Portrait Of The Artist: A Tribute To Henry Grossman - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

Henry Grossman sat in a corner of his Upper West Side apartment, by a window covered by a thin, white, translucent curtain, posing for a portrait, bathed in natural, ambient daylight. It was early Spring 2017. “When you shoot me,” he suggested, “you can shoot me sitting down, perhaps.” Behind him, an etching made by his father, Elias Grossman – an accomplished artist in his own right – hung on the wall, creating a sense of depth of artistic legacy.

I lifted the camera to my eye, and pressed the shutter.

Sometime back in 2012, I had connected with Mr. Grossman — a famed music photographer, who sadly passed away at the beginning of this year — for a phone interview about a newly published collection of his photographs of The Beatles. And when I confessed that I was a longtime fan of his work, he graciously invited me to stop up to see him sometime when I was in New York City to, as he casually suggested, “sort through my Beatles images, if you like.” Five years later, I mentioned to Phawker editor Jonathan Valania that I’d wanted to take Mr. Grossman up on that invitation, and he suggested I shoot a portrait of the photographer at home, and interview him about his work with The Beatles – specifically his memories of visiting them in Abbey Road Studios in 1967, during the sessions for Lucy In The Sky With Diamondsfor an article celebrating the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

“How about tomorrow?,” Grossman graciously prompted, when I called. I was in New York visiting a friend of mine the weekend that I called him, and the photographer warmly welcomed us both the following day into the apartment he shared with his sister Suzanne, just a block from Central Park. Suzanne gave us a tour, as Henry selected some materials to share with us, including a copy of his book, Places I Remember: My Time With The Beatles. Weighing in at seventeen pounds, the very-limited, luxuriously produced edition boasts 528 gilded pages featuring 1,000 of Grossman’s photographs, housed handsomely inside a clamshell cover, clothed in black canvas. It almost felt too special to touch with bare hands, but Grossman urged me to browse the beautiful black-and-white images, as he paged through his own career.

photo by Henry Grossman

Henry Grossman first forayed into photography during his time at Brandeis, where he amassed a collection of portraits of guest speakers hosted by the university. As a photographer, he would go on to enjoy a long career shooting assignments for Life, Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times, and to compose portraits of a long list of celebrities and every president since Eisenhower (“except Trump, I have no interest in photographing him,” he sneered, while relating this part).

Besides all that, he was also a student of theater arts. After college, he studied at The Actors Studio, and ultimately appeared in film and on Broadway. And he sang. In the ‘60s, he toured with the national company of the Metropolitan Opera, and made his New York City debut in 1973, at Carnegie Hall. A tenor, Grossman went on to perform with several other organizations, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, in the 1980s, under conductor Riccardo Muti. “I’m an opera buff,” he declared, when we spoke at his home, as our conversation turned toward his work with The Beatles. “Even in college, I loved opera. So The Beatles were music I couldn’t hear. Now I can! But I was not really interested in that music [at that time].”

Having first been commissioned to cover their 1964 debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, Grossman was then asked to photograph the making of their second feature film, Help!, and to travel along with the film’s cast and crew, and director Richard Lester to document their production on location in Austria and the Bahamas. “What happened when we were in Austria,” the photographer remembered fondly, “I became more friendly with George [Harrison] for some reason, and George asked me, ‘Henry, when we go back to England, can you do some more portraits of Patti [Boyd] and me?’ And I went over there, and he said, ‘Hey, let’s go visit John!’ He was five or ten minutes away, and we went over…”

The Beatles and Grossman around the time of Help! (1965)

Grossman paused there in reverie, summing it up, “…I became a friend. And thereafter, when I was in London, I’d go visit.” It was from that vantage, Grossman figured, that afforded him the ability to relate to the Fabs. “I didn’t want anything from them,” he explained. “I was just trying to be one of the guys with them.” He concluded, “it’s a fluke that I came away from The Beatles’ sessions with so much of my life defined by that work.”

In a way, that relationship was reciprocal. By 1965, Grossman had become so close with the band that he was able to casually document their lives at home. At the time, this was strictly prohibited. As Grossman recalls, their manager Brian Epstein exclaimed, “We’ve never even allowed a British photographer into their homes!” Grossman captured engaging portraits of George and Patti, John Lennon with his son Julian, Paul McCartney with his then girlfriend Jane Asher, and Ringo Starr with his wife Maureen, who at the time was attempting to hide a pregnancy from Grossman’s camera. Concerned that these intimate images of the four of them as family men would pose potential hurdles for their management’s marketing designs, Epstein at first called Grossman to request that he keep them private, but quickly changed his mind. “The next day,” recalled Grossman, “I got a cable from him – I still have the cable! – saying, ‘please disregard phone call. Can I have a set?’ And that was that.”

Paul McCartney | photo by Henry Grossman

Although other photographers like Ethan Russell or friend-of-the-band Astrid Kirchherr would produce some of the more famous and arguably iconic images of the Fabs, Grossman’s photojournalism between 1964 and 1967 – in the studio, on film sets, on stage, and at home – is a body of work that amounts to more coverage over a longer period of time than any of his contemporaries, according to Curvebender Publishing.

For decades, the vast majority of Grossman’s collection of some 7,000 images of The Beatles would remain unpublished, until the folks at Curvebender approached the photographer in 2008 about publishing a set drawn exclusively from his visit with them at Abbey Road studios during the “Pepper” sessions, ultimately Kaleidoscope Eyes after a familiar Lucy In The Sky lyric, and then again in 2012 for Places I Remember, a much larger and more definitive representation of the scope of his work with them. When the publishers met with him, Grossman told me, he “pulled out this pile of contact sheets that thick,” illustrating the girth with his thumb and forefinger, “of pictures that, when Life magazine gave back to me, I just put in a drawer.” Grossman dismissed my awe with a staccato exclamation: “‘Cause I was busy!” Then he lamented, “I wish we had printed 2,000 of these or more. This book can’t be reproduced this way again. But I have more of the pictures – this is not everything!”

The Beatles | photo by Henry Grossman

With our long conversation coming to a close, one remaining task loomed ahead that morning: the challenge of composing a portrait of an accomplished and celebrated photographer. Here was a guy who had been a sort of hero to me since my own love of The Beatles was sparked some thirty years earlier, when my father played Hello, Goodbye in the car for me when I was about 10, from a well-worn white plastic 20 Greatest Hits cassette tape that my mother had gotten for him. It wasn’t long after that I began to be interested in photography too, cherishing a collection of clippings garnered from newspapers and editions of the TV Guide, when I can first recall appreciating a portrait of my favorite actors and artists not only for the subjects, but with a sense of wonder about what made a particular image compelling. Later, several of Grossman’s 1965 and 1967 portraits of The Beatles had hung from the inside of my locker on the first floor of Central High School for four years. And now here I was, sitting in the man’s apartment with a camera in my hands, considering how I might produce an image that Grossman himself would find serviceable, the weight of which seemed to grow heavier as our time together progressed.

True to form, Grossman generously and disarmingly offered his expertise, with lighting ideas, and poses, and guidance for portraiture photography that can be summed up as a function of mindfulness practice. “Really,” he said, “it is simply: Be Here Now. And once [your subject] is there, then you can start talking to them.” He continued, “I love it when people just look at you and you can look into them. That’s where I start from,” adding, “the storytelling is very important. What’s the context? What’s behind it?”

“Look this way a little more?” Before I knew it, Grossman had appropriated my friend’s SLR and turned the session into his own shoot, and was now busy composing a portrait of me instead as his sister looked on with amusement. “Not quite so much,” he directed, with his left arm raised. “That’s it.” He opened his hand, signaling for me to pause where I was, kneeling on the floor across the room, before motioning for my friend to do the same as he snapped a few frames, portraits of each of us that I’m sure we’ll both cherish for a lifetime.

Henry Grossman and Josh Pelta-Heller | photo by Akshay Sawhney

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