When Paul Saltzman found himself at the gate of an Indian ashram in 1968 in search of spiritual guidance, he also found the Beatles.
Saltzman, then 24, had left his home in Canada to film a documentary in India, but the abrupt end of a romantic relationship sent him into a tailspin.
Brokenhearted, Saltzman had heard of a healing ashram across the Ganges River. He made his way to the spiritual center, only to be told that the Rishikesh ashram was closed because the Beatles were inside.
After spending eight days in a tent outside, Saltzman was welcomed through the gate. He spent a week with the Beatles, documenting the experience in photographs.
Saltzman’s images will be on display from Nov. 2 to 4 at the Pacific Edge Gallery in Laguna Beach. The exhibition is in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ eponymous record, better known as the “White Album.” The band wrote many of the songs at the ashram.
“Paul captured the Beatles in such an intimate way they had never been seen before,” said Rich Horowitz, who put the display together.
The free exhibition is centered on John Lennon and will include photos of him from the ashram, his art and hand-written lyrics. Photographer Bob Gruen, who has captured iconic images of Lennon, will also have some works displayed along with several “Bag One” lithographs, which Lennon signed in 1969.
Lennon generally wasn’t known for his visual work. Some galleries dismissed it as “celebrity art,” but Horowitz considers it significant.
“He drew his entire life, so his art was really important to him,” Horowitz said.
Horowitz has toured nearly three decades with Lennon exhibitions — with the blessing of Yoko Ono — but this is the first time the Lennon-only exhibit will include Saltzman’s photos.
Saltzman, now 74, of Toronto, said the Beatles welcomed him almost immediately upon entering the ashram. They took their meals together, meditated and drank chai tea while discussing spirituality at the “table on the cliff.”
Many of the lyrics were written in India, including “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” “Dear Prudence” and “I’m So Tired.”
At the ashram Saltzman happened upon Paul McCartney, who was writing a tune. Saltzman asked him what he was working on.
McCartney said all he could come up with was “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”
In another instance, Saltzman sat with George Harrison while he plucked his sitar. After the hypnotic performance, Harrison imparted wisdom that Saltzman found life-changing.
“George said, with such profound calm and humility, ‘We are the Beatles after all, aren’t we? We have all the money we could dream of, all the fame you could ever wish for. But it isn’t love, it isn’t health, it isn’t peace inside, is it?’” Saltzman recounted. “That was such a profound lesson for me as a young man.”
Saltzman said he believes the Beatles went to the ashram in search of that “peace inside.” As did he.
His photos are the only ones of the band at the ashram, generally considered the group’s most productive songwriting period.
India also marked the beginning of the end. Following the stay at the ashram, the Beatles slowly fractured, breaking up in 1970.
“That was at pretty much the end of the Beatles,” Horowitz said. “Based on that, I think the photos are incredibly historic.”
If You Go
What: John Lennon exhibition commemorating 50th anniversary of the “White Album”
When: 6 to 9 p.m. Nov. 2; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Nov. 3; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nov. 4
Where: Pacific Edge Gallery, 540 South Coast Hwy., # 112, Laguna Beach