Abbey Road – creating the back cover

The untouched back cover photo

We have received a letter from Mike Cockcroft, who has been doing some further research about the work his dad, John Cockcroft did for the Abbey Road cover. This is a follow-up to our initial post about the subject, “Retouching the Abbey Road cover”.

His understanding now, is that the work by his dad relates mainly to the back cover.

The company he was a director of was called Colorcel, it was a professional photographic lab producing Dye transfer prints and offering a retouching service, it was located in London at 52/54 Featherstone street, London EC1.
John Cockcroft was a director and the head retoucher. It ran from the late 1950s through to the 70s. The clients where mainly professional photographers and ad agencies. Iain Macmillan was a client. and would have bought his film from them and had it processed there. Ringo was also a client and had his happy snaps processed and printed there (something that amused Cockcroft, as the lab was really for professional photographers and ad agencies who could afford the rates).

Iain Macmillan shot the front and back covers, Mike is not sure if his dad did anything on the front cover, it’s possible he removed some bystanders, but he doesn’t know for certain.

We don’t think much was done to the front cover, the bystanders seem to be there, and we believe that colour improvement, especially as far as the sky is concerned, is what mainly has taken place.

However, the back cover shot had no Beatles lettering and that had to be created. Mike goes on to explain the process of how this was done.

Photo with preliminary text, still no “Beatles” or Apple logo

From Macmillan’s transparency, a dye transfer print was made using separation negatives, (you end up with a set of three pin registered matrixes, magenta,cyan and yellow, which are then individually placed on top of a print to transfer the 3 colours that make up the Dye Transfer).

The difference between a type c print and a dye print is that on the type c any retouching done would have to be with acrylic paint or gouache paint and an airbrush, and would sit on top of the print surface emulsion, crude and sometimes quite visible. On a dye you could use bleach to remove any part of the image all the way back to white and then use the same dyes that had produced the print to draw back in the missing area, the result in the hands of a master would be undetectable.

As an example, suppose you wanted to remove a person from a shot, you would bleach the area out till it went back to white, making sure you had a soft edge. So now you have a print with a white hole were the person was, what the retoucher would have to do is fill this hole with the surrounding detail. How? With a fine brush, dyes, and a lot of skill and patience, and on a dye if done right you would never know a person had been there, maybe five hours work, done today in 5 minutes in Photoshop.

Dye transfer was a new process at the time and allowed incredible image manipulation,photo composites and retouching, many of the techniques that are so easy to do now in photoshop, had to be done by hand, it required a high degree of artistry and craftsmanship. Here’s a link to a video describing the process:

Signs around London

John Cockcroft was supplied with shots of street lettering taken in and around London that matched the Abbey Road signage (possibly supplied by Macmillan).

From these shots, a composite was created of the Beatles lettering and then combined and used to mask this area out on the master set of dye matrixes, so that when a new dye was made, the combined lettering would be part of the image. Whatever imperfections then existed (masking lines etc) would be bleached out, and the detail tickled back in with a fine brush using dyes mixed and matched by the artist to recreate missing detail. The infamous crack in the “s” was bleached back and then drawn in. If this was Cockcroft’s input or a request from the art director, Mike doesn’t know, but it helped the lettering look real.

“Beatles” sign created

It’s possible this original artwork still exists somewhere in Apple’s archives.

The first run of the cover didn’t align the Apple logo properly with the text

I have included this information in my comprehensive page about the Abbey Road cover: “The road goes on forever”. I keep that page updated whenever new information comes along.

3 Responses

  1. George Armstrong says:

    Fascinating and informative as always – thanks Roger! However, regarding the misaligned Apple logo on first print issues – it is actually the text that is misaligned. On subsequent reprints the Apple logo is still in the same place (directly under the 'A' of 'Abbey'), but the text has been moved to the left.

  2. db says:

    Great stuff, and big respect to the expert retouchers of the day.

  3. Tom says:

    Excellent post, but I believe that should be "acrylic paint and gouache paint" not "gauche paint".

Leave a Reply