Robert Freeman, Photographer of Beatles Albums, Dies at 82

By Richard Sandomir

Robert Freeman, who helped define the image of the Beatles by taking the cover photographs for five of their early albums, including “With the Beatles” and “Rubber Soul,” died on Nov. 6 in a hospital in London. He was 82.
His former wife Tiddy Rowan said the cause was pneumonia.
Mr. Freeman’s association with the Beatles was relatively brief — about three years — but memorable. He shot his first album cover for them in 1963 as their popularity was soaring, then joined them in 1964 on their tour of the United States; he photographed his last in late 1965, for “Rubber Soul,” which drew attention for its distorted picture.
That image was a twist on the standard group shot.
Mr. Freeman was projecting slides from his photo shoot onto an album-size piece of cardboard propped on a table. When the cardboard tilted backward, the effect was a fisheye version of the band’s faces. John Lennon dominated the picture “like some cruelly impassive, suede-collared Tartar prince,” Philip Norman wrote in “John Lennon: The Life” (2008).
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The fisheye effect on one of the most striking Beatles album covers was accidental. “Because the album was titled ‘Rubber Soul,’” Paul McCartney said, “we felt that the image fitted perfectly.”
The band loved it. As Paul McCartney recalled on his website after Mr. Freeman’s death, “He assured us that it was possible to print it this way and because the album was titled ‘Rubber Soul’ we felt that the image fitted perfectly.”
Another sort of serendipity led to Mr. Freeman’s cover photograph of the British release “With the Beatles” in August 1963, his first work with the group.
He had not been a photographer for long, but his portraits of jazz musicians like John Coltrane for The Sunday Times of London and other publications had impressed Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager. Mr. Epstein asked Mr. Freeman to come to Eastbourne, England, to shoot the cover of their second album.

Mr. Freeman’s portraits of jazz musicians, like this one of John Coltrane, impressed the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, who asked him to shoot the cover of the group’s second album, “With the Beatles.” Credit...Robert Freeman
The conditions were ideal. Light from the windows on one side of a hotel dining room left their faces partly in shadows. A maroon curtain created a dark background behind them.
 “They came down at midday wearing their black polo-necked sweaters,” Mr. Freeman wrote in his book “The Beatles: A Private View” (2003). “It seemed natural to photograph them in black-and-white wearing their customary dark clothes. It gave unity to the image. There was no makeup, hairdresser or stylist — just myself, the Beatles and a camera.”
Mindful of how to fit the four Beatles onto an album cover, he asked Ringo Starr to stand in the right corner of the frame and bend his knee, as if he were a rung below the others. “He was the last to join the group, he was the shortest and he was the drummer,” Mr. Freeman wrote.

The same picture, but with a bluish tint, appeared early the next year on the United States release of “Meet the Beatles,” which had many of the same songs as “With the Beatles.”
Mr. McCartney said the photograph was not a carefully arranged studio shot.
“I think it took no more than half an hour to accomplish,” he wrote.
Mr. Freeman’s photography helped define the Beatles’ iconography before they moved onto a pen and black ink illustration for the cover of “Revolver,” by the bassist and artist Klaus Voormann, and the wildly innovative artwork for the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’s” cover, which was designed by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth.
The cover of the album “A Hard Day’s Night” was distinguished by Mr. Freeman’s photographs of each Beatle in five different poses, organized in rows, one Beatle above the other. And his cover photo for “Help!” showed the Beatles standing side by side in matching blue outfits, making semaphore signals. (He also designed the title sequences for the related movies.)
Robert Grahame Freeman was born on Dec. 5, 1936, in London to Freddy and Dorothy (Rumble) Freeman. His father was an insurance broker for theaters in London. During World War II, Robert was evacuated to Yorkshire for about a year while his sisters stayed in London.
His interest in photography had its origins at Clare College at the University of Cambridge, where he studied modern languages and worked at the student newspaper. After he graduated and served in the British Army, he began working at The Sunday Times of London and other publications, which brought him to Brian Epstein’s attention.
Mr. Freeman’s career ranged well beyond his short time with the Beatles. While still shooting their album covers, he was hired in 1963 to be the first photographer of the sexy glamour calendar published by the Pirelli tire company. One model he photographed for the 1964 calendar was Sonny Spielhagen, his first wife. They would later divorce.
He went on to make television commercials in Britain and directed the films “The Touchables" (1968) and “Secret World” (1969), which starred Jacqueline Bisset. He photographed Sophia Loren, Andy Warhol and Jimmy Cliff, and made a film of a performance by Mr. Cliff.
While living in Hong Kong with Ms. Rowan, his second wife, he took up landscape photography and formed a company with her to produce and direct commercials.
In the 1990s he moved to Spain, where he became friendly with the director Pedro Almodóvar and took pictures of him and Penélope Cruz, his frequent star.
He is survived by a daughter and a son, Janine and Dean Freeman, from his marriage to Ms. Spielhagen; a daughter, Holly Freeman, from his marriage to Ms. Rowan, an author; six grandchildren; one great-grandson; and a sister, Barbara Floyd.
Mr. Freeman stayed in Spain for about 20 years, selling his photographs privately before a stroke led him to move back to London.
“He lost the use of his left hand and couldn’t walk properly,” Ms. Rowan said by phone. “He’d shuffle around his apartment and would take pictures in Battersea Park from his wheelchair.”