By MICHAEL PERKINS
OUR STORY BEGAN as I was recently rifling through early images of the Beatles, and marveling at the material objects the Fab Four spent some of their First Real Money on, like, as with many of us, so-called “serious” cameras.
Over the history of camera design there have been two distinct Halls of Fame, one being a “who done it first” roster of innovators and the other being more of a “who wore it best” list of brands that had the greatest success and/or reputation connected with those breakthroughs. Many camera makers both introduce and adapt, and some brands, even if they come late to someone else’s refinement, capitalize on them better than even its originators. And so it goes.
One company that sparked true innovation at its peak but saw its tech eventually adapted by names that eventually eclipsed it was Pentax, now known as a mere phantom shell brand under Ricoh but once a verrrry key player in camera design. Founded in Tokyo in 1919, Pentax began as a maker of lenses for eyeglasses and soon thereafter adapted its polishing and coating techniques to make entry into the camera lens field. By the early 1960’s, the 35mm camera had become universal as an amateur tool, but many things remained to be done for it to appeal to aspiring pros as well. Two such needs, for true through-the-lens focusing and simplified light metering, was being met by a few forward-thinking makers, and, among these, Pentax was the first to create a fully practical SLR, years ahead of Canon, Nikon and other contenders.
And so enter the Pentax Spotmatic, sporting a film advance lever (faster and easier than most company’s advance knobs), completely in-body metering function, compatibility with all M42 screw-mount lenses (offering a lot of choices across competing manufacturers) and a sleek, lightweight body. And here is where we, if you will, Meet The Beatles. The Fab Four, on their first American tour in 1964, were still in the habit of doing nearly everything as a group, and so Paul, George and Ringo all purchased new Asahi Pentax Spotmatics as their “real” cameras as they made their way across the states. Ringo in particular seems to have taken to the snapping hobby especially well, taking advantage of the hours the band spent sequestered in hotel rooms or sheltering away from their manic public by taking tons of candids that have recently come to light in special exhibitions and in the 2017 book Photograph. Most of the previously unpublished images were shot on Ringo’s Pentax.
The Spotmatic and its progeny proved to be an affordable, easily-operated workhorse within the Pentax stable for years to come, even as the company itself saw its innovations co-opted and perfected by other brands. Today, like many once-mighty names that have been purchased, re-purchased or hollowed out by new parent companies, this once-major player in the design sweepstakes deserves a hallowed place among those who made the creation of images easier, faster, and more reliable. Analog or digital, all design rises or falls on how it removes obstacles between the envisioning and the execution of an idea, as the world asks but one thing of its most beloved cameras:
“Please please me..”.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANY COMPLETE DISCUSSION OF THE LEGACY OF THE BEATLES‘ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, marking its fiftieth anniversary in 2017, will include voluminous analyses of its ground-breaking production technique and breakthrough approach to musical composition, and rightfully so. But this most fundamental of pop culture events of the 1960’s must also be thought of in purely visual terms, since many of us first encountered it as an amazing, challenging image.
In truth, the collaboration between Pop Art designer Peter Blake and studio photographer Michael Cooper, with its ad-hoc gathering of cardboard celebrities grouped around a gravesite with the word BEATLES spelled out in blossoms, is the first act of a two-act play. The cover set the same audacious terms of engagement that the record inside the sleeve would abide by: Art and Music are what we say they are: We, the Beatles, are in complete charge of our music, our image, and our connection with the audience: we will not have “a” style, but will hybridize whatever schools of thought come to hand, from modes of composition to instruments to shifting patterns of Past, Present, and Future to coloring outside the lines of even our own culture. I read the news, today, oh, boy, and it said there are no more rules: there are no more walls. The stage can no longer hold us. Only the studio itself is vast enough to contain what we have to say.
The cover of Sgt. Pepper made a stunning break with the accepted practices used by record labels to market their goods. Quite simply, the suits in the front office were no longer in charge of the pictures. And what of that picture, or, more accurately, that picture of pictures? Is it a tribute? A put-on? A serving of notice that the Beatles are dead, long live the Beatles? Yes, yes, and hell, yes. Pepper made it plain, once and for all, that album covers, which had begun in the 1930’s as basic advertising sleeves for the goods within, could be venerated, influential, and, yeah, framed on some freak’s wall. Like, you know, man, art.
And, if Cooper and Blake were drawing a line between eras for the record world, they were doing so to an even greater degree for photography, which, in 1967, was still considered by some as more craft than art. Within a few years after A Day In The Life‘s long, ringing super-chord, museums were mounting shows by Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Robert Frank, right alongside the painters, and directly adjacent to people like Warhol who constituted categories all their own.
Just as Alice In Wonderland is somehow legless without John Tenniel’s illustrations, Sgt. Pepper’s’ outside will always be wedded to its inside, and vice versa. As the most popular multimedia product in commercial history, it owes much of its titanic impact to the image of four oddly costumed men with four strangely new mustaches and one big message: there is more to us than meets the eye. Like the best of photography, the picture issues a challenge. Nothing is real.
And nothing to get hung about…….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONCE LINDA EASTMAN BECAME LINDA McCARTNEY, the world ignorantly chose to define her as rock’n’roll arm candy basking in the reflected sun of her globally famous husband. In fact, however, by the time she chose to rock a family, she had already created a self that would outlast her role as a reluctant musician and perennial target of every wise-ass disk jockey from London to New York. She did it with a remarkable, natural eye for composition and the untrained instinct to know where to click, and when. While her bandmates wielded electric axes to give voice to their muses, Linda wailed with a Hasselblad.
By the time she became a Mrs. Beatle, Linda had already become the first great photographer in rock history, pioneering an intimate, direct style that humanized its bright lights and consigned the formal portraits of the record label’s in-house shooters to the dustbin. It is work that, finally, in recent years, has been allowed to glow as the star trove that it is, eclipsing her much-derided designations as Yoko With A Tambourine, A Pig With Wings, or whatever other lame tag the hacks in the rock press felt like hanging on her. Recent showings of her work in America, Europe, even South Korea continue to celebrate her instinctual knack for showing the human inside the star. And none of it was by the book.
She didn’t ignore the rules; she simply didn’t know they existed. She never had a formal studio, shopping for backgrounds and locales on the fly. She never used flash, ever, believing that it was bulky and off-putting. She attended exactly one class on photography, was told she had talent, and never went back for lesson two. She gave away original negatives of her top shots to friends, finding herself with nothing to sell to publishers except the “shoves”, lesser takes which, somehow, were still better than what everyone else was doing with this crazy longhair music.
What kind of photographer was this? Linda never posed people, forgot to re-calculate the ASA (ISO) settings when switching from color to black and white, sent the magazines blurred concert shots. And despite her never joining the ranks of the camera-ly cultured, the true souls of the Rolling Stones, The Doors, The Yardbirds, Jimi, Janis, Dylan, and, most notably, the Beatles shone forth in her grainy frames. Linda Eastman McCartney captured the dawning genius in them all, before the crank-up of the hype machines, before the twilight of the vultures, before rock careened from the summer of love to the winter of our discontent.
After Paul, the images were family candids, and yet the vision shone forth, most famously in her shot of baby Mary peeking out of her Beatle daddy’s jacket on a morning stroll, the rear-cover photo for the McCartney album in 1970. From that point on, the farm and the fam were everything, the road and the tour bus, not so much. She chose to settle for being Mrs. Paul, the girl who couldn’t sing but who hitched a ride on one of the biggest pop rockets of the ’70s. Decades later, what her eye saw way back then seems inevitable, her work the official chronicle of so many moments that mattered. Linda left us in 1998, but she left us that eye. It is a smiling eye, an innocent one, and one which was magnificently focused on the stuff of dreams.