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John Lenon

I was 21 years old and had already been shooting professionally for almost two years, having ditched my music studies at the USC School of Performing Arts. I had also just returned from my first trip overseas, as tour photographer for the Jackson Five in Japan. A writer in LA from a now defunct magazine called Crawdaddycalled to see if I was available for a shoot the following Friday morning. Sure, I said. Who is it?

John Lennon

Imagine my delight to knock on the door of a house in Bel Air and to be invited in by John Lennon! My job was to do some "grip-and-grin" shots with the writer, some basic flash-on-camera interview stuff, and then try for some color head-shots for a possible cover if we had time. I had made only one "serious" portrait before. Portraiture had just become an interest of mine, having recently "discovered" the works of Irving Penn, Arnold Newman, and Philippe Halsman. So I brought along a tripod and some fine-grained B+W film specifically for that purpose, hoping John would cooperate.

I didn't realize it at first, but John was under a cloud. The U.S. government was trying to deport him on marijuana charges. He was also estranged from both his ex-wife Cynthia and from Yoko Ono, neither of whom were allowing him to see his two boys. That might explain why John was a little snockered when he came to the door, even though it was still early in the morning.

John was sitting on a couch answering the writer's, questions rather perfunctorily (Patrick Snyder, who used the nom de plume Scumpy) and being a bit of a wise-ass sometimes. Next to him on an end table were all kinds of knickknacks including a ventriloquist's dummy. John was intermittently handling things he had picked up from the table as he spoke, including the dummy. At one point he abruptly declared that he was through with the interview, that he was not going to answer any more questions. I'm afraid I was a bit of a wise-ass too, because I suggested that he let the dummy do the talking for him. (I think I saved the day!)

John set the dummy on his lap and worked its mouth, as the interview went on to its conclusion. Okay, that worked! John actually seemed to open up. Later, he was particularly nice to me. I spent several hours with him after the interview shooting pictures in and around the house. Then I asked if he would allow me to do a set-up for my "special" portrait, and he agreed.

I didn't carry lights in those days. I had to find the most interesting natural light in the house. There was a skylight in the bathroom with a diffused and directional quality. I wanted also to memorialize the event with our friend the dummy. Just for the record, John had to sit on the toilet seat to get the best lighting on his face. He was being very commodious, if you'll excuse the pun.

One of the proudest moments of my life was when a friend of mine, having returned from London years ago, told me that my portrait of John Lennon was hanging in the National Portrait Gallery. And, incidentally, I was privileged to have had Groucho Marx as the subject for the first portrait I had ever shot, not long before. So I can honestly tell you that my first two portraits were Marx and Lennon!

I was lucky to be with John Lennon on the Friday of his infamous "lost weekend." That evening, he and some of his musician buddies went out on the town on a drinking binge. They were thrown out of a Hollywood nightclub for being drunk and disorderly.

© 2003 Tom Zimberoff
tom@zimberoff.com
415/246-2417