He’s taken many photos in his 50-year career, but there’s one from his earliest days that’s among Jürgen Vollmer’s most famous images.
It’s the black-and-white photo Vollmer took of a leaning, leather-jacketed John Lennon in a doorway in Hamburg, Germany.
When Vollmer met The Beatles at the Kaiserkeller club in October 1960, he had just started photography and lacked confidence in his skills. But when the band returned to Hamburg in March 1961, Vollmer was “secure enough” in his abilities to photograph them, he recalled in an interview in September.
Vollmer always liked what he calls “the backyards” of Hamburg, which to him looked mysterious. A doorway at Jagerpassage 1, Wohlwillstrasse 2 caught his eye, and his thought at the time was, “It would be great to have a rock ’n’ roller in there.”
In April 1961, a 20-year-old Lennon became that rocker. Vollmer, then 21, was in what he called his study phase, and he wanted to experiment by placing his camera on a tripod and setting a long exposure.
“Before I even started taking any pictures, I said to John, ‘You just lean there and look arrogant, like you always do,’” Vollmer recalled with a laugh. “And I wanted the other three out of focus.”
Those “other three” in the photo are Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Stuart Sutcliffe. Vollmer did want their shoes in focus, so he had them practice walking past Lennon first, then shot a roll of 12-exposure film.
Years later, when Vollmer was working in New York as a magazine art director, he received a phone call from May Pang, Lennon’s companion during his so-called “lost weekend” away from Yoko Ono. Pang was calling on behalf of Lennon, who was interested in seeing Vollmer’s photos from their April 1961 session. Lennon wanted to use one for the cover of “Rock ’n’ Roll,” an album featuring his versions of early rock hits. (The Beatles often covered songs from the same era during their Hamburg club days.)
Vollmer made enlargements of his photos and met Lennon at the studio where he was recording. Vollmer said he was paid $750 for his efforts. According to Vollmer, he designed “Rock ’n’ Roll” as a gatefold cover and remembers Lennon describing it as “beautiful.” But in the end, the packaging was redesigned under the direction of Roy Kohara, and the album was released in 1975 with a standard cover and Vollmer’s now-famous photo—cropped tight and not showing the in-focus shoes of the blurred McCartney, Harrison and Sutcliffe—on the front.