Robert Whitaker (1939 – 2011)

Robert Whitaker, the inadvertent father of one of the most sought-after Beatles memorabilia, is dead, aged 71. 

From his very first photo of The Beatles — that of McCartney and Harrison holding boomerangs — Robert Whitaker proved to be an abnormal photographer. With his unerring eye for the weird, Whitaker went on to craft many surreal images of the band at the height of their fame in the 1960s. Handpicked by the band’s manager Brian Epstein, Whitaker was reluctant to photograph the band until he saw it in concert and being ‘overwhelmed’ by the screaming fans of Beatlemania.

In three short years he covered the band, from 1964 to 1966, he complied a remarkable dossier, shooting the band at home, in recording studio, during private moments and in formal photo-sessions, often involving unusual props. In one session, he had the group holding a car spring, a sun parasol, a broom, and an umbrella to represent spring, summer, autumn and winter. And the Fab Four enjoyed his company and his creative mind, mainly because they were fed up with taking market-friendly publicity pictures.

But the most notorious use of props came in March 1966. Inspired by the German surrealist Hans Bellmer, Whitaker created the infamous butcher cover, which featured the group  with slabs of raw meat and the dismembered body parts of children’s dolls. He called it “Somnambulant Adventure” and conceived it as a triptych in which he would present The Beatles as religious icons, adding halos to the picture and referencing the story of Moses and the Israelites worshipping a golden calf. He wanted it to be a cynical commentary on adulation and stardom:

All over the world, I’d watched people worshipping them like idols, like gods. I was trying to show that The Beatles were flesh and blood”.

The photos were used in Britain without controversy, but when they were sent to America to be used at Capitol Records, the distributors refused to handle the record. While it was not the case, the fans viewed the cover as a commentary on Capitol Records’ periodic “butchering” and rearranging of The Beatles records. The retailers denounced the cover as “sick”. The band also was divided; Lennon and McCartney defended the cover, while vegetarian Harrison thought the whole idea was gross and stupid. Still concerned by the commercial backlash following John Lennon’s “bigger than Jesus” comment, Capitol Records withdrew the cover and apologized. The rare original covers went on to become one of the most sought-after Beatles memorabilia.

Whitaker’s association with The Beatles ended soon afterwards. He never had the chance to finish his triptych, but he went on to become a key figure in London’s emerging counterculture, to create Cream’s seminal 1967 album Disraeli Gears, and to take a series of famous pictures of Salvador Dali, his lifelong idol.