BOB WHITAKER, 52, A FORMER WORLD-GIRDLING photojournalist spent most of the ’60s in motion. “My mother would meet me at the London airport with another suitcase full of clothes,” he recalls, “and I’d go off somewhere else.” Then, in the early ’70s, a combination of events—shrapnel wounds suffered in Vietnam while on assignment for LIFE, and entreaties from his concerned fiancée, Susan McLean—prompted Whitaker to put away his camera and take up farming in the English countryside. The more he became consumed in his new life, the less he thought about the thousands of photographs he had hastily stored wherever he could find room—in tea chests, wicker baskets and old suitcases.
It wasn’t until 1987, when Whitaker was laid up for several months after an auto accident, that a neighbor—Robert Hershkowitz, a daguerreotype dealer—persuaded the photographer to let him sort through his haphazard archives and unearthed a minor treasure. “I found some photographs covered with chicken droppings in a shed,” says Hershkowitz. Among them were 3,500 pictures of the Beatles taken between 1964 and 1966, when Whitaker served as the hand’s official photographer. Thirty of these photographs, most of which have never been seen publicly before, are currently on exhibit at the Photographers’ Gallery in London. The collection is also featured in The Unseen Beatles, published in the U.S. this month.
The son of an Australian World War II airman and his English wife. Whitaker had barely launched his career as a photographer in Melbourne when the Beatles came to town in June 1964 and he photographed their manager, Brian Epstein, for the Jewish News. Epstein was so impressed with Whitaker’s innovative approach to photo montage—among other things, he printed Epstein’s face wreathed in peacock feathers—that he invited him to do behind-the-scenes pictures of the Fab Four in England and on tour.
During the next 30 months, Whitaker made numerous offbeat shots of the Beatles, including an image of the group in butchers’ aprons and festooned with raw meal and mangled dolls for the cover of the 1966 LP Yesterday and Today. The album art proved so controversial that it was replaced after just a few thousand copies had been sold. (Whitaker claims an original cover now fetches $10,000.)
Despite his privileged access, it took months for Whitaker to develop a rapport with the Beatles. “It wasn’t an immediate, ‘Well, hi, aren’t you wonderful?’ ” he says. Eventually, though, he was invited to photograph George and Patti Harrison at home and became a frequent guest of John and Cynthia Lennon. With John, he talked late into the night about the feelings of depression that plagued them both. “We concluded that it was a good thing to be in the bottom of that hole so that you could climb out of it,” he says. Having been at the vortex of Beatlemania, Whitaker was not surprised when the group disbanded in 1970. “It was obvious they could not keep that kind of pace up,” he says.
Post-Beatles, Whitaker became a roving news photographer for TIME and LIFE. “Looking back at my pictures now thrills me,” he says. But he has no regrets about chucking all the excitement for pastoral bliss and Susan. “We’ve had an absolutely wonderful, wonderful life, he says.
LAURA SANDERSON HEALY in Sussex