If ever I was invited to go on the English television quiz show Mastermind my specialist subject might well be the Beatles. I can remember the first time I heard them, I bought all their albums on the day they were released and I even shared a flat with Paul McCartney’s brother in 1964. Not quite an expert but . . .
So, I was rather surprised to discover in the museum of Rijswijk, a small town between The Hague and Delft, a room full of photographs of the Beatles, most of which I had never seen before. And not any old photographs; most of them were photos as art, with collages, strange Man Ray effects with feathers and some candid shots of “the boys” as you’d never seen them before.
The photographer, Robert Whitaker, spent his formative years in Australia and a chance meeting there with Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein led to his photographing the group and then, in 1964, becoming the staff photographer for Epstein’s company NEMS in London. Whitaker spent the next two years photographing all of Epstein’s artists, but above all the Beatles with whom he became good friends.
Much of his work was considered too avant-garde for publicity purposes. His most famous and controversial shot was of the Beatles as butchers, wearing white coats and clutching large cuts of meat – an idea with which Ringo, judging by his expression, seemed very uncomfortable. The pictures were never used and in fact Apple, the Beatles’ company after Epstein’s death, rigorously guarded the copyright and refused permission for the images ever to be used or seen. Luckily, the infamous butcher pictures can now be seen in Rijswijk.
As I said, there are a lot of “art” photographs but there are some great single portraits, the best probably being Way Out George which in one print is hung as a giant, three meter high, tarpaulin. There are also some nice, sensitive portraits of John and a very candid shot, taken from behind, as the Beatles, holding their guitars, climb the stairs onto the stage for a concert in Tokyo. Another nice touch is that in the middle of the gallery stands a small record player on a table and a pile of Beatles albums, so you can play your own selection of songs as you look at the photos.
This is a major, important exhibition and it must be said that it seems like a major coup for a relatively unknown, provincial museum in Holland to be mounting it. This is a must-see for Beatles fans, those interested in photography and anyone who likes to be reminded of what an exciting and pioneering decade the 1960s was. Highly recommended. Michael Hasted 11th October 2017
THE BEATLES: Photos by Robert Whitaker at Museum Rijswijk continues until 21st January 2018