Henry Grossman, photographer of celebrities and Beatles, dies at 86

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Henry Grossman, photographer of celebrities and Beatles, dies at 86
In 2008, Curvebender released “Kaleidoscope Eyes,” a limited-edition book of Grossman’s photographs documenting an evening at Abbey Road Studios in London as the Beatles were recording the album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

by Sam Roberts

NEW YORK, NY.- Henry Grossman, a photographer who was best known for his formal portraits of celebrities and other public figures — but who also, less famously, immortalized the Beatles on film in thousands of unscripted antics while juggling a side career as a Metropolitan Opera tenor and a Broadway bit player — died on Nov. 27 in Englewood, New Jersey. He was 86.

His son, David, said he died in a hospital several months after sustaining injuries in a fall.

Grossman produced paradigmatic portraits of Eleanor Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Elizabeth Taylor, Martha Graham, Leontyne Price, Leonard Bernstein and Nelson Mandela. He photographed new Metropolitan Opera productions for Time magazine and was the official photographer for many Broadway shows.

His portraits of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were published on the front page of The New York Times on Nov. 23, 1963, accompanying the news that the young president had been assassinated in Dallas and succeeded by his vice president the day before.

Grossman’s sensitivity to classical portraiture’s interplay of shadow and light was inspired by his father, artist Elias M. Grossman, an immigrant from Russia whose etchings were acquired by numerous institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

By the time Henry graduated from Brandeis University in Massachusetts in 1958, he had compiled an impressive portfolio of portraits of guest speakers on campus and photographs of stage productions there. His fledgling second career as a singer would imbue him with an empathy for performers that helped him establish an unusual bond with celebrity subjects.

He was only 27 — barely older than the Beatles themselves — when he was commissioned by Life magazine in 1964 to cover the band’s American television debut, on the popular CBS variety series “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Grossman photographed the hirsute quartet juxtaposed against a jungle of television cameras, amplifiers and other backstage impedimenta, and he shot from the balcony to capture their electrifying effect on the audience. His creative eye would be reflected in an archive of some 7,000 photos he would take of the Beatles over the next four years.

That only a few dozen were published or even printed at the time — most famously a 1967 portrait for Life of the newly mustachioed band members — left other photographers (among them Robert Freeman, Dezo Hoffmann, Astrid Kirchherr, Jürgen Vollmer and Robert Whitaker) more closely associated with the Beatles than Grossman was.

But Grossman’s archive of intimate moments at home, at private parties and during overnight recording sessions amounted to more images of the band taken over a longer period than any other photographer’s, according to his publisher, Curvebender Publishing.

In 2008, Curvebender released “Kaleidoscope Eyes,” a limited-edition book of Grossman’s photographs documenting an evening at Abbey Road Studios in London as the Beatles were recording the album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” In 2012, the company published “Places I Remember,” a hefty volume that included 1,000 of his Beatles photographs.

The Beatles’ “Ed Sullivan Show” debut did not transform Grossman into a fan overnight. But during the band’s American tour that summer, he befriended George Harrison.

“After that,” Grossman told the Times in 2012, “anytime I went to London, I’d check into my hotel, call their office to find out George’s phone number du jour — they had to change them, because the fans would find them out — and I’d arrange to spend a day with them.”

“They were accustomed to seeing me with a camera, documenting everything that went on around me,” he explained in “Places I Remember.” “It was simply part of me, part of who I was. More than that, I had become a friend.”

“I was first a friend and second a photographer,” he added. “So when I pulled out my camera, no one thought twice about it. No one cared. It wasn’t seen as invasive.”

Henry Maxwell Grossman was born on Oct. 11, 1936, in Manhattan. His father died when he was 10, and his mother, Josephine (Erschler) Grossman, helped support the family by selling her husband’s etchings.

After graduating from Metropolitan Vocational and Technical High School in Manhattan at 16, Henry earned a scholarship to Brandeis, where he received a degree in theater arts and did graduate work in anthropology — and where he first made a mark as a photographer.

After returning to New York City, he began his career as a freelance photographer for Life, Time, Newsweek and Paris Match, among other magazines, and for the Times.

His marriage to Carol Ann Hauptfuhrer in 1973 ended in divorce. He is survived by their children, David and Christine Grossman, who are both professional musicians, and his sister, Suzanne Grossman.

While in his 20s, Grossman studied at the Actors Studio. After touring in the 1960s with the national company of the Metropolitan Opera, Grossman, a tenor, made his New York singing debut at Carnegie Hall in 1973 and went on to appear with the Washington Opera Society and the Philadelphia Lyric Opera. In the 1980s, he performed in concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Riccardo Muti, and in the next decade he sang in three productions at the Metropolitan Opera.

He also did some acting. He made a brief appearance in the 1978 movie “Who’s Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?” while on location in Italy as film photographer, and he played a scullery worker in the original cast of the Broadway musical “Grand Hotel” for its full run, from 1989 to 1992.

Grossman was gregarious but largely unassuming, waiting to be invited rather than insinuating himself into his subjects’ private lives. That was how he managed to take photos for Jacqueline Kennedy of her children at home, and to accompany George Harrison on his “Dark Horse” tour of North America in 1974.

“I learned a lot from the Beatles,” he was quoted as saying in the 2012 Times article. “I was interested in how they took to fame, how they used it. It wasn’t easy for them.

“One night in Atlantic City, I asked Ringo how he liked seeing America. He took me to the window of his hotel room, pointed to a brick wall across the parking lot, and said, ‘That’s what we’ve seen.’ They were trapped.”

“I guess one reason we got along so well was that they knew I wasn’t trying to get anything from them,” Grossman said. “And I think I got the pictures I got because I wasn’t posing them. I wasn’t injecting myself into the scene as a participant. I was just watching.

“I was like a fly on the wall. I got what was there.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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