by Hayward Hawks Marcus
- USA -
For years, many people have painted Yoko Ono as the cold and controlling monster who broke up the Beatles, ran John Lennon’s life, and probably made the pop legend unhappy, even if he himself wasn’t aware of it. Allen Tannenbaum’s new book, a collection of photographs he took of the iconic couple, defies this persistent myth. Springing from many of Tannenbaum’s photos is undeniable visual evidence of John and Yoko truly relating to one another, in a deeply heartfelt and human way not often seen in photos of the famous. One cannot dispute the affection for each other lighting John and Yoko’s eyes when caught by Tannenbaum’s lens. In a starstruck world, where pretty celebs are often seen hanging on each other’s arms like sparkly but soulless Tiffany baubles, images such as these are both rare and refreshing.
Now, a quarter century after John’s death, New York photographer Allen Tannenbaum’s John and Yoko: A New York Love Story, offers a fresh look at the pair. The book’s five chapters span a time frame of about a decade, from 1973 to 1982, the years when Tannenbaum garnered a position as a young photographer at SoHo Weekly News, and got the subsequent assignments that led him to exclusive glimpses into the lives of John and Yoko.John and Yoko begins with a collection of pictures taken at 1970’s celebrity events: Yoko at the Avant Garde Art Festival; John and his band BOMF performing at a tribute for show business impresario, Sir Lew Grade. While amusing in their historical context (Lennon and his cohorts dressed in multi-zippered plastic jumpsuits, the band in bald caps and masks of their own faces on the back of their heads - apparently John’s not-so-subtle dig at Lord Grade), these photos don’t really rise much above celebrity snapshots, and seem a departure from John and Yoko’s love story. Chapter two, however, feels like the true beginning of the book. With the release of their album Double Fantasy imminent, Tannenbaum is sent by his editor at Soho Weekly to shoot Yoko for a feature just after she and John had emerged from a five-year seclusion. After a day’s shoot at his studio, Tannenbaum and Yoko agree to a second day’s shooting at her studio. He suggested he might also photograph John and son, Sean. Yoko nixes photographing Sean, but calls John, who happily joins the photo session. The results are some of the sweetest and most candid black and white shots of John and Yoko, taken at a point in their relationship when they appear perfectly at ease with each other. With guileless humor, they sit atop the backrest of a Central Park bench, grinning in their black leather jackets, cap and beret, while John holds Yoko’s wrist, raising her clenched fist in a mock “leftist” salute. Their warmth and fondness for each other is captured wordlessly in a color photo of John standing behind Yoko, his hands clasped tightly around her waist.
Acting on Tannenbaum’s suggestion that they have a still photographer on hand during the video shoot for their single, Starting Over, John and Yoko invite him to join the crew. The day produces some more black and white shots of John and Yoko in Central Park together; however the entourage in tow dilutes the spontaneity Tannenbaum caught in his first photo shoot with them.Later, in a starkly white film studio appointed with a simple bed, a few simple pillars, a ladder and a staircase, Tannenbaum captures John and Yoko at their most vulnerable, as they strip and make love for the camera. Here is where Tannenbaum’s most artful images are found, in particular, a black and white of John lying atop Yoko, both half-clad in kimonos, his face tucked beneath her chin, her head thrown back in repose, dark hair draped to the floor. It is an image that transcends celebrity. Lennon later praised Tannenbaum’s work that day, saying, “You know what I really like about your pictures? You really capture Yoko’s beauty.”
In an eerie, prescient irony, the Soho Weekly on the newsstands at the time of John’s assassination featured Tannenbaum’s shot of an impish Yoko, hand on zipper as if about to remove her jeans, with a large caption reading, YOKO ONLY. Tannenbaum relates how, on December 8th, 1980, while working feverishly to complete prints of the John and Yoko photo session so he could deliver them at the Dakota, his editor-in-chief called to tell him John Lennon has just been shot.
Grabbing his camera, Tannenbaum heads to Roosevelt Hospital where John lies. After the grim news is delivered––John is dead––he records the crowds that gather around the hospital, and later, at the Dakota, to mourn and memorialize their fallen hero, some of whom hold up the Soho Weekly with Tannenbaum’s photo of John on the cover.
In the final chapter, Tannenbaum is called to photograph Yoko for her records Seasons of Glass and Walking on Thin Ice. Walking through the barren snow of Central Park, sitting by herself on a park bench against leafless trees, navigating the rainy streets of New York City alone, eyes always obscured by her large-frame sunglasses, these photos of Yoko exude the emptiness of her recent widowhood and the ineffable poignancy of grief. A couple of years later, Tannenbaum revisits Yoko at the Dakota, and the casual shots of her and Sean show her spirit has been somewhat regained.As a self-described love story, Tannenbaum’s book is something of a hit and miss. It is a compilation of gorgeous evanescent moments between a man and woman, some mildly interesting historical records, photos that reveal Yoko Ono’s charm, humor and heart, and some rather pedestrian candid snapshots. John and Yoko’s early life together is missing; their backstory is never attended to, either in pictures or print. But what is here is visual confirmation that, by the end of their time together, this couple had a relationship of substance. Given the strength of each of their individual natures, it does speak to the power of their love that John and Yoko survived, and ultimately thrived, in their relationship, even as those around them vociferously condemned it.
The effect of Tannenbaum’s book was to inspire reflection not so much on John Lennon, but on his affinity with Yoko, and the inexplicable demonizing of her that occurs to this day. Lennon embraced his role as husband and father to the point of putting his public persona aside while he stayed home to rear his son Sean. So it should be easy to reckon that his marriage to Yoko did him no harm, and much good, for this was the sort of real and fulfilling experience that his fame alone couldn’t provide. Most of all, as Tannenbaum’s camera has witnessed, Yoko made him happy, and I’m sure John hoped his fans would be glad to see him so. But many fans seemed deeply rankled by Yoko’s presence in John’s life, but largely inadequate at articulating why. Their verbal assaults against her seem motivated by perhaps racist, but more likely, sexist, mentalities. The cheap shots taken at Yoko are the same for any female who doesn’t pander to the male fantasy of a youthful, beautiful and accommodating woman: she’s ugly, bitchy, controlling, and cold. And the double standard of their rancor is evident––what male partner of a female celebrity has ever been pilloried for her creative absence when she chooses to take time out for babies and family? Had Yoko been the fluffy elegant tart that I believe many felt was more appropriate for a pop music prince, she might have escaped the venom of those who attempted to poison her away from their idol, John Lennon. But she’s no tart, for as John & Yoko: A New York Love Story shows, there’s a real woman there to love.
- All photographs excerpted from John & Yoko: A New York Love Story © Allen Tannenbaum. Published by Insight Editions. All rights reserved. Used with permission. www.insighteditions.com
About the Author Native Californian and Monterey Bay resident, Hayward Hawks Marcus, has written for several west coast magazines, the online literary salon, Fresh Yarn, as well as plays, screenplays and a budding first novel.