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Framing the Fab Four

Photographers Freeman, Russell helped shape Beatles' image

By Todd Leopold

Freeman's "With the Beatles" cover has become one of the most famous -- and most parodied -- in pop history.

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Robert Freeman
San Francisco (California)

(CNN) -- Their work finds the Beatles at the beginning and the end.

Robert Freeman first met the Beatles on August 22, 1963. It was a casual, get-to-know-you visit, a meeting of an up-and-coming photographer and four rising pop stars arranged through Beatles manager Brian Epstein.

Two days later, Beatles producer George Martin phoned Epstein and said he urgently needed a photograph for the group's new album. Epstein tapped Freeman, who gathered John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr in a hotel dining room and shot a grainy, understated, black-and-white image of the four in dark turtlenecks -- the soon-to-be iconic "With the Beatles" cover.

Ethan Russell first met the Beatles in early 1969. Photographs of Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones production "Rock and Roll Circus" attracted the interest of Beatles consigliere Neil Aspinall, who invited Russell to Twickenham Studios, where the group was making "Let It Be."

Russell's photographs ended up on the cover and gatefold of the LP, the last the Beatles released.

Freeman's work shows a talented unit bursting with confidence. Russell's photographs show four men trying to rescue their fading musical marriage.

But both photographers have fond memories of working with the Fab Four.

"The fact of just being there was phenomenal," recalls Russell in a call from his home in Northern California. He says he was aware of the fissures within the group but remembers the Beatles as being accommodating -- particularly Lennon, who soon invited Russell to take pictures of him and Yoko Ono.

Reached at his studio near Seville, Spain, Freeman recalls "humor and craziness."

"They were basically more fun than anything else," he says. "Their attitude contributed to the results of the photographs."

'Real moments with extraordinary people'

Both men's work has been on display at the San Francisco Art Exchange gallery, which specializes in portraits of musicians. A popular exhibit of Russell's photographs closed in January, to be followed quickly by the opening of a Freeman show, which continues its display. Freeman's work is also on display in New York's Lincoln Center through February.

Freeman's work is also available in a new book, "The Beatles: A Private View" (Big Tent). A collection of Russell's portraits, "Dear Mr. Fantasy," was published in 1985.

Russell ended up shooting the Beatles' last photo session, the one that produced the "Hey Jude" LP cover. During that time, he heard an acetate (early vinyl mastering) of "Abbey Road," the Beatles' recorded swan song, a tight, often upbeat record after the divisiveness of "Let It Be."

"It was good to hear it," he says, after the chilliness that had characterized the "Let It Be" sessions.

Let It Be
Russell's work was featured on the cover of "Let It Be."

Though Freeman characterizes his working relationship with the group as being "1 percent of my work, more like a hobby," his photographs stand out. After "With the Beatles," he did the covers for "A Hard Day's Night," "Beatles for Sale," "Help!" and "Rubber Soul."

He also constructed a collage for the "Revolver" cover that the group rejected. A round, black-and-white kaleidoscope of images around a circular center, the cover's abstract evocation of a gun barrel may have been too dramatic for even the "Tomorrow Never Knows" Beatles.

Both photographers easily moved on to other things.

Russell soon had his hands full with the Stones ("Through the Past Darkly"), the Who ("Who's Next" and "Quadrophenia"), James Taylor ("Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon") and Linda Ronstadt ("Hasten Down the Wind").

Freeman says he has no regrets about handing the baton to Michael Cooper ("Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"), Iain Macmillan ("Abbey Road") and Russell.

"I was just happy for other people to do the job," he says. "I was doing plenty of things I liked."

So was Russell, and he says he was pleased to have the opportunity to catch the Beatles at their most candid.

"What I think I do well," says Russell, "is capture real moments with extraordinary people."

With the Beatles, that was easy to do.

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