Snap Galleries Exhibition Reveals Unidentified Characters in Beatles Abbey Road Session

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Snap Galleries Exhibition Reveals Unidentified Characters in Beatles Abbey Road Session
Frame 4: The girl in the purple top on the left is on the move. Two men watch from further back. A man in a cup walks towards camera on the right.

LONDON.- There is Paul Cole. An American tourist who happened to be on vacation in London in August 1969. You might find him familiar somehow. As he walked around the streets of St John’s Wood waiting for his wife that day, he stumbled across four guys being photographed on a zebra crossing. He watched for a while as they went there and back again. And again. And again. That’s how he was captured for posterity on one of the most famous photographs of all time - the the cover of the Beatles’ Abbey Road LP, standing to the left of John Lennon’s head on the album sleeve.

But, as a new exhibition reveals, he might so easily not have been on the cover. ‘Beatles and Bystanders: the unknowns at Abbey Road’ on show at Snap Galleries’ Piccadilly space in central London, uncovers, for the first time, at least a dozen other characters who might equally have featured on the cover of one of the most important albums in the history of popular music, if a different frame had been chosen for the album sleeve.

Scottish photographer Iain MacMillan (1938-2006) was the man behind the camera. He took six photographs that day, and the fifth frame in the sequence was selected for the front cover. It’s the one everyone knows. The Beatles crossing from left to right. Paul McCartney barefoot with a cigarette in his hand. John and Ringo (like Paul) in Tommy Nutter suits, with George Harrison at the back, dressed in denim. The other Paul, Paul Cole, stands on the right pavement, while on the left of the photograph is the fifth Beatle. Well, Beetle. The Volkswagen Beetle, registration LMW 281F, achieved cult status after appearing on the album and after selling at auction, was displayed at the Volkswagen Museum in Germany.

Out of the shadows..
Gallery owner Guy White explains further: “Iain MacMillan’s Abbey Road session images are the holy grail for collectors of rare Beatles photographs, and the opportunity to present a complete set has given us the chance to put the individual images under the microscope. We’ve subjected them to some really rigorous analysis and delved into the dark spaces and shadows for the first time. This has revealed a whole cast of unknown characters (unknown for now at least) who could have found themselves in the same position as Paul Cole - on the cover of the Beatles’ Abbey Road LP.

One of my favourites is a mysterious lady in a purple top who appears deep in the shadows on three of the frames, for example. Who was she? She probably doesn’t even know that she was there that day - but someone will know who she is. During our research, we have discovered a dozen other bystanders, just like her. In frame 3, a black delivery van pulls in behind the iconic white Beetle. The van only appears in one frame, then its gone. Look very closely and you can see the left arm of the delivery driver as he stands at the back of the van. It’s fascinating to me to think that if a different frame had been chosen as the cover, some of these other characters might have been on the album sleeve. It’s also interesting to have a set of photographs with the actual frame numbers visible, so we can establish with absolute certainty the order of the images.”

A close analysis of the other session photographs highlights just how easily things may have been different. For example:

Paul McCartney appears wearing sandals in the first two frames, and only went barefoot from frame 3 onwards; his cigarette, so prominent in frame 5, the actual cover, did not feature at all in any of the other five session photographs.

The other Paul - tourist Paul Cole - did not appear at all in frames 4 or 6, the frames bookending the actual cover image.

Further background on the Abbey Road session and Iain MacMillan
Iain MacMillan had worked with Yoko Ono in 1966: he included a photograph of her in “The Book of London”, a collection of his photographs published that year. She then commissioned Iain to document her exhibition at London’s Indica gallery, and as a result, Iain was introduced to John Lennon - establishing the Beatles connection. Subsequently, John Lennon invited Iain to photograph the Abbey Road cover. Paul McCartney had already developed the initial concept of the shoot, and in a meeting with Iain, they discussed Paul’s early sketches.

On the appointed Friday, 8 August,1969, MacMillan only had a short time to capture the image. He spent less than 15 minutes up a ladder, and they had to give way to traffic too. Because of time constraints, the shoot had been very carefully planned. Iain knew exactly what he was trying to achieve. We can see this from his hand drawn sketch of the intended result: the Beatles in step, the vanishing point in the centre of the image, the viewer’s eyes drawn in by the converging lines of pavements and trees.

John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr walk over the zebra crossing next to Abbey Road studios. There and back. Three times. Six clicks of the shutter. Just six photographs, and the shoot was over. Three frames showing the Beatles crossing from left to right, and three walking from right to left. The same order in each of the six frames - John Lennon first in white, then Ringo Starr in black, Paul McCartney in grey and at the back, a denim clad George Harrison. The fifth frame of six, showing a left to right traverse, was chosen as the actual cover. Abbey Road (the first British Beatles LP without the name of the band or the title of the album on the front) was released in the UK on 26 September 1969 and debuted at number 1. Rolling Stone magazine voted it number 14 of the top 500 albums of all time.

The session photographs in more detail
The cover shot has been discussed and analysed in depth over the years, even to advance theories of the death of Paul McCartney. But what of the five other front cover session photographs taken that day: the three right to left and two left to right passes that weren’t used? They have been reproduced sparingly in publications over the years, but the opportunity to view them together on a wall in a gallery setting allows careful study of the contrasts and comparisons between them.

Frame 1. Paul Cole is there, on the right, but so are two other people further back on the same side of the road as him. One is looking at the camera, the other is bending down, looking for something in a bag. On the left pavement, a man sits on the wall, his legs dangling, while closer to camera, two women and a young girl appear behind the Volkswagen Beetle.

Frame 2. There’s Paul Cole again, but this time he is all alone on the right pavement. The two people on the right in frame 1 have gone. Meanwhile our friend sitting on the wall on the left has been joined by a man in a white shirt and a woman with a parasol.

Frame 3. Paul Cole is there, but now he has moved further away from his position in frame 2. He shares the pavement this time with a lady in a red sweater, looking directly at the camera. Here’s where it gets interesting. You have to look very, very carefully on the left pavement to spot her, but there in the closest gateway, just behind the Beetle, is a young woman in a purple top. This is her first appearance, but she is present in three of the six frames - just one fewer appearance than Paul Cole. Immediately behind the Beetle, a black delivery van has pulled in. It has gone before frame 4. Look carefully and you can see the left arm of the driver, standing behind the van.

Frame 4. There’s no sign of Paul Cole, but there is another man in a white shirt, striding with some purpose, walking towards the camera. Over on the left we get a clearer sight of the mysterious girl in the purple top, on the move this time, and two of the three decorators who appear on the actual cover, appear in this frame.

Frame 5. The actual cover. The one everyone knows. Paul Cole is there on the right, of course. On the left pavement, further back, stand three decorators, subsequently identified as Alan Flanagan, Steve Millwood and Derek Seagrove. They were all captured for posterity on the cover photograph. Close viewing shows another man, as yet unidentified, standing behind a car, close to the group of three. There is no sign of the mysterious girl in the purple top.

Frame 6. Paul Cole has had enough - he’s gone. The three decorators remain on the left, joined by a fourth person. The girl in the purple top is there on the left, clearly visible, back in the gateway she first occupied in frame 3. Other people appear, but are not engaged with the scene: a man dressed in black walks away from camera on the left pavement. On the right, by the police van, two people are looking away, while in the distance, on the left, passengers spill out of a number 159 bus.

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