Photographer Brian Hamill shares the story behind his new photo book, which shines intimate light on the dynamic duo’s tender relationship
American photographer Brian Hamill has spent over 50 years garnering acclaim as both a photojournalist and a still photographer on seminal movie sets (Annie Hall, The Conversation, A Woman Under the Influence). Much to his delight, the avid rock’n’roll fan also had the opportunity to meet and photograph John Lennon – once while performing what would be his final concert in Madison Square Gardens in 1972, and twice on portrait assignments at Lennon and Yoko Ono’s New York homes.
As with all Hamill’s work, his images of the Beatle and his artist wife – newly published in a photo book titled Dream Lovers – are masterfully composed and wonderfully candid. “I’m a straightforward guy,” he explains over the phone in a gruff, warm Brooklyn accent. “I grew up one of seven kids in an Irish, working-class neighbourhood and we had to be. Plus I do a minimal amount of direction – when it’s a journalistic look, I find it best to let people do their thing and shoot away.”
In Lennon and Ono’s case, that thing was lounging companionably in their apartments, which we get a satisfyingly in-depth look at; walking the streets of the West Village in matching outfits, and watching the world go by from their rooftops. Here – almost exactly coinciding with what would have been Lennon’s 80th birthday – Hamill recalls the very memorable experiences of capturing his favourite Beatle on film.
“I first photographed John in person on October 13, 1972. And I was nervous! I’d been doing photojournalism for around seven years, so I was confident in my own craft abilities, but it was a big deal. John Lennon was my favourite Beatle.
“When I rang the bell of their Bank Street apartment, I announced my name and John’s voice said, ‘Come on up’. I was shocked: on movie shoots, you have assistants, the whole entourage, but he answered the door himself!
“The first thing he said to me was, ‘Hello Brian, I’m John. Would you like a cuppa?’ I looked around the apartment to see where ‘Team Lennon’ was, but the only one in there was Yoko.
“They were both exceedingly nice, and had such humanity. When we went out on the streets, they never made themselves seem more important than the people who stopped them to say hello. John had a built-in humour and he got a big chuckle from everyone he talked to, including me.
“He made me feel just as relaxed when I photographed him alone at the Dakota, three years later. The only fuck up I made then was when I asked him to pose in front of his jukebox. He put on What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye and afterward I said, ‘This is the most inventive album of the 70s so far’. Then I thought, ‘Oh shit, what did I just say to John Lennon?’ The guy had put out some really good records that decade, including the Plastic/Ono album! There was the hint of a pregnant pause and then he goes, ‘I agree. It’s a great fookin’ album!’
“We went up onto the roof again and he had a cool-looking jacket on with an Elvis pin – he told me Elvis got him into rock and roll – and an oversized French beret. It was very windy and his hair was blowing all over the place. I asked if he wanted to stop but he said, ‘Do your thing, I don’t care!’ He was the opposite of the actors I’d shot, who were always looking in mirrors: he was a rock and roller, a transplanted New Yorker.
“My favourite picture is of John and Yoko looking at the Hudson river. They’re both in profile and John’s got his hand on her left shoulder. They had matching dark clothing on – they were like sidekicks. It was a magical moment.
“My other favourite is a tableau taken on the rooftop of the Dakota. Over his left shoulder is where the Strawberry Fields memorial in Central Park is now, ironically, so it’s kind of foreboding but I like the graphics.”
Dream Lovers is out now, published by ACC Art Books.