October 19: Photograph

19October 19: The photograph as memento.

Let’s simply remember the UK release date 44 years ago, today in 1973, of Ringo Starr’s single, Photograph; it’s a poignant song, with a simple story of an abandoned lover whose only memento of his failed relationship is a photograph.

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Ethan Russell, cover portraits on Let It Be

Starr made a promotional film for “Photograph” in the grounds of Tittenhurst Park in Sunninghill near Ascot, Berkshire, the 72-acre estate that he had recently purchased from John Lennon who had left for New York, never to return to England. Tittenhurst was where the last pictures of the Beatles were made by Californian Ethan Russell (*1945) and Englishman Monte Fresco (1936–2013). Russell, at 23 years old, had stumbled into the rock photography scene in London right at the top through his meeting with Mick Jagger in 1968.

The next year he had been commissioned by the Beatles to illustrate the cover of Let It Be, featuring a quartet of separate portraits.  The older photographer there at Tittenhurst was Monte Fresco, a tough East Ender and a veteran of Fleet Street who became better known for his sports photography noted for its comic qualities. Additional pictures were taken by The Beatles’ assistant Mal Evans, while Linda McCartney, then heavily pregnant, shot some film.

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Ethan Russell taking the (later manipulated) shot above. The sculpture to the extreme left will be familiar to you from the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.
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Barry Feinstein: cover of Ringo Starr’s single Photograph

Back to Photograph, which in part was recorded with Ringo singing and playing the drums and George Harrison on guitar, at Tittenhurst where Lennon had set up a recording studio. The pair had begun writing Photograph on a luxury yacht in the South of France in May 1971 with a number of visitors contributing to the lyrics.

Seasoned, 52 year-old Hollywood and rock photographer Barry Feinstein (1931–2011) took the single’s sleeve photo; an iconic and rather comic image of Starr’s head poking through a star formed by his arms and legs under shiny mylar.

The space blanket material was a hot product amongst photographers at the time for its distorting reflections. I remember Athol Smith using it for his colour homages to Andre Kertesz‘s Anamorphics nudes. Here it is used to turn Starr into a glitzy icon based on his name and with a nod to his showy public image; he was just getting into acting during this period.

The album’s release followed in November 1973 with Photograph appearing as the third track. In the grab below from Starr’s (deliberately?) amateurish promotional film for Photograph (featuring a gorilla and David Bowie), he places his hand over his mouth ironically as he mimes to the song as ‘no-lip-service’ to the BBC’s ban on lip-synching.

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Ringo Starr covers his mouth as he mimes Photograph in the video shot at Tittenhurst
Ironically, the album’s release coincided with the failure of Starr’s marriage, partly as a result of George Harrison and Maureen Starkey having an affair. Starr and Harrison would not officially write another song together after Photograph, though their friendship endured.
The video, however, appears to represent not Maureen, but Ringo, over and again, as the departing figure; in this take drifting away from Maureen as she sits on the shore, when the moment before, through a trick of perspective, she seems to be with him in the boat…(and no she’s not taking a snap of him with her mobile phone – none existed then – she’s handing him a drink bottle)…
Every time I see your face
It reminds me of the places we used to go
But all I’ve got is a photograph
And I realize you’re not coming back anymore
I thought I’d make it
The day you went away
But I can’t make it
Till you come home again to stay
I can’t get used to living here
While my heart is broke, my tears I cry for you
I want you here to have and hold
As the years go by, and we grow old and grey
Now you’re expecting me to live without you
But that’s not something that I’m looking forward to
I can’t get used to living here
While my heart is broke, my tears I cry for you
I want you here to have and hold
As the years go by, and we grow old and grey
Every time I see your face
It reminds me of the places we used to go
But all I’ve got is a photograph
And I realize you’re not coming back anymore
Though there are any number of songs old and new that refer to photographs, Ringo Starr’s stands out as one of the most popular. An international hit, it topped singles charts in the United States, Canada and Australia, and received gold disc certification for US sales of 1 million. Its popularity in the States (and perhaps in Australia) may be plausibly attributed to its epochal relevance, as Alan Clayson does in his 2003 biography of Starr Photograph in noting it was a popular request on radio playlists “for a nation still awaiting the return of many of its sons from Vietnam, following the January cease-fire”.
Songs and photographs share the remarkable property, like familiar odours, of being able to transport us back to the past, as Pickering & Keightley remind us in their recent book Photography, music, and memory: pieces of the past in everyday life. (Palgrave Macmillan 2015). But photographs are distinctive in providing tangible evidence of the past, a property elevated to the status of proof  in Duane Michals’ This photograph is my proof. 
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Here, we are confronted by a narrative work that bears two dates; 1967 and 1974. The first date supposedly refers to the date the photograph was taken, and the second to when Michals transformed the apparently ordinary snapshot into a photograph within a photograph, an artwork. Through the strategy of adding a border and the faux-naive handwritten text he encloses bliss within regret.
Michals is gay, and though given the date of the photograph he ‘quotes’ here, it is only a remote possibility that he is the man in the picture (hard to tell when in every other image he is bald). More likely, and as part of his modus operandi, he has assumed another person’s photograph for his autobiographical purposes. Seeing Michals’s photograph, we fall between interpreting his artistic intention on the one hand, and his existence and state of mind as a photographic subject on the other.
Was Michals’ work inspired by Starr’s song?

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