Thursday, 18 July 2013


In this month's Iconic Photograph we see four smiling young men looking over the stairwell of  a smart office building.  They are on the verge of conquering the world.

They are the members of a little known pop band having their picture taken for their first LP release.  They are called The Beatles and the photographer Angus McBean has just helped start a legend. Stephen McKenna takes up the story.

The group known as The Beatles was no overnight sensation.  When they were introduced to Parlophone producer, George Martin, in 1962 they'd already been performing as a full-time band roving between their home town of Liverpool and Germany for over five years.  However,   in the year that followed,  Martin would nurture the band through their first recording sessions and help channel them towards a commercial career that was to change the future course of pop music.

By 1963 the 'Fab Four' (as they would later become) had made their debut LP release, 'Please Please Me'. it was recorded virtually on an 'as live' basis, so as to capture the energy and spontaneity of this new group.  All that was required was a photograph of the band for the LP cover.  

George Martin's first idea had been to have them photographed outside the Beatle House at London Zoo but late in the day the Zoo rejected the idea.

Time was running out and on the spur of the moment he decided to call the acclaimed photographer, Angus McBean.  This was a man famous for his dramatic portraits of theatrical greats such as Laurence Olivier, Sybil Thorndike and Vivienne Leigh and production shots for the Royal Opera House, Sadlers Wells and the new established Royal Shakespeare Company.  Regarded by his contemporaries as the finest photographer in the country, a young Anthony Armstrong Jones (later Lord Snowdon) dubbed him 'a genius'.

It was thinking against the grain but Martin's timing proved to be just right.  As he'd later recall:  "We rang up the legendary theatre photographer Angus McBean, and bingo, he came round and did it there and then.  It was done in an almighty rush, like the music."

The setting for this iconic picture was the administration building of EMI Records at Manchester Square; a smart if rather anonymous 1960s office building with a glass fronted internal stairway.

McBean was taken with the setting and had the idea of sending the boys up a couple of flights to picture them leaning over the balcony looking down at his camera.  For such a simple concept there was a lot of sense to it; the background architecture of the building filling the image and providing strong lead lines that drew the eye to the four faces.
McBean tried out a number of poses (see below) getting his subjects to look left, then right,  but it is the engaging image of The Beatles looking directly into McBean's lens with those winning smiles that makes this the 'money shot'.

Perhaps its no less typical than the kind of publicity still that has introduced thousands of new acts hoping to hit the big time, but, for what one might call a scratch shoot, it is remarkable the surety with which it establishes a photographic identity for The Beatles.

Indeed, so familiar was the picture to become that,  in 1969,  The Beatles would reunite with McBean at Manchester Square to replicate the image.  Although that retake wouldn't be used until 1973 for a retrospective Beatles album, it's a telling reminder of how far the Fab Four had come and the extent to which that first stairwell shot had captured that start of an amazing journey.


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