Bill Zygmant: I thought ‘I will never be a star but I can be a photographer’

Bill Zygmant, the man behind the first picture of John Lennon and Yoko Ono as a couple, talks to Arts Editor Laura Davis

PATTIE BOYD’S reaction to a series of his portraits sums up Bill Zygmant’s passion for photography. They were pictures of her ex-husband George Harrison, exhibited in a Compton Verney gallery after his death.

She stood there for a long time, her eyes fixed on his face, then turned and simply kissed Zygmant on the cheek before walking away.

“I thought that’s given someone a lot of pleasure – that’s what it’s about,” says the 73-year-old, whose images of 60s and 70s icons have themselves become iconic.

His was the first photograph of John Lennon and Yoko Ono to be made public, a humorous image of the Beatle pretending to pose like a model which has been published all over the world.

He has taken pictures of The Beatles, The Bee Gees, Jimi Hendrix, Marc Bolan, Marianne Faithfull, The Scaffold, Richard Burton, Grace Kelly, Bob Hoskins, Judi Dench, Edward Heath, Harold Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

He has had photographs displayed in the National Portrait Gallery, there is a “Zygmant” suite named in his honour in Liverpool’s Hard Days Night Hotel and he once borrowed John Lennon’s painted Rolls Royce.

“At the time I didn’t realise the significance of what I was doing,” he says.

“In the 60s you went out, it was a job and I was enjoying what I was doing. I didn’t really do it for the money.”

Photograph of John Lennon and Yoko in Bill Zygmant’s exhibition at Penny Lane Gallery Picture Bill Zygmant
Bill Zygmant, the man behind the first picture of John Lennon and Yoko Ono as a couple, talks to Arts Editor Laura Davis

A selection from his extensive portfolio, including an image showing all five original Bee Gees – with Robin Gibb on a space hopper, are being shown in his solo exhibition opening at Liverpool’s Penny Lane Gallery tomorrow.

“The 70s was the best time to be a photographer,” says Zygmant.

“There were lots of us, make no mistake, but it was easier than it is now. Pop stars, showbusiness people wanted to get into newspapers but now, although it seems that they still want to get in there, it’s more commercial.”

It was seeing news reels of press photographers snapping film stars, shown before the main feature during Saturday morning trips to the cinema, that initally attracted him to the job: “I thought I’ll never be a star but I can be a photographer.”

His first camera was a box Brownie-style Paxina, bought with the proceeds of a paper round at 14. It took two weeks for his first roll of film to be developed by the owner of the local photography shop, who offered him a job on the spot.

Zygmant was too young to accept however, and instead started taking pictures of skiffle and pop musicians, including Bill Haley, playing near his home in Tottenham.

He was offered his first job on the picture desk of the London Evening Star where he dealt with other people’s images rather than his own until, on one occassion, there was a shortage of photographers. Who would go out to cover Bertram Mills Circus?

Zygmant would, of course. So he did, armed with a Micro-press camera, 12 slides and his taxi fare.

The pictures that made his name he took while working for a Fleet Street news agency and later as a freelancer.

He bought his first Hasselblad camera in 1952 for £229 – “It felt like a mortgage. You could buy a house for under £1,000” – but has since moved on to Canon. In the evenings, to help pay the bills, he developed other people’s photographs.

One day, Yoko Ono, who was shooting her 1966 Fluxus film No. 4 (better known as “Bottoms” as it features close-ups of celebrities’ buttocks), knocked on the studio door.

“I don’t know why, but when they asked ‘how much do we owe you? We’ll come back tomorrow and pay’ I said ‘Oh forget it, do me a favour one day’,” he says.

“When I saw her at the opening of Apple Tailoring on Kings Road, she moved in behind John and there was my first picture. Luck!”

That was the first published image of the couple together. Another time, Zigmant shot them during rehearsals for their one and only Top of the Pops appearance in 1970, performing Instant Karma! (We All Shine On), the song about which Lennon said he “wrote it for breakfast, recorded it for lunch, and we’re putting it out for dinner”.

“The passion that John Lennon gave during that number was unbelievable,” recalls Zygmant. “You could see that’s what they believed in.

“There’s a series of pictures where they’re cuddling ( see cover picture) and looking at the playback – and it contradicts what people thought, that she was after his money. They were in love.”

Zygmant had decided to give up putting on exhibitions but couldn’t resist the Penny Lane Gallery.

“I wasn’t going to do any more because I was quite happy plodding along really, but then it’s unfair because I think people should see your work if it’s of importance,” he says.

“What better place than Liverpool? Everyone’s been so good to me there.”

BILL ZYGMANT’S exhibition opens at the Penny Lane Gallery tomorrow and runs until October 14. He is also judging the Albert Dock’s Reflections photography competition. Details at http://www.albertdock.com

Liverpool Post, August 16, 2012

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