Iain MacMillan: John Lennon and Yoko Ono – the dissolving heads series

While Iain MacMillan is undoubtedly best known for his Abbey Road sessions with the Beatles, he also created a series of five photographs of John and Yoko, which he called the ‘dissolving heads’ series, where, as the viewer moves from left to right through the sequence of five photographs, John morphs into Yoko.

History and usage

Iain MacMillan’s close up portraits of John and Yoko that formed the basis for the dissolving heads series were first used on the back cover of the catalogue for Yoko Ono’s exhibition ‘This Is Not Here’ at New York’s Everson Art Museum in October 1971.

They were also used by John & Yoko on their 1971 US single ‘Happy Christmas (War is Over), where the five images appeared in sequence on the the record label. It featured again on their single ‘Woman is the Nigger of the World’ released in 1972. The album ‘Some Time in New York City’, which was also released in 1972, also featured the sequence. This was the last release to feature the dissolving heads.

A set of dissolving heads portraits was recently exhibited in Dundee’s Discovery Point Gallery in Scotland from February 2010 to June 2010, in a retrospective exhibition of Iain MacMillan’s photographs titled “From Dundee to Abbey Road”. Dundee was Iain’s hometown, and the exhibition celebrated his work. This was a public gallery space and nothing was available for sale to the public.

After the exhibition, Yoko Ono negotiated the purchase of all Iain’s photographs featuring her and John, including the set that were included in the Dundee exhibition, so we know that Yoko herself owns a set.  We are offering this set on behalf of a private collector who acquired them directly from Iain MacMillan in the 1980s. Do other sets exist? Quite possibly, but unfortunately we have no way of knowing how many with any certainty. What we can say is that this is the first time we have ever offered a set for sale, and we have not seen them offered on the market before, so it is a real treat to be able to offer them for sale now.

Technical background and specifications

These five silver gelatin photographs were made in the mid 1980s by photographer Iain Macmillan in the darkroom from the original 1971 negatives. They have an image size measuring 18 x 18 cm / 7 x 7 inches on  20 x 25 cm / 8 x 10 inch paper.

Iain created the set from two negatives, one negative of the portrait of John (the first photograph in the sequence), and one of the portrait Yoko (the fifth in the sequence). The three other images in the sequence of the result of some technically challenging darkroom work by Iain with both negatives, making double exposures with varying exposure times to give the morphing effect. The resulting photographic image shows the one image superimposed over the other. One image is emphasized over the other by being exposed for longer. When producing dissolving heads, Iain would have carefully times the exposure of each frame to create the ‘merging’ effect. The complex nature of the process means that no two complete sets of dissolving heads portraits will ever be exactly the same.

May Pang, who was the Lennons’ PA in New York in the early 1970s is quoted watching Iain develop the dissolving heads photographs: “Well, remember that there was no Photoshop or computers back then, and that is a key point. It is amazing that he was able to accomplish this. Iain had to do all of that by hand. Imagine that! I remember him working on those photos, painstakingly, and how he’d come back from the dark room with some outtakes that were really funny. You know, he’d come out with the eyes or mouth not lined up right, (laughs) and he’d show me and we’d laugh ourselves sick. They were so funny.”

Each photograph has been individually mounted on card, and Iain has titled the mount underneath the first photograph of John Lennon (with no morphing): “New York. 1971. Dissolving Heads”. The wording under the final photograph of Yoko Ono consists of a dedication by Iain to the original owner, and bears Iain’s signature.

They were acquired by the current owner directly from Iain Macmillan in the mid 1980s and have been in storage since then.

Price on request