At 'Om' with the Beatles

Circa 1968 photographs adorn Liverpool John Lennon Airport.

In the spring of 1968 the Beatles took a hiatus, leaving for a spiritual respite at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s meditation retreat in Rishikesh, India. No one, not even the Fab Four, would have predicted that during this time they would produce some of their best work-epic songs such as "Revolution," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," and "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da," to name just a few.

Nor would anyone have foreseen that, 40 years later, photographs taken by another visitor whose path just happened to cross that of the Beatles during the India retreat would end up surviving. And that later these images, having endured time and abandonment, would end up on the business side of a wide-format printer, and be installed in an airport bearing Lennon’s name with 5.5 million travelers passing through it each year.

Life goes on

Aimless upon receiving a "dear john" letter from his girlfriend in 1968, documentary filmmaker Paul Saltzman left his sound-recording job and sought refuge at the India ashram. He was 25 and looking to "find himself," but at first couldn’t gain access to the meditation center because of some other well-known visitors, including Mia Farrow, Donovan, and a particularly acclaimed foursome. So Saltzman slept in his tent at Maharishi’s gates for eight days before he, along with his cheap Pentax 35mm camera ("I couldn’t afford anything better"), finally gained admittance.

"I wasn’t looking for the Beatles," Saltzman says, but once admitted, he didn’t hesitate to approach the group and ask if he could join them. To which Lennon replied, "Sure, mate. Grab a seat."

Saltzman certainly didn’t intend to capitalize on his newfound friends’ fame. In fact, he says, "Within five minutes of meeting them, I forgot they were the Beatles. I could have taken hundreds of pictures but I never thought of it." During his time at the retreat, however, he managed to snap a little over 50 photographs of the band, photos which Sotheby’s auction house would later call "some of the most intimate pictures of them."

In a few weeks, Saltzman would return to the real world and his normal life, eventually growing his own documentary film company to become one of the largest in British Columbia. The photos were tucked away and all but forgotten with other pictures from that time in his life. For decades he did nothing with the photos, not even telling his closest friends about them. "I didn’t want to do anything more with them except let the experiences deepen," he says.

Years later, it was Saltzman’s daughter, Devyani, who set things in motion. She recalled hearing her father’s stories about the Maharishi as well as the Beatles, and asked to see the photographs. "Didn’t you tell me that you took some pictures of the Beatles?" she asked. "Can I see them?"

It took him three weeks to find them. "They sat in a brown cardboard box with other pictures. When I found them it was like they fell out of the lab that day. Thank God they were still in pristine condition," Saltzman says of the Ektachrome 35mm transparencies.

His daughter’s continued enthusiasm eventually led him to produce what would become a book edition of the images, with Penguin Press, in 2000. And then, in 2006, Saltzman and his wife, Patricia Aquino, self-published a limited-edition box set of The Beatles in India with higher-quality images, coupled with a DVD and CD.

Above us only sky

It was during Saltzman’s promotion of the new collection in London when he met Neil Pakey, the CEO of the Liverpool John Lennon Airport. Once Pakey saw Saltzman’s images, the two began collaborating to display them at one of Europe’s fastest-growing airports.

The former Speke Airport had been renamed in 2001, the first in the UK to be named after a single individual. But it wasn’t just Lennon’s name the airport carried; it was completely re-branded around Lennon. Its new logo includes the artist’s self-portrait and the "above us only sky" line, from Lennon’s "Imagine."

And that wasn’t all: A 7-foot bronze statue of Lennon sits on the main passenger walkway overlooking the check-in, while a 25-ton, 50-foot Yellow Submarine welcomes visitors at the front of the terminal building. The airport also displays two of Lennon’s suits and quotes from various Lennon songs installed in colored lettering above the check-in area and throughout the terminal building.

Touring the airport with Pakey, Saltzman suggested the departure lounge on a high ceiling for the images, and then he contemplated display options. If the pictures were front-lit, Saltzman thought, they would all be washed out from so much light. "It struck me that the images would be a bit over-lit during the day and need additional lighting to be seen well at night." And then it hit him: "Lightboxes-the images would look fantastic backlit."

With the space chosen, Saltzman and Pakey decided that they would need seven images. They then chose the seven that would work best in the panoramic format the wall space allowed. And a project was born.

It all works out

To put the airport project in motion, Saltzman turned to two shops in Toronto. He first took his transparencies for scanning to Toronto Image Works (www.torontoimageworks.com), which had done the initial scanning of the transparencies for the book project. Then, Jones and Morris Photo Digital Imaging (www.photodigital.com) picked up the ball, taking on color-correction and detail work.

Says Jack Seary, digital manager at Jones and Morris: "We edited the files to match proofs that Paul had done previously, starting out with curves to get the correct tone ranges and highlights. We had to go into select files to modify individual colors, tweaking on an as-needed basis."

Seary and his crew produced 16 x 20-inch proofs onto photographic paper, using his shop’s Durst Lambda. When they wanted to verify at final-print size, they would produce a 2 x 5-foot strip and then "stand back and see how the grain and structure of the image would hold up. Some images were grainier, and we especially printed these to see how they would look. This allowed us to see which images would have the most issues."

Once the images had been digitized to Saltzman’s satisfaction, he delivered them to Pakey and the airport, which then forwarded them to longtime printing partner P&K Signs and Designs. Headquartered in Stockport, less than an hour’s drive from Lennon’s hometown, P&K is a six-year-old company with seven employees, operating out of a 15,000-square-foot facility.

"We do a lot of work for the airport," says Ryan Blockley, P&K’s finance director. "Not as big as this job was going to be, but we’ve done advertising lightboxes as well as billboards, directional signage, and so on." In addition to wide-format work, the shop also takes on small-format digital, LED and lighting systems, lamination and install work, and other jobs.

Recalls Saltzman: "I was looking for a production house to do the manufacturing and installation, and had contacted several from Internet research-but was not thrilled. When I asked Neil Pakey who did the small ad lightboxes in the airport, he put me onto P&K. And they become an obvious choice-from the kind of work they did in general, the quality of their work, and their intimate familiarity with installation at the airport."

P&K first did a few initial test prints, then output test images approximately one-third the size of the finals. Saltzman and Aquino were on-hand for three days during the test-print process, working with the files and giving their blessing for what would be the final output.

Final output ran on P&K’s Nur Expedio 3200 UV digital press, printing onto backlit flex PVC. Because of the high ink saturation that lightboxes necessitate, the shop took things slow and printed double density. "The seven images were printed over two to three days because they were printed on the highest setting, and they had to be suitable for backlighting," says Blockley. In addition, a clear border was left around each image to allow for placement in each lightbox.

In all, P&K produced seven images-six measuring approximately 8 feet tall x 23 feet wide, and a seventh measuring 8 feet tall x 7 feet wide. Tensioning boxes were used for mounting, and clips attached the PVC to the flexible-faced tensioning system. Installation occurred nightly over the next week, since P&K’s installers were allowed to work only during minimal airport traffic times.

Shine until tomorrow

The seven lightboxed images will permanently adorn the Liverpool John Lennon Airport lounge, paying homage to the local quartet. It’s a rare opportunity to see the real, young faces of four men who had an immeasurable impact on the world of music.

In late 2007, a press reception accompanied the unveiling of the installation. The light switch was flipped on, and the candid images that Paul Saltzman had shot all those years ago glowed, illuminating the entire John Lennon departure lounge.

In attendance that day, Saltzman gasped, "Wow, it’s even better than we imagined."

THE BEATLES IN INDIA
www.thebeatlesinindia.com

P&K SIGNS
www.pksigns.co.uk

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