Angus McBean (1904–1990) was a renowned British photographer, best known for his work in the field of portraiture and surreal photography. He gained fame for his innovative and imaginative portrait photographs, often characterized by a whimsical and surreal quality.
McBean’s career took off in the 1930s and reached its peak in the 1940s and 1950s. He became particularly well-known for his work with celebrities, capturing iconic images of notable figures from the worlds of entertainment, literature, and the arts. Some of his famous subjects include Audrey Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, and Laurence Olivier.
One of McBean’s notable contributions was his work with the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he created striking promotional portraits of actors in character. His ability to infuse fantasy and theatricality into his images set him apart as a unique and influential photographer.
Angus McBean contributed several iconic photographs of the Beatles, contributing significantly to the visual representation of the band during their early years. One of his most well-known works is the cover photograph for the Beatles’ debut album, Please Please Me, released in 1963.
The cover features a distinctive and dynamic shot of the band members gathered around the stairwell of EMI Studios in London. The photograph captures the youthful energy and camaraderie of the Beatles, setting the tone for their early image and became an enduring symbol of the band’s charisma, marking the beginning of their extraordinary journey to international stardom.
Producer George Martin, a member of the Zoological Society of London, suggested the cover photo for Please Please Me be taken at the insect exhibit at the London Zoo. However, the request to shoot there was denied and McBean recommended capturing the band on the stairwell, giving the image a more spontaneous and lively feel. The unconventional choice proved to be a stroke of genius, creating an iconic album cover that is widely recognized and celebrated.
“We rang up the legendary theatre photographer Angus McBean, and bingo, he came round and did it there and then. It was done in an almighty rush, like the music. Thereafter, though, the Beatles’ own creativity came bursting to the fore.” — George Martin
“As I went into the door I was in the staircase well. Someone looked over the banister — I asked if the boys were in the building and the answer was yes. ‘Well’, I said, ‘get them to look over, and I will take them from here.’ I only had my ordinary portrait lens, so to get the picture I had to lie flat on my back in the entrance. I took some shots and I said, ‘That’ll do.'” — Angus McBean
Apart from the Please Please Me cover, McBean continued to photograph the Beatles on several occasions. His playful and imaginative style was well-suited to the band’s image, and his photos captured different facets of their personalities. These images contributed to shaping the public perception of The Beatles as not just a musical group but as cultural icons.
Two of his 1964 photos of the Beatles were chosen for the single “Leave My Kitten Alone” single, which was ultimately cancelled.
An alternate shot from the sessions for the Please Please Me cover photo was used for the 1973 compilation 1962-1966 and yet another was used on the Beatles’ third EP The Beatles No. 1. McBean was asked to recreate the photo for the aborted 1969 album Get Back, and the photos was later used for the 1962-1966 sister compilation 1967-1970 with the two photos flipped on the reverse of each of the albums.
Aside from his portraiture, McBean also experimented with surrealist photography, creating imaginative and dreamlike compositions. His work often featured playful and fantastical elements, showcasing his creative and artistic vision.
Angus McBean’s legacy endures through his impact on the world of photography, with his images remaining iconic representations of the mid-20th-century cultural and artistic scene.
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