Gary James' Interview With John and Yoko Photographer
In November 1980, just before the murder of John Lennon, photographer Allan Tannenbaum had total access to both John and Yoko. This was a period when John was emerging from five years of seclusion and releasing the album "Double Fantasy".
Allan's photographs of John and Yoko can be found in the new book, John And Yoko: A New York Love Story. (Insight Edition) Allan spoke about his time with the most famous couple in the world.
Q - Allan, in looking at the photographs in your book, John looks terribly thin. I know he liked to go out to restaurants. Did he ever take you out to a restaurant?
A - (laughs) No, he didn't. The most I had with him was after shooting the second session in Central Park when they were with the film crew, I joined him and Yoko for coffee at their favorite little cafe.
Q - That wouldn't be that cafe that announced it's closing down, would it?
A - That's it, yeah.
Q - Well, at least you got to sit down and have a cup of coffee with him. That's something, isn't it?
A - I know. I wish I could remember the conversations, but you know how it is. But, it was just great being with him.
Q - As you were strolling through Central Park with John and Yoko, it looks as if you were drawing a crowd. Is that true?
A - No, not at all. There were two sessions in Central Park. There was November 21st where they're wearing the leather jackets. It's an overcast day. It was in the morning and nobody really bothered them except at the end where we were just about to leave the park. One guy came up to them. And then the second time when they were filming and there was just one blonde girl that came up to them and I think she had something for them. But, other than that, there wasn't a crowd. I think in general, people gave them space and didn't bother them too much.
Q - Don't you find that remarkable?
A - Well, New Yorkers try to be cool like that. But of course, there were fans that would hang around at the Dakota. It was normal for John to sign autographs for them and that probably was his undoing.
Q - I take it that when you were taking pictures of him, no one around John expressed concern about his security.
A - Yeah. He just thought he could be a regular guy.
Q - Why did John and Yoko agree to have you photograph them? Were you their own personal photographer over the years?
A - No. Over the years they used to work with a lot with Bob Gruen. But I was working with a paper called The Soho Weekly News. It was a very hip, downtown paper. When they were coming out of seclusion and had done "Double Fantasy" and were starting to promote it and were arranging interviews with major publications, I suggested to our music editor that we try to do something with them. He liked the idea and reached out to them. His idea was to do something on Yoko. She liked that idea and liked the paper and liked the fact that this was downtown. She used to live downtown before she moved to the Dakota, both as an artist before she met John and she and John had a place in Soho in the Village. The first thing I did with her was to have her over to my studio in Tribeca for the cover portrait session. When we were done with that I suggested that we get together for some black and white pictures to go with the piece inside the newspaper. So, I was invited to the Dakota the next day and had breakfast with Yoko. And we talked and did some pictures. Well, before we did pictures I suggested that we do something with John and Sean. She said "well, not Sean, but I'll tell John to come down." He came downstairs and remembered meeting me from five years before. That's when we did the first walk in the park and when we came back to the Dakota and were doing some shots inside their office on the ground floor of the Dakota called Studio One, then I over heard them talking about a video they were going to be shooting. So, I suggested to Yoko that they have me there as a stills photographer. She just said "Well, we'll see." Then they called me five days later. So, I had not really worked with them over
the years, except for a video taping session John had done in 1975. There's pictures in the front of the book of their performance and backstage. I had never really done anything with them. I'd seen Yoko on occasion at art openings and art events, but I had never worked with them the way Bob (Gruen) had worked with them very intimately over the years.
Q - What was John's mood like in those last weeks of his life?
A - Well, I think it shows in the photos. He was incredibly upbeat. There was a lot of excitement and enthusiasm and optimism. They had a new album out. They were happy with it. An excellent album. I'm sure they were planning to go on the road and tour.
Q - Did he talk about "Double Fantasy"?
A - Maybe. I think we talked about a lot of things, just all kinds of general subjects, sailing in the Caribbean and stuff like that. It wasn't too much about The Beatles and music at all. He was very engaged, very knowledgeable and very funny. He was always cracking jokes and having fun.
Q - How many of these pictures have never been seen before?
A - Maybe more than half are pictures I went back and looked in my archives, looked at my contact sheets, looked through my color slides and found a lot of good material that has just never been published before. That was very exciting to do that process and get them published.
Q - Would there be more pictures of John and Yoko that you didn't put in the book?
A - There are more, but I don't think anything is missing at this point.
Q - If you're a true John Lennon fan, you can never get enough. It's just like the Anthology that was put out. You have to wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor.
A - Yeah, but you have to edit. For example, there are a lot of pictures of them wearing the Kimonos. Some are just better than others. So, just because it's another picture of them doesn't mean necessarily that it has to be there. When you take pictures, you're seeing something and you're just looking for the best moment. So, you'll take a lot of shots to get that best moment. Until you really get it, they're not as good, so why diminish the great one? Why dilute it?
Q - Have you photographed other celebrities for the Soho Weekly?
A - Oh, absolutely. I photographed Jack Nicholson, Mick Jagger, Kurt Russell, Woody Allen, Sally Field, Stephen Spielberg. I used to get a lot of sessions with people. In the 70s, you could quite often go backstage and hang out. It wasn't just three songs and out to the parking lot. The Clash have been to my studio. I used to be able to go backstage with them. I've photographed Stones' concerts where I'll shoot the whole thing and then be backstage briefly. I photographed Bob Marley in his hotel room in addition to his performances. So, I had access to a lot of people in those days.
Q - How would photographing John and Yoko have compared with these other people?
A - Well, I had a lot more time with them. He was probably the biggest celebrity, the biggest star. Although I had sufficient time to photograph Jack Nicholson. There wasn't a publicist telling me what to do. There was a time limit, but I was able to put him here, put him there. But quite often it would be limited and you'd be working with a writer and the writer would need their time to do an interview. But with John and Yoko I had much more time, especially when they were making the movie. So, I had plenty of time to get plenty of shots with them.
Q - How did John sound at this party for Lew Grande?
A - He sounded great! He had a great band. He wouldn't put himself on stage and do things half-ass.
Q - Allan, you can stare at the pictures in your book for hours on end.
A - Well, I really appreciate the kind words.
Q - I never pass up an opportunity to interview someone who either knew or worked with John or any of The Beatles.
A - Well, just in closing I would say I was really privileged to have that contact and to have been able to spend time with such a great musician and artist. Such a fabulous guy. I'm thankful for that.