TAOS, N.M. — Snow and frigid temperatures didn’t stop thousands of screaming teenagers from crowding into the Washington Coliseum in the nation’s capital for the Beatles first live concert on American soil.
And not having a flash didn’t stop photographer Mike Mitchell, then just 18 years old, from using his unrestricted access to document that historic February night in 1964 using only the dim light in the arena.
Ghostly shadows and streams of light filled some negatives. With the help of modern technology and close to 1,000 hours in front of the computer screen, Mitchell was able to peel back decades of grunge and transform those old negatives into a rare, artful look at one of pop culture’s defining moments.
Mitchell’s portraits of the Beatles are the centerpiece of a monthlong exhibition at the David Anthony Fine Art gallery in Taos — the first time the prints have been exhibited since being unveiled in 2011 at a Christie’s auction in New York City. The gallery started hanging the first of the framed prints a week ago in preparation for Friday’s opening.
“Just amazing,” gallery owner David Mapes said as he looked around the room at the large black and white prints and wondered aloud what it must have been like to be in Mitchell’s shoes that night.
Mapes pointed to a photograph of the four band members, their backs to the camera with a thin ribbon of light outlining their silhouettes. When he first saw it, he said he teared up. He knew he had to find a way to share it with others.
“It brought back memories of that time. I was a teenager and it was so much about love and everything was optimistic feeling,” he said.
It didn’t take long from the time the Beatles released their debut album in 1963 to go from a little British bar band to an international sensation. The Beatles’ reach eventually stretched beyond music and haircuts to religion and politics.
“The Beatles came to represent some of the yearnings for peace and hope and equality and a larger social justice. In the United States and throughout the world, their personalities became as important as the music,” said Norman Markowitz, a history professor at Rutgers University.
For Paul Vance, who teaches a class on the Beatles at Winona State University in Minnesota, the band was the reason he pursued music. He was 11 years old when the Beatles first came to the U.S.
The Beatles had good timing, he said, having arrived at a time when America was still heartbroken over the assassination of then-President John F. Kennedy and young people were looking for meaning in their lives.
“Much has been said and written about it,” Vance said of the Beatles’ influence. “It’s a very significant point that the world after the Beatles was a radically different place than the world before the Beatles, and they did influence and change so many aspects of not just American life, but life everywhere.”
Mitchell can’t predict what role his photographs will play as historians and music fans continue to examine the evolution of American pop culture. Still, those moments captured by his camera that February night tell a grainy story of four young men who seemed to be having the time of their lives.
Mitchell remembers how hot it was inside the coliseum. The crowd was deafening but the resonating bass beats were unmistakable. He said the Beatles were “on fire” that night.
“They were really juiced. It was obvious at the time that they were really, really, really into it and I think the pictures really benefit from that,” he said.
Mitchell said his goal was simple. He wanted to make great portraits of the Beatles while discovering a little more about who they really were.
With no flash, he was forced to wait for the perfect time to snap that shutter. His photographs immortalized the important details of the moment in a bath of light while the rest faded into darkness. It was the concert that marked the beginning of his fascination with light.
“I think that was the first time in my life that I had to really look more deeply at light and take my queues from what the light was doing,” he said. “I learned to sort of feel from the light.”