Creative Photography Lessons from 'The Beatles: Get Back' and 'McCartney 3, 2, 1'

If you are a fan of The Beatles, then two documentaries currently streaming on Disney+ will certainly satiate your thirst. Look closely, and there are important lessons we can learn from these talented musicians that apply to creative photography.

The Incredible Restoration Work of The Beatles: Get Back 

The first striking thing about the “Get Back” documentary was the definition of the archive footage. Compare it with a clip of the original recording shown on the McCartney program. Originally shot for TV, on Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 “Let it Be” documentary, the footage was grainy and lacked saturation and contrast.

Fortunately, Peter Jackson had previously developed a restoration process for his 2018 movie, "They Shall Not Grow Old." In that film, he and his team restored footage that was shot at varying speeds by hand-cranked cameras; there was everything from 10 frames per second to 17 or even, occasionally, 18 fps. The images were converted to the movie standard 24 fps, cleaned up, and colorized.

The Beatles’ footage was shot on 16mm full frame (1.33:1 aspect ratio) film, which is about a third of the size of an MFT sensor. Unlike the war films, it was recorded at 24 fps, and the degradation of the 50-year-old film would have been less than that of the 100-year-old first world war footage. Furthermore, it was in color. Consequently, the resulting documentary is astounding, giving a high-definition look into the working life of the musicians and amazing insights into the songwriting process.

The Beatles' Creative Process and Tackling Bigotry

It is a long but fascinating watch: eight hours of film chosen from 60 hours of film footage and over 150 hours of audio. What it reveals is the incredible creative process, and that is something that any photographer or artist can learn from.

Paul McCartney is jamming on his guitar because John Lennon is late for the session. This jam gradually evolves over hours and then days into a satirical protest song against the far-right attitudes of those wanting to repatriate immigrants. (Like many western countries, the UK had enormous racism problems in the 1960s, problems that haven’t gone away.) The Beatles stood up against bigotry before, having previously refused to play to racially segregated audiences in America, which resulted in the audiences being mixed. 

The song finally evolved into the rocking classic “Get Back,” but its protest song roots are part of The Beatles legend.

From a photographic viewpoint, we can adapt the same evolutionary approach to creating images. For example, landscape photographers will often revisit the same location and make numerous attempts at creating the best image possible, changing camera settings and positioning. Top wildlife photographers will spend hours, days, or even weeks at a location to get the perfect shot of an elusive creature. Each shot, hopefully, is an improvement on the previous one.

We can also, of course, use our photography to highlight and tackle social injustice and bigotry.

There seems to be a lot of novice photographers who expect super images to be handed to them on a plate. But it doesn’t work that way. It took from 1954 when Paul McCartney first met George Harrison, and 1957 when they joined up with John Lennon in the Quarrymen, until 1964 before Love Me Do became a hit. Overnight success takes years of hard work and practice. That applies to photography as well as music.

The Filming Style of McCartney 3, 2, 1

In “McCartney 3, 2, 1,” Paul McCartney talks with the music producer Rick Rubin about his career. There’s much discussion throughout about the creative process.

The interview is held in Rubin's studio, next to a recording desk and a piano. Shot in monochrome, the background is entirely black, although sometimes interrupted by a sweep of light or the shadowy presence of a camera rig. This low-key setup works. It not only makes the viewer concentrate on the subject, but it also looks great; it’s like a series of well-composed, perfectly lit, and well-developed images. Many frames from the interview would stand up on their own as great photographic portraits.

When the scene jumps to archive footage, it mostly switches to color; it’s like The Wizard of Oz in reverse. Combined with those older films being brightly lit, the result is a huge contrast between the two styles. That juxtaposition makes each scene stand out even more.

Using Contrasts in Music and Photography

A contrast in musical styles is discussed between Rubin and McCartney. Rubin plays George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and then turns down the sound on everything except Paul McCartney’s bass. That bass is rough and grungy, totally at odds with the mournful tones of the other instruments and the melancholy song's lyrics.

Putting together disparate sounds on a record is something that The Beatles excelled at. For example, McCartney also talks about the piccolo trumpet used on “Penny Lane.” an instrument he saw while watching one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos on TV.

This creative mixing of dissimilar styles wasn’t restricted to individual songs. Listen to any of The Beatles album and each track contrasts enormously with the others. The album's eponymous ballad, “Let It Be,” is a long way removed in style from the rocking “Get Back”. Then, the acoustic “Two of Us,” with its Every Brothers inspired harmonies, is at odds with the “I’ve Got a Feeling.” Again, that is quite a long way stylistically from the spiritually esoteric “Across the Universe.”

Similarly, successful creative photography, as with any of the arts, relies on us combining two or more elements in new and inventive ways and finding opposites that work well together. This isn’t just within an image, but within collections of photographs too.

A Difference Between Music and Photographic Collections

Although the songs on the “Let It Be” album are all very different, they do still cohere. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The same can be said of The Beatles' previous LPs too. Their approach revolutionized popular and rock music. In comparison, If you listen to albums of the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Hank Williams, and many more musicians that preceded them, they stuck to a limited number of musical styles. Then, there were breakthrough artists like Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, who did change their styles, albeit not as frequently as The Beatles, nor to the same extent.

However, unlike music, having a wide range of photographic styles within a set of photos is usually frowned upon. There is often an expectation that a photographer’s images should be similar in style. It's a requirement of many higher photographic awards. Is that a norm we should think about challenging? Should photographers start to embrace diversity in their work, instead of aiming for continuity?

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this. Have you seen these two series yet? Are there other similarities between music and photography that inspire you?

If you haven't seen them yet, both documentaries are available to stream on Disney+.

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6 Comments
Tom Reichner's picture

Ivor, I was glad to see this article written, because it addresses topics that I think about on an everyday basis.

Ivor Rackham asked:

"However, unlike music, having a wide range of photographic styles within a set of photos is usually frowned upon. There is often an expectation that a photographer’s images should be similar in style. It's a requirement of many higher photographic awards. Is that a norm we should think about challenging? Should photographers start to embrace diversity in their work, instead of aiming for continuity?"

I think that there is no single answer that should be applied to every photographer.

Most of all, a photographer should be true to his own personal artistic vision. By that I mean that when a photographer is passionate about the subjects he/she is photographing, he/she has images that form in their mind's eye. We have a mental picture of what we want our photo to look like. This is what is referred to as "artistic vision". This picture in our mind's eye serves as our guide, as it is what we are trying to emulate in the photos that we take.

We all have lots and lots of pictures in our mind's eye - images that we would like to capture as photos on our sensor or film. These mental pictures guide is as we look for things to photograph and how to photograph them.

I think that some photographers have images in their mind's eye that are vastly different from one another. Take myself and my Whitetail Deer photography as an example. There are hundreds and hundreds of pictures in my mind's eye of deer, and these mental images cover a vast range of styles.

Deer splashing wildly as they dash across a shallow stream, being pursued by other deer.

A buck with strong backlight with golden rimlight on his antlers and steam from his breath on a cold morning.

A majestic buck. small in the frame, with snow-capped peaks in the background behind him.

A fawn being birthed. halfway in and halfway out of it's mother - frame filling, with flat even light (overcast conditions)

Close-up of a deer's ear, in frigid cold, showing hoar frost crystals on each of the tiny ear hair filaments

A mature buck peering between tree trunks in a dense eastern deciduous forest

etc., etc., etc.

You can see that the deer images in my mind's eye cover a lot of different styles, lighting conditions, behaviors, habitat types, and supporting compositional elements.

Other deer photographers have a more unified collection of images in their mind's eye. For instance, a good friend of mine specifically thinks of tightly framed vertical portraits of each buck he sees. His goal whenever he sees a good buck is to get into a situation where he can make a frame-filling portrait that shows the buck at the angle which is most favorable to the antlers. He wants to be so close that he needs the turn the camera vertical in order to get a head, bust, and antler portrait. A classic "headshot", if you will.

As a result of the very different images that my friend has in his mind's eye, compared to the set of deer images that I have in my mind'd eye, our work is obviously going to be quite different.

My friend's body of work is comprised of a very unified set of deer photos. Most all of them tightly framed, vertically oriented, highly detailed, and showcasing the buck's antlers at their very best angle. And very "clean", with few, or no, distractions anywhere in the frame.

Conversely, my body of work is comprised of a lot of diversity - photos that do not look like each other. Some vertical, most horizontal. Many show not only the deer, but make a point of showing the habitat that the deer lives in - a.k.a. "environmental portraits". Some have the deer very close, filling the frame, while some have the deer small in the frame to better showcase the vast surroundings. Some are intimate portraits, while some are taken from afar. Backlit silhouettes, front-lit golden hour shots, shots in flat light on overcast winter days ... shots under the canopy of deciduous forests, shots in vast open prairies and meadows, shots or deer in the mountains - you name it, it's there!

But the thing that my friend and I are both doing is that we are both being true to our artistic vision. I am taking the images that appear in my mind's eye. He is taking the images that appear in his mind's eye. We are each pursuing what genuinely appeals to us. Neither of us are declining to shoot a certain type of shot because we're afraid that other people won't like it. We are shooting the photos that we think up and envision for ourselves, rather than trying to shoot what we think other people want to see.

So when it comes to shooting a diverse array of styles, or to shooting images that all fall within a narrowly defined niche, there is no blanket right or wrong. Be true to what you see in your mind's eye, and to the way you feel about the subjects you are shooting, and your body of work will be an authentic representation of you as an artist. And that is the best objective a photographer can have!

Sam Sims's picture

A person who is a professional photographer needs to be consistent though otherwise potential clients won't know what they are getting if they hire them. Saying that, I do agree that people should shoot photos to please themselves first before trying to please other people, unless they are, say, a professional wedding photographer then they need consistency to attract paying clients.

Tom Reichner's picture

Shooting images that other people hire us to shoot, such as weddings, portraits, etc. ..... that is something else entirely.

My entire comment was specifically about those who are shooting for the art of the images, and who either don't sell their work, or don't think about selling the images until after they have been created. But work for hire is a whole other thing and then there's more to consider than just what your personal artistic vision is. Whole different discussion that I'm honestly not interested in pursuing.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

I didn't engage because I felt that you were addressing to art photographers more specifically.

Mike Kelley's picture

I loved watching the creative process play out - the EXACT same conversations, albeit not from four rockstars, happen all the time on my shoots. The same stumbling blocks, etc. Art through adversity!

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks, Mike. I think there is an important lesson to take away from the series, that creativity requires overcoming challenges and adversity. That, in turn, takes hard work and commitment.