Today, October 9th 2020, marks what would have been John Lennon’s 80th birthday. An icon like no other, the world still mourns the loss of the former Beatle nearly forty years on since he was tragically killed. While many have personal stories attributed to the late music, one artist who had three encounters with Lennon during his time living in New York is the celebrated photographer Brian Hamill, a creative who has worked with some of the greatest of all.
Given the heavyweight of today’s anniversary, I arranged a call with Brian to discuss and reminisce about his memories from the precious moments he spent in the company of John Lennon, a time which resulted in some of the most iconic photographs of Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, in the Big Apple. Many of which have only just seen the light of day in Hamill’s brand new photography book John Lennon and Yoko Ono – Dream Lovers, a collection of images which features a foreword from Alec Baldwin. Although the meetings he had with Lennon were almost fifty years ago, Hamill’s memory on them is as if they occurred yesterday and he recollects the finest of details with all the fondness in the world.
“Lennon, one of the most famous men in human history,” writes Baldwin in the fascinating book. “He wanted to live as one among many. Of course, he hit it off with Hamill. The guy that flew so high needed some oxygen. Hamill is fresh air. His folio of Lennon images shows Lennon focused, present, but edgy, never relaxed,” the iconic actor continued.
After a timezone fuelled minor mix-up, I speak to Hamill who, who normally resides in New York City but is upstate visiting his grandchildren and is incredibly apologetic for the muddle even though, it has to be said, it was only a matter of minutes in the delay. In fact, the acclaimed photographer even messaged me after our call to say sorry once more, an eye-opening testament to his Brooklyn made character. Sticking to his word is as important to Hamill as anything else, he is a man who was forged in the Irish neighbourhoods of Brooklyn which made him feel at ease with Lennon, a figure of whom he saw a kindred spirit in when their transatlantic working-class backgrounds clashed.
Hamill has over 50 years of experience in the field of photography, one which has been the source of numerous solo exhibitions across North America, London and Italy. He’s also seen his work featured in publications such as of Life, Time, Newsweek, Vanity Fair, Esquire and Rolling Stone but getting the chance to work with Lennon up-close and personal on numerous occasions is an accolade that Hamill is more proud of than any exhibition celebrating his work.
The first time that Hamill encountered Lennon was during what turned out to be the former Beatles man’s final ever standalone concert at Madison Square Garden in 1972, a time when he was able to capture the moment in which Lennon took to the stage at his own show for the final time. Then, in October 1972, Hamill was offered what he described as a “dream assignment” to photograph John and Yoko for Parade Magazine, an offer that any photographer would have lost a leg in order to do.
“I was totally nervous,” Hamill recalled on that first encounter. “And at that point in 1972, I had already started working on doing still photography on motion pictures. So I was a good craftsman, sure of myself in that way. I was just like anybody else those days, I was meeting a Beatle and my favourite Beatle.”
“He always stood out to me as being my favourite Beatle, probably because I’m a real street guy, by nature,” Hamill continued. “By nature. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, in a tough Irish neighbourhood so when I met him it was just like he’s one of my working close friends. When we were walking through the streets, he never had a sense of self-importance. Ever. He was so kind and humorous to everybody,” Hamill said from the heart in his thick Brooklyn tones.
There is no modern-day celebrity equivalent to walking through the streets of New York with John Lennon in 1972 and you’d expect people to be clambering over him every step he made. However, that simply wasn’t the case which, it has to be said, is partly why he fell in love with New York so greatly. “A lot of people in the West Village knew he was living there but they didn’t mob them,” Hamill remembered. “New Yorkers aren’t like that like they are in other places. They would stop and ask them questions. And he never. Neither one of them ever dismissed any of the questions. They both never felt they were more important than the person asking the questions,” he dotingly added.
“The people of New York loved him and he loved New York. It was very evident, even from the dilute conversations I had with him,” the photographer said about New York’s favourite Scouse son.
The memory that Hamill holds the closest from the time he spent with John Lennon was a moment spent it in the Dakota Building when it was just the two of them. “Even when he greeted me, he said ‘Hey Brian, how you been?’, I said ‘good man, how you doing?’ and he said ‘I had a strange year’. I knew because it was in the papers that you know, he had a fling with another woman in California but I didn’t get nosy with him. I figured if he wanted to talk about it he would,” the photographer said in true local spirit.
Even though he only had a handful of precious moments in the presence of Lennon, being a born and bred Brooklyner provides you with the know-how to understand who is a real one and whose a phoney. The former Beatle, it would seem, was as genuine as they come and in a moment of downtime, event treating Hamill to glimpse into his culinary skills. “He made me a grilled cheese sandwich and he calls it a toastie and I didn’t even know what a toastie was. I was hungry so I said, yeah, I could eat and I just couldn’t believe that he opened the fridge to pull up the cheese. He got out this big black frying pan and there was no bullshit,” he added with sincerity.
Our conversation then turned to Lennon’s 80th birthday and, more specifically, how his son Sean Ono Lennon created an audio documentary for BBC Radio 2 celebrating his father’s life featuring Paul McCartney and Julian Lennon. Brian had nothing but praise to say about Julian and revealed, “I actually met Julian at a restaurant where we used to hang out on Columbus Avenue, years later in the ’80s. And I told him, I photographed his dad. He said, ‘No, kidding? I said, ‘Yeah, let me lay some prints on you if you want to meet here’. We met a couple of days later and I got the lab to print up some pictures,” he recalled passionately.
“I told him how much I dug his dad. I mean, why would I sensor myself? He was just a stand-up guy. We sat down, and we ate it was like he was like eating with one of my Brooklyn friends that I grew up with.”
John Lennon and Yoko Ono – Dream Lovers is available now from ACC Art Books, check out a selection of Brian’s incredible shots of the couple in New York, below.