In 1980, I was a network staff photographer for ABC TV in New York. I had graduated through the post college processing school known as New York press photography, and somehow landed this odd duck of a job shooting stills for TV folks. Which meant of course I was the always the caboose of the operation, the afterthought of a bunch of people who were pre-occupied with moving pictures, not still ones. I would be dispatched to various events, like Monday Night Football, or political conventions, or All My Children, to shoot the pictures that would support the news, advertising and publicity surrounding the various endeavors of ABC. These snaps would be used a hundred different ways from Sunday.
That was what I was doing the night John Lennon was shot. I had just gotten back to my tiny apartment on W.65th St. after shooting the stills for a televison special called “The American Dance Machine.” Shot, as always, color and B&W, horizontal and vertical, fulfilling my ongoing assignment mandate of shooting material that anybody could use, any which way they wanted. I had no TV, just an AM-FM radio, which I always turned on at night, being a bit of news junkie at the time. I would get a quick overview of the day, and switch to WNEW, my preferred rock and roll station. Music to go to sleep by.
The music stopped. Vin Scelsa came on, shaky voiced. I remember the ever loquacious Scelsa saying”for the first time in my career as a radio deejay, I am speechless,” or words to that effect. John Lennon had been shot. Scelsa simply started playing Beatles music.
Very quickly, the news he had been shot changed. Very quickly, word spread that John Lennon was dead.
I was tired. But, on a sidewalk I had traveled hundreds of times, a few blocks from my bed, this voice I had grown up with was gunned down. Couldn’t sleep. Slung the cameras and the press card, and went out.
First stop was Roosevelt Hospital. Had to go there to see what was happening. Of course, there wasn’t anything to see. Grievously wounded, he was DOA, even though they worked on him in the ER. There was a column in the Daily News after, about officers Bill Gamble and James Moran, the cops who transported him to the hospital. They asked him, “Do you know who you are?” He allegedly replied, “I’m John Lennon.” There is evidently conflicting reports as to whether Lennon was able to respond, but the thing is, when the cops make the desperation move of using the squad car as an ambulance, it’s more than serious. Death is imminent.
I made a picture of the hospital building, what is called in NY press parlance a “real estate.” No possible pictures of the drama and sadness inside, but you can always run a photo showing where it went down. Went from there to the Dakota, where a crowd was already gathering.
They spilled all over 72nd St. Singing Beatles songs and holding candles. I stayed, shooting pushed Ektachrome, and trying not to feel like a ghoul. Hard thing about being a shooter, right? Some people understand what you are doing, others don’t. Have to let the judgments slide off your back. Bad feelings, bad words, keep working, let it go, keep your eye in the lens. Remember–at the end of this day what remains? The pictures.
And not many of those. My early archive is mostly fragmented junk now, a scrap heap of early efforts and things I wish I had seen a whole lot better than I did. Have just a few frames left of that night, and the day that followed.
I stayed into the night and the morning, which then stretched into the day. Lots of coffee. Lots of thoughts. Sometimes, with a camera in your hands, it’s just tough to leave. More tk….