Gary James' Interview With John Lennon Photographer
David M. Spindel
David M. Spindel is an internationally acclaimed photographer. He's captured the images of major sports and entertainment celebrities. In 1980, he was personally selected by John Lennon to photograph one of the last "Double Fantasy" recording sessions. Mr. Spindel's photos of that session can be seen in the new book Starting Over: The Making Of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Double Fantasy by Ken Sharp (Gallery Books)
David Spindel talked with us about his time with John Lennon.
Q - You say in Ken's book, "I didn't follow music. It wasn't an area of intense interest for me. I enjoyed music, but I didn't follow bands." How different would your photographs have been if you did follow bands?
A - A total difference 'cause I would have got involved with a lot more groups and the photographs would be of great value to history so-to-speak, like the photographs I took of John were very special. Most of the photographers who take photographs of musicians are what they call the paparazzi type photographers. They shoot with motorized cameras and really don't know what good photos they may have until they view the images. I'm more of an artist and a still life photographer. I see differently. That's why I'm still in business. Nine out of ten guys that I went to school with are hairdressers or sell real estate 'cause they don't have that eye for what they photograph.
Q - You're an artist, just like the people you photograph are artists.
A - Right. And I've worked not just with musicians, but I've known a lot of celebrities over my career and they all said the same thing to me, that I'm an artist, not just a photographer. I photographed Joe Di Maggio, Stiller and Meara, Eli Wallach, over eighty celebrities I've met in my career. We got along great because we both got paid to do our hobby.
Q - Have you ever photographed anyone with the kind of fame that was attached to John Lennon?
A - Well, Joe Di Maggio. I did a lot of sports figures, Willie Mays, Duke Snyder. A lot of baseball players. John is in his own category. (laughs) There's a lot of icons I've met and photographed that are in a different category, but they're world famous. I think if you mentioned Katherine Hepburn and John Lennon, most people would know John Lennon.
Q - That's right.
A - He transcends generations while a lot of great actors and actresses like Douglas Fairbanks Jr., people sixty years old and over will know who he is. People fifty years old and younger might not know who he is.
Q - Did you go after Sinatra or Elvis?
A - I never thought to go after photographing musicians per se. I was a studio photographer and did still life for products. The thing with John Lennon, as you read, was an accident the way it came about.
Q - Which is just what I was about to ask you. An architect's fiancÚ got you the Lennon gig. She said "My brother-in-law to be got a job working with some musicians recording an album."
A - Right.
Q - Was her brother-in-law a famous musician?
A - No. He was a P.R. person. He got a job working for them to promote what they were doing. He told Nadia (the architect's fiancÚ) about it and she told him about me and he told John and Yoko about me. It was like a round robin thing.
Q - Was this person the guy living in Boston who was promoting "Double Fantasy"?
A - He worked for John and Yoko. I don't know specifically what he did for them. It's too many years. They ended up signing a contract with David Geffen, who did all the big promoting. But he was doing some of the ground work I guess you could call it.
Q - According to Ken Sharp's book, you didn't have a good experience photographing Kiss.
A - Well, the way it was, it was a lot of hard work and not great pay. I enjoyed what I did, but I never photographed them in concert. I did studio photography and every job was very involved. It didn't pay anywhere near for the amount of time and energy I put into it. I did Kiss' "The Elder". It was a week's work, finding the props and putting it all together. I think I got maybe $300 - $400 for an album cover. That same work from an agency, I would've got like $5,000. But I was basically just new in business and any job that came in the door, I did it. I'm in business to earn a living. Sometimes friends of mine would turn down jobs 'cause they said it's not enough. I said "You're doing nothing. Why turn it down?" I said "You do a nice job, the guy will come back with another job or maybe one that pays more."
Q - Why did John and Yoko need someone in the studio to take photos? What were they planning to do with the photos?
A - Just help promote what they were doing. They had other photographers who had photographed them, but they wanted to try someone different. John and Yoko loved my work. They loved the photographs. That's why when she put out the CD (John Lennon's Acoustic CD), she used my photograph on the cover of the CD.
Q - I take it you were a real John Lennon / Beatles fan before you got this job?
A - Well, not a fanatic. I enjoyed it like most people. Young guy, newly married with kids, working my ass off eighteen hours a day. (laughs)
Q - When you arrived at the recording studio, no one told you who you would be photographing?
A - Right. That was a big secret
Q - When you came face-to-face with John, he was in the studio having a massage.
A - Right. In this little room off the recording area.
Q - When he turned around and you saw his face, you knew who he was right away, didn't you?
A - Oh, yeah. Him I knew. Yoko I wasn't really sure about.
Q - Are there more pictures than what we see in the book?
A - Oh, yeah. There's over one hundred and fifty.
Q - So, what will happen to the rest of those photos? Will you put out your own book?
A - I actually designed a book myself with almost all the photos. I'm looking for a publisher. Initially, I didn't want to be bothered with that type of thing, but everyone says we'd love to see the other photographs. So, the easiest way is to put them all in a book. I worked for two and a half weeks on the internet, designed the book. Random House is interested.
Q - What song was John recording when you were in the studio with him?
A - "Hard Times Are Over" was one of 'em. As a matter of fact, I photographed the piece of paper he had with the words on it. What kills me is, after he finished, he threw it in the garbage pail there. If I'd taken that out of the garbage, do you know what that would be worth? (laughs)
Q - I'm gonna take a guess. Would it be worth $50,000?
A - More. Recently something sold where he had some sit-in with Yoko, he wrote something out and gave it to some girl who was assisting. He said "Hold onto this. Someday it will be worth a lot of money." It sold at auction I think for $85,000. But I got a picture of it anyway.
Q - Did he sign any of the photos you took?
A - I have a photo I took of both of them that they both signed. It's the only one in the world that's signed by both of them. It's a 16 x 20 color print. It's one of the pictures in the book, only it's black and white in the book. I've been offered a lot of money for it, but I don't want to sell it. I don't need the money.
Q - John and Yoko started the "Double Fantasy" recording sessions on August 7th, 1980. Were you there then?
A - No. I was there probably at the last session when all the musicians were there. That's why I took the group shot. They wanted something with everyone that was involved.
Q - Would that have been the last time you saw John Lennon?
A - No, actually the next day I went up to their apartment and showed them the proofs. I spent several hours with them.
Q - At The Dakota?
A - Yeah.
Q - Do you recall fans waiting outside of The Dakota?
A - I have no memory of that. I just pulled up in the cab and went right in. I just had to tell them who I was and where I was going and they directed me to the security desk and I went in.
Q - I hope that book of your gets published.
A - Well, I have a couple of people interested in it. My problem is there's not enough hours in the day. I'm involved in so many different projects at the same time. I'm supposed to be retired, but when you're creative, you don't stop.