that he and The Beatles were “really fed up at taking what one had hoped would be designer-friendly publicity pictures"; in the interview conducted just before his death in 1980 (referred to by Bob), John Lennon confirmed this.
Whitaker had intended the triptych to be his “personal comment on the mass adulation of the group and the illusory nature of stardom … I had toured quite a lot of the world with them by then, and I was continually amused by the public adulation of four people".
The images in the triptych were intended as the foundation of a much more elaborate work. He had planned to retouch the photos to give them the appearance of a religious icon. The background was to be painted gold like a Russian icon and to have the Fab Four’s heads surrounded by jewelled halos, with the photos bordered in rainbow colours. This decoration, contrasted with the bizarre situations of the photos themselves, was evidently intended to create a surreal juxtaposition between the band’s image and celebrity, and the underlying fact that they were just as real and human as everyone else.
The images shown above are those intended to be the three parts of the triptych. The first photo shows The Beatles facing a woman with her back to the camera, her hands raised as if in surprise (or worship) while The Beatles hold a string of sausages. This was meant to represent the 'birth' of the Beatles, with the sausages serving as an umbilical cord. Whitaker explained: "My own thought was how the hell do you show that they've been born out of a woman the same as anybody else? An umbilical cord was one way of doing it."
The centre panel of the triptych is the image nowadays referred to as the “butcher” photo. It shows the (evidently rather stoned) Beatles dressed in butchers’ coats, draped with slabs of red meat, false teeth, glass eyes and dismembered doll parts. This picture was actually titled "A Somnambulant Adventure" and Bob’s intention was to add other elements to it which would create a jarring juxtaposition between idolisation of The Beatles’ as gods of the pop world and their flesh and blood reality as ordinary human beings, but he was never able to realise this.
The photograph that would have been used for the right-hand panel of the triptych is one of George Harrison standing behind a seated John Lennon, hammer in hand, apparently driving nails into John's head. Whitaker explained that this picture was intended to demonstrate that the Beatles were not an illusion, not something to be worshipped, but people as real and substantial as "a piece of wood".
A fourth picture taken at the same session, but apparently not planned as part of the triptych, is also included in Whitaker’s book The Unseen Beatles. It shows John framing Ringo's head with a cardboard box, on one of the flaps of which is written "2,000,000".
Like the famous 1963 photo of Christine Keeler taken by his contemporary Lewis Morley, Bob's “Butcher” photo soon passed out of his control and took on a life of its own. The Beatles themselves seem to have been behind the use of the photo in British trade advertisements and then on the cover of the Capitol album Yesterday and Today. The prime mover seems to have been McCartney. In his book Shout, Beatles biographer Philip Norman, claims that Brian Epstein had "misgivings" about the picture and felt it would disrupt the band’s meticulously managed image, which had taken a hammering in the wake of the “bigger than Jesus” controversy. But according to Norman, the band overruled him.
Interestingly, the ‘Butcher’ photo made three appearances in print in the UK before it was released in the USA on the cover of Yesterday And Today. It was first published on page 2 of New Musical Express on 3 June 1966 in an EMI advertisement promoting the forthcoming Rain/Paperback Writer single and the same ad was published in Disc and Music Echo the next day, June 4. Both these versions were in B&W. Its third appearance (and its first in colour) was on the front page of Disc and Music Echo on 11 June 1966 under the headline, "BEATLES: WHAT A CARVE-UP!" It can also reportedly be glimpsed in photos taken during the making of the Rain and Paperback Writer film-clips, filmed on 19 May, in which Paul McCartney can be seen inspecting transparencies from the 25 March photo session. None of these appearances seem to have caused any appreciable comment in the UK, even though they were published only days before Capitol’s promotional release of the “Butcher Sleeve” version of Yesterday And Today.
At this point it should be noted that, up to and including Revolver,
all The Beatles' American LPs (released by Capitol Records) differed
markedly from the original UK releases from EMI. The Capitol LPs were
collections of material culled from the Beatles' previously-released British
albums and singles, selected and packaged by Capitol especially for the
American market. Yesterday And Today included songs from the
earlier Help! and Rubber Soul LPs plus,
unusually, four songs from Revolver, which would not be
released in Britain for another three weeks. It was Capitol’s habit of
cherry-picking album tracks and singles to compiled their own albums that
was the origin of the urban myth (referred to above) about the Butcher
Sleeve being some kind of protest against the American label.
It has been suggested that Lennon was the main impetus behind the photo being used, but according to Alan Livingstone, Capitol’s former president, (quoted in Mojo magazine in 2002), the decision to use the photo Yesterday And Today was taken largely at the insistence of Paul McCartney:
Capitol were understandably touchy and could ill afford another Beatles-related controversy -- they were still reeling from the PR disaster of John Lennon’s notorious “bigger than Jesus” quip in March, which had sparked a wave of protests and record burnings in conservative areas of the US. The company reacted swiftly, issuing letters of apology and on Tuesday 14 June PR manager Ron Tepper issued an official letter of recall in which he quoted a statement from Capitol’s President Alan W. Livingston:
"The original cover, created in England, was intended as a ‘pop art' satire. However a sampling of public opinion in the United States indicates that the cover design is subject to misinterpretation. For this reason, and to avoid any possible controversy or undeserved harm to the Beatles' image or reputation, Capitol has chosen to withdraw the LP and substitute a more generally acceptable design."
The Butcher sleeve LPs were withdrawn and returned, and a new cover was hastily prepared at a reported cost of $250,000. The offending Butcher photo was replaced by an unremarkable Whitaker shot of the Beatles gathered around a large steamer trunk, taken in Brian Epstein’s office. It was rushed to America, where Capitol staff spent the following weekend taking the discs from the returned "butcher” sleeves and putting them in the new sleeve. Several thousand copies of the original cover were destroyed and replaced by the ‘cabin trunk’ sleeve, but Capitol eventually decided that it would be more economical to simply paste the new cover photo over the old one. After the album was released, news of the ‘paste-over’ operation leaked out, and Beatle fans across America began steaming the cabin trunk photos off of their copies of Yesterday And Today in the hope of finding the “butcher” cover underneath.
The Butcher cover is still one of the most valuable and sought-after pieces of Beatle memorabilia. George Harrison himself called it “the definitive Beatles collectible" and Bob Whitaker relates the story of a woman who came up to him with an unpeeled ‘paste-over’ cover in the US, had him autograph it, and promptly sold it for US$40,000.
The scarcest copies of Yesterday And Today are the so-called
“first state” versions, those still in their original shrink-wrapping, and
the rarest and most valuable of these are the ‘first-state’ stereo
pressings. Prior to 1987, there were only two sealed stereo copies and about
six mono copies known to exist. Then, on Thanksgiving weekend 1987 at the
Los Angeles Beatlefest convention, there occurred what can only be described
as a record collector’s wet-dream. Peter Livingston, son of 1960's Capitol
Records President Alan Livingston, walked into the Beatlefest dealer room at
the show carrying a box of original first-state Butcher cover albums. Nearly
every copy was sealed and in mint condition.
Whitaker's next major project, and one of his most famous collaborations, was created with Sharp -- the classic psychedelic album cover for Cream's landmark 1967 LP Disraeli Gears.
Bob’s friendship with Martin Sharp and Greer also led to him becoming closely involved with Oz magazine in 1967-68 and he contributed to many of the early editions of the famous underground magazine, including a famous collage depicting a woman seated on a flying toilet symbolically shitting on the Houses of Parliament.
Over the next few years Bob gradually moved away from the pop scene and back to the art world where he had begun his photographic career. One of his most famous subjects from this period was a longtime hero, the doyen of surrealism, Salvador Dali, whom Bob photographed several times between 1967 and 1972. He first met Dali at his Spanish mansion and told him that he wanted to use his camera "to get inside his head".
The photos he took include three extreme close-ups of Dali, plus one of Whitaker's wife Susie basking topless under the Spanish sun alongside the artist. The extreme close-ups were the first steps towards a photographic style that he finally developed fully in the 1990s, a concept he now calls the "Whitograph", shooting extreme close-ups with all 36 exposures of a roll of film to create a single portrait.
In 1969 he photographed Mick Jagger (who nicknamed him “Super Click “) during the production of Nicholas Roeg’s PERFORMANCE and he accompanied Mick to Australia to photograph him on location during the filming of NED KELLY. These were published in book form as the 1970 under the title Mick Jagger Is Ned Kelly.
Bob also worked as a photojournalist, covering major world events for Time and Life magazines, including the Florence floods, the war in Cambodia and Vietnam and the bloody war of independence in Bangladesh. One of the most famous photographs from this period, the eerily beautiful Bangladesh (1971) depicts two dead soldiers near the Indian border, lying in golden sunlight, as if asleep.
In the early Seventies, Bob effectively retired from photography and for almost twenty years he farmed his property in Sussex. In 1991 he gathered some of his previously unpublished photographs of The Beatles for his successful book The Unseen Beatles (although many more negatives apparently still await retrieval from his barn. The book was very successful and was followed by a touring exhibition of his photographs from the 1960s, “Underground London”, which included photographs of the individual Beatles as well as many previously unseen shots from the "Butcher Sleeve" session. The exhibition visited The National Gallery of Victoria in 1998, before heading to America for a two-year tour there.
For many years, Robert Whitaker has fought an ongoing battle with Apple Corps over ownership of the rights to the "Butcher Sleeve" photo. Apple Corps told him they do not want the image reproduced as a book cover, postcard, poster, "virtually in no form whatsoever", a move which so angered Bob that he considered making an enormous print of the "Butcher Sleeve" for his Underground London exhibition and putting it behind closed doors so that people would have to file in one at a time.
Apple Corps has its own photo library which manages the use of copyright
Beatle material around the world. When asked for his opinion on the
situation, the late Derek Taylor, Apple Corps' long-serving press boss, was
quoted as saying that "the person who might know who has the actual
copyright to the ‘Butcher's Sleeve’ picture is not yet born." Taylor felt
that, because Whitaker was employed by Epstein and NEMS at the time he took
the picture, this gave Apple the legal copyright, although he recognised
that it was Whitaker "who took the picture, who thought of the idea, and
that would give him a proprietary moral right." Taylor added that
Taylor also claimed that "George still doesn't like it." (mainly it seems
because Harrison subsequently became a vegetarian). But Taylor
reportedly believed that the banning of the cover was a mistake and finds
its replacement less innocuous than it seems. "I mean, which is worse,
Beatles with meat all over them, or four Beatles in a trunk in a hotel room.
If you really think about it what would they be doing in a trunk "?
In the mid-90s Apple Managing Director, Neil Aspinall began negotiations with Whitaker for the use of 300 of his images of the Beatles in the television documentary, The Beatles Anthology, but it proved to be a shortlived rapprochement:
Bob Whitaker: "On one day Neil Aspinall is offering me £80,000 for the use of my pictures in his Anthology of the Beatles, chatting about their past around the table of an English pub. The next day Aspinall phones to say that he thinks I should give the Anthology all the pictures for nothing, having spent six months deciding which images should be reprinted, retouched and repaired. We, the Beatles, own Whitaker's life. Needless to say, they got nothing."
In 1997 Melbourne’s Gallery 101 mounted a world-premiere exhibition of Robert’s photographs of Mick Jagger, taken during the production of NED KELLY.
In February-March 2002 Bob’s photos of George Harrison featured as part of a photographic tribute to George staged at the Govinda Galleries in Washington. In November 2002 Bob returned to Australia to open a new 40th anniversary retropective of his work entitled “Yesterday & and Today: The Photography of Robert Whitaker 1962-2002” at the Monash Gallery of Art in Melbourne which ran from 30 November 2002 to 26 January 2003. It includes many previously unseen images from Whitaker’s early days in Australia, through his European work with the Beatles, Cream, The Seekers, Robert Hughes, Man Ray, Salvador Dali and Peggy Guggenheim, to his current work with Australian artists such as Stelarc, Bruce Armstrong, and Howard Arkley.
Robert Whitaker is currently compiling a digital archive of his work and in
another career milestone, his photographs of The Seekers were chosen for a
special commemorative Australia Post stamp issue to celebrate the group’s
Corrections? More information about Robert
|REFERENCES / LINKS|
Frank Daniels/Euan MacKenzie/“saki”
Magidson Fine Art, Aspen
David P. Mikkelson
Monash Gallery of Art