Robert Whitaker: Photographer best known for his work with the Beatles

Spencer Leigh
Thursday 22 September 2011 23:18 BST

Although Capitol Records released the Beatles' records in America, they were allowed to repackage them and effectively issued more albums but with fewer tracks. In 1966, they released Yesterday And Today, a typical hotchpotch which put new tracks from Revolver alongside older ones from Help! and Rubber Soul. The cover photograph, taken by Robert Whitaker, showed those lovable mop-tops in butchers' coats with raw meat and dismembered dolls.

The sleeve was withdrawn in the ensuing controversy: Capitol said that the sleeve had been intended aspop art satire and the new coverphotograph, also taken by Whitaker, had "a more generally acceptabledesign." To save money, and showing contempt for the record-buyingpublic, many of the withdrawn albums simply had the new cover pasted over the old one. An untarnished butcher's cover is now among the most collectable items of Beatle memorabilia, easily worth £5,000.

Robert Whitaker was born in Herpenden to an Australian father and British mother in 1939 and grew up with a passion for contemporary art and photography. When he was 16, he cut up a book about Salvador Dali, creating collages which he sent to Dali. They corresponded, although Whitaker wasn't to meet the artist until 1967.

In 1961, he moved to Australia to help install a colour film processing plant and when that was aborted, he found a job as a film editor for television. He opened his own photographic studio, often undertaking fashion photography for the Australian edition of Vogue, and he associated with the city's young artistic talent including Richard Neville, Germaine Greer and Barry Humphries.

In 1964, he had an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne. One of his early photographs showsa 13-year-old Olivia Newton-Johnattached by her hair to a clothes-line and holding a packet of washingpowder. "I was saying to her, 'That's your future'," Whitaker told me in2003, "but in her case, I was completely wrong."

In June 1964, the Beatles wereplaying Melbourne and the journalist Adrian Rawlings wanted to interview their manager, Brian Epstein, for The Jewish News. He asked Whitaker to accompany him and take photographs. Epstein, with his gold bracelet and expensive watch, seemed to Whitaker like a Roman emperor so Whitaker laid some peacock feathers on the photographic plate to create an image akin to Caesar's. Whitaker returned to the hotel the next day; Epstein was impressed and introduced him to the Beatles. He took some amusing but routine photographs of the Beatles with boomerangs.

Epstein brought Whitaker to London, offering him a management contract and having him photograph the many performers in his NEMS agency, including the Beatles. Whitaker was to take many EP and LP cover photographs for the Beatles, Cilla Black and Gerry and the Pacemakers. He photographed the Beatles at Shea Stadium and other venues but he said, "It was difficult to get anything interesting out of taking photographs of them on stage because it had been done so many times before." Although Whitaker could take standard publicity pictures, he preferred to experiment and found that the Beatles, especially John Lennon, were up for it. Influenced by Dali, he took a photograph of Lennon with a dandelion for a right eye.

With Epstein's permission, he dressed the Beatles as butchers and created the infamous cover. It was intended to be part of a triptych entitled Somnambulant Adventure and the intention was to show that these four idols were flesh and blood. Without his permission, the photograph first appeared in Disc in June 1966 with the headline, "Beatles: What A Carve-Up".

In 1966, Whitaker accompanied the Beatles on what was to be their final world tour and his book, Eight Days A Week (2008) is accompanied by his own insightful commentary, where both the photographer and his subjects were seeing each other through marijuana smoke. The Beatles enjoyed returning to Germany, had a gruelling time in the Philippines, where they fell foul of the Marcoses, and experienced Japanese culture in Tokyo. Whitaker captured them working on a painting together in the Tokyo Hilton called Images Of A Woman.

Whitaker left NEMS amicably in August 1966 and shared a studio with his friend, the artist Martin Sharp. "I decided to accompany Cream to a concert in Scotland and we took a lot of LSD," Whitaker recalled. "Jack Bruce wanted to show us the highlands and so we started to climb Ben Nevis. I thought that I would get a great album cover from the top, but we didn't get very far. We were running down fast and I was taking pictures all the way down and trying not to fall over. I processed all the images and Martin got a pair of scissors and cut them up and arranged a collage. Martin had been playing with day-glo paints and he then washed it with these day-glo colours. It looked very vibrant and it became the cover for Disraeli Gears. It is now regarded as one of the best covers ever."

He and Sharp then started Oz with Richard Neville. One of Whitaker's images was of a female defecating on the Houses of Parliament. He returned to the Beatles from time to time, photographing, for example, the opening of their Apple boutique. He was the official photographer for the films Performance and Ned Kelly, both of which starred Mick Jagger. He spent a considerable time with Salvador Dali and his photographs were published as In The Company Of Dali (2007). Whitaker then became a war photographer, being wounded in Vietnam – and then, covering the war in Bangladesh, he was jailed for espionage.

In the early 1970s, he and his wife Susan ran a farm. His work remained in storage until the 1990s, when he published Unseen Beatles (1991). The Beatles wanted to use many of his images for their Anthology project, but this simply led to a fierce debate as to who owned the images – Whitaker or the Beatles? Since then, Whitaker has appeared at several Beatle conventions and organised exhibitions of his work. His work is frequently on display at the National Portrait Gallery because, as he said, "There were about 100 key movers and shakers in the '60s and I was lucky enough to photograph most of them. Of course, my photographs of the Beatles have overshadowed everything else, but that's OK."

Whitaker was always good-natured, perhaps epitomised by the way he signed a book for me: "HappyDaze, Robert Whitaker."

Robert Whitaker, photographer: born Harpenden, Hertfordshire 13 November 1939; married (three children); died West Sussex 20 September 2011.

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