Thursday, April 2, 2009

A photographer's mission of peace completed

Joan Athey peers at a photograph of John and Yoko by her late friend Gerry Deiter. Photograph by Deddeda Stemler.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 2, 2009


The bed-in of John Lennon and Yoko Ono was a happening. A parade of hippies, reporters, well-wishers, vagabonds, cameramen, teenyboppers and assorted hangers-on traipsed through Room 1742 of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal. Hare Krishna devotees chanted mantras while keeping rhythm with drums and finger cymbals.

So many personages crowded in that the room came to resemble a living rendition of the Sgt. Pepper's album cover. Among the famous were Nat Hentoff, Timothy Leary, Tommy Smothers, Murray the K, Dick Gregory and an obnoxious Al Capp, the illustrator of the Li'l Abner cartoon strip who tried unsuccessfully to provoke an angry response from the famous Beatle. In the end, an impromptu song - the ragged chorus sung by whoever happened to be in the room at the time - was recorded. It remains a global peace anthem to this day.

The bed-in was a Sixties moment that lasted eight days. Gerry Deiter was there for it all, from sunrise to sunset and beyond.

With the Vietnam War raging, with Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. martyred, the photographer thought the bed-in was an inspiration, an appropriate response in the midst of madness. "It seemed to me," he wrote much later, "they were doing the right thing at precisely the right time."

The fashion photographer was living in Montreal in the spring of 1969 when Life magazine called with the assignment. Mr. Lennon had been barred from the United States; he was setting up shop in a Montreal hotel room; please join writer Charles Child, as we're planning a big spread for next week's issue.

Mr. Deiter took hundreds of photographs in the crowded, claustrophobic room. In many of them, he captured an image of a pair of hand-drawn signs placed on the windows over the bed.

One read:

The other read:

The signs undoubtedly made more sense 40 years ago.

The photographer sat on the edge of the bed. He laughed with John, whispered to Yoko.

He sang along when "Give Peace a Chance" was recorded. Years later, he would swear he could hear his voice singing high tenor harmony.

The photographs never got published. The magazine bumped the bed-in spread for other breaking news. The writer eventually sold his interview to a fledgling Playboy challenger called Penthouse. Mr. Deiter put his slides and negatives away for safekeeping. He showed them to no one.

He changed in those eight days. Fashion seemed a piffle. He converted a telephone van into a mobile van and moved west, where he came to photograph the Greenpeace campaign to halt underground nuclear testing.

By 2001, he was living on a boat, photographing the disappearing fishing and forestry industries by summer, tying up in Victoria's Inner Harbour by winter. The terrorist attacks that year convinced him the world needed to know more about peace and about eight addled days in a Montreal hotel room.

Some of his photographs were shown at a coffee shop and at a gallery. The Royal BC Museum held a showing. Mr. Deiter spoke about peace and his friendship with Mr. Lennon and Ms. Ono. In December, 2005, he collapsed and died on a downtown street the day after taking part in a series of public events marking the 25th anniversary of Mr. Lennon's murder.

His wide circle of friends, including Table 18 at Swans Brewpub, where a weekly court was held on Monday nights, was struck by the cruelty of his passing and by its unfairness. The photographer's mission had been left incomplete, as he did not get a chance to share his images after having kept them hidden for so long.

"He did not ever want to exploit those photographs," said Joan Athey, a friend. "If he had ever put them on the market, or tried to sell them, he would have lost an important part of his personality."

Mr. Deiter had spoken to her of two wishes: to have the photos published in a book, and to have them displayed in an exhibit to support Ms. Ono's campaign for peace.

Ms. Athey purchased the archive from the photographer's son in 2007. She had only seen a handful of the more than 500 images he took. She was struck by the intimacy her friend had with his main subjects, who are barefoot and in pyjamas.

She was struck by a thought about how he worked: "He was like a shadow."

"There were never less than a dozen people in the space. The room was small. He would never be snapping frivolously. He waited for those moments. He would wait. Wait. Wait."

Later this month, "Give Peace a Chance," a book featuring Mr. Deiter's photos, will be released by John Wiley & Sons. It is being translated into French and German.

In May, 40 of the photographs will be displayed at the Beatles Story attraction at the Albert Dock in Mr. Lennon's hometown of Liverpool.

In June, the photos and text from the book will be displayed at the Bethel Woods Museum at Bethel, N.Y., as part of the 40th anniversary celebrations of the Woodstock rock festival.

And, today, some of Mr. Deiter's images will be shown to the public as part of an exhibit titled, Imagine: The Peace Ballad of John & Yoko, at The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Ms. Athey is in Montreal for the opening. On Monday, she had an audience with a 76-year-old artist and widow who has returned to the city of her bed-in to continue her work for peace.

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