Thursday 23 January 2020

Obituary: Robert Freeman

Photographer and filmmaker who shot many influential album covers for The Beatles in the 1960s

Days in the life: Robert Freeman, The Beatles’ chosen photographer, shot five of the band’s album covers and was a neighbour of John Lennon. Photo: Shutterstock
Days in the life: Robert Freeman, The Beatles’ chosen photographer, shot five of the band’s album covers and was a neighbour of John Lennon. Photo: Shutterstock

Robert Freeman, who has died aged 82, was a photographer who became closely associated with The Beatles, shooting the album covers for With the Beatles, A Hard Day's Night, Beatles For Sale, Help! and Rubber Soul; he also shot the first Pirelli calendar.

His first cover, for the band's second album, With the Beatles, was done in half an hour, he recalled. "They came down at midday wearing their black polo-necked sweaters," he wrote in his 2003 book The Beatles: A Private View. "There was no make-up, hairdresser or stylist - just myself, The Beatles and a camera.

"They had to fit in the square format of the cover, so rather than have them all in a line, I put Ringo [Starr] in the bottom right corner, since he was the last to join the group, he was the shortest and he was the drummer."

For Rubber Soul, his final Beatles cover, having photographed the band in John Lennon's garden in Surrey, he was, as usual, showing them the shots he had taken by projecting them on to white cardboard the size of an LP sleeve. The card, which was propped up on a table, slid down, distorting the image. The band loved it. "Because the album was titled Rubber Soul we felt that the image fitted perfectly," recalled Paul McCartney.

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Robert Grahame Freeman was born in London on December 5, 1936, to Freddy, an insurance broker for West End theatres, and Dorothy (nee Rumble). He studied Modern Languages at Clare College, Cambridge, and worked on the student newspaper, where his interest in photography was first kindled.

Graduating in 1959, he did his National Service in the Army, then began his photographic career mostly at The Sunday Times, making an early impression with his photos of visiting jazz musicians, including John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Cannonball Adderley, as well as Nikita Krushchev in the Kremlin and Muhammad Ali.

In 1963, Freeman sent some of his work to The Beatles' manager Brian Epstein, who asked him to go to Bournemouth, where they were in the middle of a six-day, two-shows-a-night residency, and photograph them there. They mentioned that they had the With the Beatles album cover to do, so Freeman suggested a group portrait. Though the band loved the result, EMI nearly vetoed the cover as it was in black and white and the boys were not smiling.

Freeman went on to travel with the band on a five-day trip to Sweden, sharing a room with Lennon, and he accompanied them on their first visit to Paris, and later to the US.

Towards the end of 1963, when Lennon needed a place in London for himself, his wife Cynthia and baby Julian, Freeman told him that the flat above him in Emperor's Gate, Kensington, was empty, and the Lennons moved in.

Freeman and his German wife, the model Sonny Spielhagen, gave the couple their first taste of London clubland, and Lennon would often stay up in the Freemans' apartment with Sonny until the early hours.

Freeman designed the cover for Lennon's book, In His Own Write (and the follow-up, A Spaniard in the Works), and shot the cover for The Beatles' next album, A Hard Day's Night - four rows of thumbnail portraits of the band sporting a variety of facial expressions - as well as designing the film's opening titles.

He gave the cover of the fourth album, Beatles for Sale, in Hyde Park, an autumnal feel - which, with the band members unsmiling and seemingly world-weary, suited the LP's air of introspection.

Back in Kensington, the late-night chats between Lennon and Sonny Spielhagen had developed into something more, and they embarked on an affair that mostly took place in the Freeman's wood-panelled apartment. Although Sonny was born in Germany, she had always referred to herself as Norwegian, and it is widely believed that Lennon's song Norwegian Wood is a coded account of their relationship.

For the cover of The Beatles' next LP, Help!, Freeman had the Fab Four standing in the snow in the Austrian Alps, where a section of the film was being shot, spelling out the word "Help". He didn't like the arrangement, however, "so we decided to improvise". The final result appears to spell out "NUJV", while a slightly different shot was used on the US release, spelling out "NVUJ".

In 1964, in the middle of his stint with the Beatles, Freeman shot the first Pirelli calendar, in 1964.

Freeman eventually found out about his wife's affair, and in her autobiography, Cynthia recalled an evening in 1965 when the Lennons received a visit from the Freemans: "Bob looked furious and Sonny was in tears, cowering behind him. Bob ignored me and said he wanted to talk to John. They disappeared into the living room. Half an hour later Bob and Sonny left. It was never mentioned again, but not long afterwards I heard that Bob and Sonny were divorcing."

Leaving The Beatles behind, Freeman directed the 1966 film Greetings Mary Ann!, which sank without trace. His Swinging London film The Touchables (1968), was written by Ian La Frenais from a story by Donald Cammell but also disappeared with little fanfare, though it did later acquire a certain cult cachet; he also made Secret World (1969), a story of adolescent longing starring Jacqueline Bisset.

During the 1970s he made television commercials and later taught architectonics - the study of structure - in New York. In the 1980s he lived in Hong Kong, then spent 20 years in Spain. He moved back to London following a stroke.

He published several books containing his Beatles photos, including Yesterday (1983), in whose introduction McCartney wrote: "I have a feeling that Robert Freeman's photos were amongst the best ever taken of The Beatles."

Robert Freeman, who died on November 8, had a daughter and a son with his first wife, Sonny. He is survived by his second wife, the author Tiddy Rowan, with whom he had a daughter.

© Telegraph

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