Images are the objects by which we measure our fame. In a visual culture drunk on celebrity, the picture is the currency that matters as much as money; it’s their proliferation, the way the literal visions of our favorite actors or writers or musicians trickle into our private aspirations, our deeper dreams, that makes celebrity the liquid commodity that it is.
Bob Bonis came to understand the metric of imagery like no one could. The shy, private New York talent agent who was the Beatles’ US tour manager from 1964 to 1966 was also an avid photographer, a shutterbug who kept a camera close at hand throughout his life — and especially during the period when he was effectively the ringmaster for what would become the biggest act in ‘60s pop culture.
It’s this private passion for photography, a sense of its potential for documentary and revelation, and an uncanny grasp of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” that merge in The Lost Beatles Photographs, the just-published trove of previously unseen images taken by Bonis during the three years of the Beatles’ life on the road.
The photographs are from the period between the first throes of Beatlemania and the time when the shadow of controversy started to cloud the Beatles legend. We see the band in its awesome rise, but we’re also witness to the Beatles disarmed and in reflection — the Beatles, in short, as human beings, unplugged, unmasked and uneasily riding a monster of their own creation.
Bonis, who died in 1992, was a reluctant historian. For years after the Beatles disbanded, he kept the photographs private, showing them to friends and visitors but resisting appeals to publish them. Finally, happily, in 1997, Bonis’ son Alex decided that a world that’s never tired of Beatle history deserved to see his father’s undiscovered work. Alex Bonis eventually connected with Larry Marion, a rock historian and archivist. The two formed 2269 Productions, created to cement the photographic legacy of Bonis père. They were also instrumental in opening Not Fade Away Gallery, for production of prints of Bonis’ work, something this book will certainly help.
It’s strange to think that, for all the years of practice and live performance that preceded their 1964 breakthrough into what was then the biggest market in the world, the Beatles only performed 51 dates in the United States. In the two years and 11 days between the start of their first US tour and their last live performance, Bonis chronicled the movements of the biggest band on the planet, armed with a camera loaded with fast Kodak film. It was the magical mystery tour before the Magical Mystery Tour, and Bob Bonis was the fly on the wall with a Leica M3. The trust he earned from the group on the road is reflected in this book, whose smart editing and meaningful textual content contribute to a narrative arc from first page to last.
In August 1964, the Beatles took their first American tour, hop-scotching 26 cities around America in a chartered Lockheed Electra with various opening acts, including singer-songwriter Jackie DeShannon and legendary New Orleans R&B singer Clarence (Frogman) Henry. In the wake of A Hard Day’s Night, their first film, the Beatles were greeted by tens of thousands of screaming fans, an anodyne hysteria for a nation still stunned by the assassination of President Kennedy the year before.
Bonis records the early Beatles phenomenon in all its triumphant silliness. At a mansion in the toney Bel Air district of Los Angeles, the Beatles clown poolside for Bonis with props and toys; Ringo Starr indulges his inner cowboy. Later that month, at a press conference in Toronto, the band (still in matching-suits mode) dutifully poses for photo ops for the press and speaks with the leaders of the local fan club.
Sometime that fall, it all kicks in. You can see it in the shots taken live: At a concert in Kansas City that September, at Municipal Stadium, Bonis captures the full, muscular fury of the Beatles in their white-hot ascendancy, brandishing a monstrous confidence, still loose and comical, still enjoying the ride.
Bonis captures the same ebullience in the 1965 tour — a tour powered by the release of Help!, their second movie. Days after the epochal Shea Stadium concert, the Beatles played in Houston, Bloomington, Minnesota, and Portland, Oregon, with Bonis often shooting from the stage itself, at literal arm’s length from the band.
One of the constants throughout the latter part of the book, a direct consequence of Bonis’ intimacy with the band, is the time we see them in rehearsal. It’s the foundational backstage ritual, but it’s striking when you see the Beatles doing it. The most photographed band of the ‘60s wasn’t often caught in the act of practicing. Yes, Let It Be documented their work in the studio, but that was years later, when the fabric that held the band together was badly torn and frayed.
Bonis’ backstage images from August 1966, before shows in Detroit and Philadelphia, show the band (particularly John Lennon and George Harrison) in full creative flower — nailing down the set list, to be sure, but certainly also exploring other ideas, the other songs in the hothouse that the world would discover in the Beatles’ next phase.
That next phase started nine days after the final images in this book. Bonis accompanied the band to Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis on 21 August 1966. Instead of the tyros who took the world by storm two years before, the men we see are, somehow, not Beatles. Seated aboard the plane somewhere in the air over Middle America, they’re everyday people, frequent flyers stripped of legend, diminished and almost small.
At the stadium and before the show, Bonis records the group going through its perfunctories. But collectively, the St. Louis segment reveals a group whose body language and outward mannerisms — John Lennon and George Harrison had fully adopted sunglasses as part of their public personae by then — suggested an inner exhaustion with the rigors of touring. No more mugging for the camera. Not even Bob’s camera.
The Beatles played their last public performance at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, eight days later, on 29 August 1966.
Even though the Bonis photographs are without question what drive this book, they get a necessary assist from the text of Larry Marion, an authority on rock memorabilia. He’s credited as the author, and fairly so; even though it’s the images you come for, Marion offers informative interstitial text that knits the photos together for a coffeetable book with a compelling story, rich with insights and surprises. His eye for the memorabilia that Bonis collected is unerring; we see the press passes, autographed artifacts — and pictures of the tickets (whose prices were straight from the county fair. Imagine seeing the Beatles for $3.25).
Larry Kane, an author of two Beatles books and the only American journalist to accompany the group on the full 1964 and 1965 tours, writes an energetic foreword.
The Lost Beatles collection has its predecessors in the archeology of rock culture. In the 2009 book The Beatles: On Camera, Off Guard 1963-1969, memorabilia collector Mark Hayward assembled a collection of Beatles photos taken by various photographers throughout the Beatles’ career.
Yesterday: The Beatles Once Upon a Time, published in 2007, has the advantage of participation of an early insider in the formation of the Beatles legend. Astrid Kirchherr — a German photographer and artist who had dated Stu Sutcliffe, the original Beatles bass player — compiled a photo chronicle of the band on the cusp of greatness with friend and contemporary Max Scheler.
The Lost Beatles collection joins this canon, obviously, but rises above. Unlike the Hayward collection, Bonis’ work reflects a creative continuity with the camera that stems directly from an emotional continuity with its subjects — how unlike photos by a parade of strangers and casual acquaintances.
And unlike the Kircherr book, which ends just as the band is breaking through, the Bonis archeology has a fuller narrative flow. There’s more of a sense of a beginning and an end because, well, there really was a beginning and an end.
Harrison observed years later: “Sunrise doesn’t last all morning.” The Lost Beatles Photographs documents the sunrise of four protean talents we can’t quite let go of yet, from an era whose innocence was as short-lived as it was unlikely to happen in the first place. All things must pass. But with such scrapbooks of a time it gets too easy to forget, all things that pass don’t have to be forgotten.
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