More than 45 years after the Beatles first hit American soil, photos from their 1964 inaugural North American tour have arrived at New York’s Morrison Hotel Gallery. The snapshots, by late photographer Curt Gunther, reveal the band in lighthearted situations — riding horses, goofing off with manager Brian Epstein — and capture the fervor of young fans during the British Invasion. It’s a candid look at a band on the rise, but the photos almost didn’t see the light of day.
Steve Gunther was entrusted with his father’s 35mm Tri-X negatives over 25 years ago, packed in glassine and covered in an unknown coating that he describes as “weird, greasy, and sticky,” with the lone instructions: “Fix these.” The task of separating the negatives was an arduous one that took Gunther nearly two months to complete. “The glassines were stuck to the negatives and the negatives themselves were stuck together,” says Gunther. “I would put the whole thing into some distilled water and this stuff called LFN [a low-foam wetting agent] and soak it for a while, until I could separate it without having to yank.” When the strips came apart, Gunther washed them with distilled water and hung them individually to dry, finally giving him usable negatives.
But Gunther’s attention was divided between restoring his father’s work and his own photography. “[The negatives] had been sitting in my Halliburton briefcase in my closet for years and years and years,” he admits somewhat sheepishly. It wasn’t until he connected with Peter Blachley, co-founder of the Morrison Hotel Gallery (so called because another co-founder, Henry Diltz, photographed the cover of the Doors album of the same name), that Gunther decided to exhibit the photos. “I had seen Curt’s work in the book Mania Days, and I was blown away by the photographs,” says Blachley. “I knew about this archive for quite some time.”
The photographs capture the Fab Four from an intimate viewpoint, indicative of the relationship Curt Gunther established with the band while on tour. “I think there was real, genuine affection between the Beatles and my dad,” says Gunther. “He was there on every plane ride and in every hotel room.” It was a coup of sorts to even photograph the band on tour — Gunther’s involvement came only at the last-minute urging of the Beatles’ press officer Derek Taylor, and against the wishes of Epstein. Even after joining the group’s entourage, Gunther was unpaid, finding himself scraping by with a band not yet aware of the enormity of their following. “As the folklore goes,” says Gunther, “he made that month’s salary by playing poker every night and beating the Beatles. It wasn’t Meet the Beatles,” he adds with a smile, “it was ‘Beat the Beatles.’ “
Blachley says the collection proves that Curt had become part of the team. “You can see it in the photographs. There were no handlers. Just, ‘Hang out, you’re one of the band now.’ ” That proximity shows in the shots, which catch John, Paul, George and Ringo both on and off stage. In one of the more stirring images, Lennon lies on a hotel bed, dressed in a striped shirt and hat, smoking a cigarette and looking into the lens. In another, Lennon and Harrison strum guitars face-to-face in a backstage shower, seemingly mid-conversation. The shots are a connection to a more innocent time, the work of an unrestricted photographer admiring fellow artists and friends.
“I think there is the same sort of passion that’s found in the photography that’s found in the music,” says Blachley. “People see the photograph and it relates back to them in that kind of a way. They want to preserve what you see in these photographs and feel that emotional connection to what these photographs represent in their lives.”