Koh Hasebe was unfamiliar with the subject of a 1965 assignment that led to his over 40-year career as Japan’s most prolific rock ‘n’ roll royalty photographer.
“At the time, I didn’t know who The Beatles were,” he recalls.
Thanks to this mission, Hasebe became the first Japanese photographer to capture the Fab Four. He is also known to have taken the most photos of another legendary British group, Queen.
Hasebe, 91, posted the highlight of his life’s work, “Rock the Best,” in April. It features over 540 photos of 239 musicians and bands handpicked from his photos taken between 1953 and 1997.
They include Louis Armstrong, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Duran Duran, Jon Bon Jovi, Kiss and U2.
In 1965, Shoichi Kusano, president of the predecessor of Shinko Music Entertainment Co., asked Hasebe to take pictures of The Beatles. Hasebe had moved to Paris to avoid the hustle and bustle of the Tokyo Olympics the year before.
He had worked as a photographer mainly for a movie magazine to take pictures of famous faces. But he decided to leave Japan when the industry began to decline after television broadcasting began.
Not knowing who the Beatles were, Hasebe watched “A Hard Day’s Night,” the group’s first movie, in a Paris cinema. He couldn’t hear the dialogue because of all the screaming and screaming from the audience. But he realized how popular the band was.
Hasebe took their photos in a studio in London on June 15 of that year.
“I don’t think they’ve seen a Japanese before,” he said.
The group members looked curiously at the kimono of an editor who accompanied Hasebe during the photoshoot.
They asked her what she would put inside the sleeve pocket and if she felt squeezed by such a wide “obi” belt.
When artists made music, Hasebe made sure he took pictures without them noticing. He stood at a distance and used a telephoto lens so they wouldn’t even hear the sound of the shutter.
He only approached his subjects when they were taking a break.
Hasebe said the rules he followed when taking photos of Japanese movie stars helped him with his assignments in the music industry.
After returning to Japan, Hasebe began working exclusively for Music Life magazine, published by Shinko Music.
He took more pictures of The Beatles when they were on tour in the United States and when they were performing in Japan.
One of his photos taken in a Tokyo hotel in 1966 shows John Lennon imitating the well-known pose of a character from a comic manga from the 1960s.
When Lennon asked what was popular with children in Japan, Rumiko Hoshika, then editor of Music Life, showed him the antique.
“John was still childish back then,” Hasebe said.
During the Beatles’ concerts in Japan, Hasebe stayed in a hotel room just one floor below theirs for over a week, awaiting photos.
“If your job is to take pictures of stars, you have to wait,” he said.
He began taking pictures of Queen on their first tour of Japan in 1975. The cover photo for the band’s “Live Killers” album was taken by Hasebe.
The photographer never asked his subjects to “smile” or make facial expressions for his photos, although he sometimes asked them to take a step back when they started to relax after several photos.
“No musician can be free to feel the presence of the camera,” Hasebe said. “But they will look natural with the slightest opportunity. You will never be able to take good photos if you miss this chance. “