It’s the photo that turned a zebra crossing on Abbey Road into a shrine for one of the biggest bands of all time. Taken almost 50 years ago, this is the insight into how photographer Iain MacMillan went about shooting one of music’s most iconic images, for the cover of The Beatles’ Abbey Road album.
The photo was taken for the release of the album in 1969. It features members John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr crossing the road outside the famous recording studio.
Scottish MacMillan climbed upon a stepladder for a higher vantage point for the shoot. He took a total of six shots before Lennon decided he’d had enough. “We’re meant to be recording, not posing for pictures,” he muttered. The images went on to be the last to show all four of the band members together, as weeks later, Lennon would quit.
Recalling the shoot, MacMillan has previously said:
The whole idea was McCartney’s. A few days before the shoot, he drew a sketch of how he imagined the cover, which we executed almost exactly that day. I took a couple of shots of the Beatles crossing Abbey Road one way. We let some of the traffic go by, and then, they walked across the road the other way and I took a few more shots. The one eventually chosen for the cover was number five of six. It was the only one that had their legs in a perfect ‘V’ formation, which is what I wanted stylistically.
Although the spot is now visited by tourists from across the globe, only a few people were on hand to see the shoot take place, including reps from record label EMI. Some ended up in the final shots, as they were stood in the background while MacMillan snapped away.
The image’s release sparked rumors of McCartney’s passing. Fans claimed MacMillan’s picture depicted and hinted at a funeral procession:
Lennon, dressed all in white, was said to be a clergyman; Starr, wearing a black suit, was the undertaker, and Harrison, clad in rock star denim, was the gravedigger. But the biggest 'clue' centered around McCartney. He was pictured barefoot – a sign of death in many cultures – and was holding a cigarette in his right hand, despite being left-handed.
The rumors of his death sent sales of Abbey Road through the roof, ultimately becoming The Beatles’ best-selling album.
MacMillan’s six pictures were developed within an hour and reviewed by John Kosh, the art director for The Beatles’ company, Apple. Kosh was the one that chose the image that ended up being the cover.
MacMillan, who died in 2006, remained humble about his shot. He said:
I think the reason it became so popular is its simplicity. Also, it’s a shot people can relate to. It’s a place where people can still walk.