He was the Beatles' most favored photographer during the years 1963 to 1966 and shot arguably the most iconic images of them. He photographed and designed the covers for five consecutive album covers of the Beatles-sanctioned UK album releases on the Parlophone label. Most of those images were also adapted by Capitol Records for the US releases they compiled from the Beatles' UK recordings.
Freeman first came to prominence as a photo journalist working for the British newspaper The Sunday Times - for which he photographed a variety of subjects including Khrushchev in the Kremlin. He had also become noted for his black-and-white photographs of several jazz musicians including John Coltrane. It was these photographs that impressed the Beatles' manager Brian Epstein and the Beatles themselves and led to his first commission in August 1963 to photograph the group. He was selected to photograph the entirety of the first-ever Pirelli Calendar - shot in 1963 for the year 1964.
Robert Freeman graduated from Cambridge in 1959. "In the summer of '63. I'd been a photographer for two years but had already established a reputation through my work for the Sunday Times and other magazines. I'd recently been on assignment in Moscow to photograph Khrushchev in the Kremlin, and earlier that year had shot the first Pirelli calendar. This was a big hit and, in later years, a media event. But my favorite assignment during that period was photographing John Coltrane and other jazz musicians at a festival in London. It was photographs of these musicians that I later showed to the Beatles...I contacted their press agent in London. He referred me to Brian Epstein, their manager, who asked me to send samples of my work to Llandudno, in Wales, where the Beatles were playing at the time. I put together a portfolio of large black-and-white prints, most of which were portraits of jazz musicians - Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie, Elvin Jones, Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane. The Beatles' response was positive - they liked the photographs and, as a result, Brian arranged for me to meet them in Bournemouth a week later where they were booked to play several evenings at the local Gaumont cinema."
With the Beatles cover
The cover for With the Beatles was shot by Freeman on 22 August 1963 in the Palace Court Hotel, Bournemouth, England.
“They had to fit in the square format of the cover, so rather than have them all in a line, I put Ringo in the bottom right corner, since he was the last to join the group. He was also the shortest.”Paul McCartney's recollection of the session:
“He arranged us in a hotel corridor: it was very un-studio-like. The corridor was very dark, and there was a window at the end, and by using this heavy source of natural light coming from the right, he got that very moody picture which most people think he must have worked at forever and ever. But it was only an hour. He sat down, took a couple of rolls, and that was it.”The original idea was to paint the picture from edge to edge, with no bleeding or title, but the studio vetoed it, on the grounds that the Beatles were not yet famous enough to carry a nameless cover. (The first album to carry an edge-to-edge cover was the Rolling Stones' self-titled debut, released a few months later.) The studio also tried to pull the cover because the Beatles were not smiling, and it was only after George Martin intervened that they won the day. Freeman was paid £75 for his work (three times the normal fee).
Beatles for Sale cover
The album cover for Beatles for Sale shows the Beatles in an autumnal setting photographed in Hyde Park, London. McCartney recalled: "The album cover was rather nice: Robert Freeman's photos. It was easy. We did a session lasting a couple of hours and had some reasonable pictures to use.... The photographer would always be able to say to us, 'Just show up,' because we all wore the same kind of gear all the time. Black stuff; white shirts and big black scarves."
The album also features a gatefold cover, the photo inside the gatefold cover showed the Beatles standing in front of a montage of photos.
The Help! album cover features the group spelling out a word in semaphore; the British Parlophone release featured the word 'NUJV', whilst the slightly re-arranged US release on Capitol Records appeared to feature the word 'NVUJ'. However, it may be argued that some of the members of the band were not only re-arranged but reversed as well.
However, the truth is the photo does not spell any message at all in semaphore. Robert Freeman confirms this: "I had the idea of semaphore spelling out the letters HELP. But when we came to do the shot the arrangement of the arms with those letters didn't look good. So we decided to improvise and ended up with the best graphic positioning of the arms."
Rubber Soul cover
The photo of the Beatles on the Rubber Soul cover appears stretched. McCartney relates the story behind this in Volume 5 of the documentary film Anthology. Photographer Bob Freeman had taken some pictures of the Beatles at Lennon's house. Freeman showed the photos to the Beatles by projecting them onto an album-sized piece of cardboard to simulate how they would appear on an album cover. The unusual Rubber Soul album cover came to be when the slide card fell slightly backwards, elongating the projected image of the photograph and stretching it. Excited by the effect, they shouted, "Ah! Can we have that? Can you do it like that?" Freeman said he could.
The lettering was designed by Charles Front.
In the 1960s, Freeman was married to a German-born model - known at the time as Sonny Freeman, with whom he had two children. He was later married to author Tiddy Rowan with whom he had a daughter.
According to a claim in Philip Norman's 2008 biography of Lennon, between 1963 and 1965, Freeman's then wife, Sonny Drane (a model and 1964 Pirelli calendar-girl), had a year-long clandestine affair with John Lennon. Norman further claimed that she was the inspiration for Lennon's song "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)."