Shutterbug lucks into some fab photos

British photographer can retire on his 23 snaps of the Beatles

Veteran photographer Tom Murray has told the story of the Beatles' 1968 'Mad Day' photo shoot many, many times. He rattles off the facts fast enough to test a court stenographer.

Yet Murray remains enthused about his stroke of luck that resulted in the last 23 color photographs of the Fab Four when they were still together. It has translated into a $2.3 million retirement fund for him, according to Christie's, which estimated the value of the pictures in 1991.

'Of course, nobody's actually offered me that much,' he says cheerfully by phone from London. Still, 'the latest estimate is $4.9 million,' he adds.

Twenty-three 16-by-20 prints will soon be on display at the Photographic Image Gallery, and it's only the second place they've been seen in the United States. The original prints are at Pop International Galleries in New York City's SoHo District, while the negatives are in a vault.

Murray himself will be on hand for the First Thursday opening, which promises to generate considerable hoopla.

'It's very difficult to find really super photographic galleries. Guy Swanson (owner of the Photographic Image Gallery) has been around since 1984, and he's had some of the heavy hitters: Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston,' Murray says.

Swanson indicates that the Murray show is just the tip of the iceberg.

'We'll be doing a lot more rock photography,' Swanson says. 'I've got a Jim Morrison show coming next summer with photos from Frank Lisciandro, who went to film school with Jim in L.A.'

Murray's 'Mad Day' with the Beatles happened when he was chief photographer for the Times of London's Sunday magazine Ñ 'the highest paid staffer in the country,' he says proudly.

He got the job when he returned from Africa after a five-year sojourn and wrote to the top four photographers in London looking for work. Only Lord Snowdon got back to him, and it was through his influence that Murray landed at the Times.

He spent the next five years hobnobbing with photographers such as Snowdon, Eve Arnold, Helmut Newton and David Bailey and traveling to such places as Switzerland to photograph Igor Stravinsky or to Sandringham to capture the Queen Mum, who said, 'Let the boy with the camera up front.'

By 1968, the Beatles were fed up trying to schedule photo shoots while dodging fans and settled on one solid day, choosing London Times war photographer Don McCullum for the job.

'McCullum said: 'Can you help me with my lights? I've got this rock band to photograph. Oh, and bring a camera with you, you might get some nice snaps.''

Murray grabbed two rolls of Kodak Ektachrome color film and his old Nikon camera and hopped into the car, heading for an old church in the Docklands.

'I was walking down this hall, and I heard 'Lady Madonna' on the piano,' Murray recalls. 'I turned into the room, and there was Paul McCartney playing, George talking to his wife, John and Yoko off in a corner, and Ringo with a cup of tea and a parrot on his shoulder.

' 'Is this the group?' I said to McCullum. 'You didn't say it was the Beatles!' '

For the rest of the day, Murray helped McCullum and shot his own pictures, painfully aware he only had two rolls of film. His favorite frames from the shoot are a portrait of Harrison, 'which I never really saw until I printed it two years ago,' and Paul McCartney squirting water right into the camera lens.

'I played this game with Paul; he'd pull a stunt to see if I was watching. That's how I got him shooting water at me,' he says.

His ad-lib photos also include one of John Lennon feigning death, while the others crouch around him with George Harrison wearing Lennon's glasses.

'When John was shot I told a friend at Time magazine I had this picture,' he says, 'but they thought it was too spooky for the cover.'

Murray says he was lucky nobody paid much attention to him, but he was used to just being 'the kid in jeans' and made the most of it.

'When I got home. I edited the film down to 23 slides on Eve Arnold's advice. 'Keep the best and bin the rest; it'll be your old age pension,' ' she said.

These days Murray divides his time among teaching the occasional master photography class, working in New York and 'doing dogs and babies' at his small studio in southern England.

He makes good use of his Beatles prints:

'I've raised almost 150,000 pounds ($240,000) donating prints to charity auctions, and we're headed for a quarter of a million.'

Murray says life is good.

'I have a hooty time. I get paid for something I enjoy, and I'm really lucky,' he says. 'And I'm pleased I've made so much money for charity.'

Contact Paul Duchene atThis email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..