Ethan Russell’s claim to fame may be the fact that he’s the only photographer to have shot album covers for The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and The Who, but his candid, stage and backstage work is far more interesting. Russell not only shot The Stones’ infamous 1969 tour, ending with and including the tragic occurrences at Altamont, but he was also present and able to preserve The Beatles' very last live performance together on the roof of Apple Records, also in ’69, and The Who’s rehearsals before their historic Quadrophenia tour in 1973.
You’ll have one last chance to view his iconic shots all together at Luckman Fine Arts Gallery tomorrow, featuring all of the above images and many more. It’s a must-see for fans of classic rock & roll. Of course, Russell’s work has been seen in numerous books and countless galleries (Mr. Musichead and the Morrison at the Sunset Marquis here in L.A.). But this show is different.
For one, he only put it together to accompany and complement a spoken-word retrospective about his life called Best Seat in the House, which he presented at the Luckman last month. He describes the presentation as a sort of storytelling performance in which he shares more than what was happening in his famous images, actually creating a narrative about his personal journey, living, breathing and capturing rock & roll on film, all in context of the music world and the world in general.
Hopefully he’ll bring Best Seat back to L.A. for those who missed it, but in the meantime the images he put together to go with the show tell their own story. As Russell explains, they are presented in a very raw and un-stuffy way: no frames, blown up 6 feet by 8 feet, and mounted directly on the gallery’s walls.
People ask Russell about his subjects all the time, of course, and Best Seat delved into everything, as do his books (he was a writer before he was a photog) including Let It Bleed (which Rhino just rereleased in a new expanded deluxe version) and e-book An American Story.
Growing up in San Francisco, Russell was a music lover most of his life. He decided to go to England, attracted by the music and lifestyle. “I was sure I loved England from the minute I got off the plane. I felt I was home and perfectly happy to stay. America was in a very difficult place," he remembers. "I wanted to be a writer. I’ve never wanted to be a photographer. So I was delighted to meet a guy who was also a writer [Jonathan Cott]. He asked me if I wanted to photograph his next interview because I had a camera. I had seen Blow Up — Michelangelo Antonioni's movie about a London photographer — and thought, well, this is kind of cool … but that was the extent of it. Anyway, I said, 'Well, who is it?" He said, 'Mick Jagger.'“ Two months later, Cott invited Russell to photograph his next interview. “And I said, 'Who is it?' He said, 'John Lennon.'
"When I went to England I had no idea what I was getting into,” he recalls. “I was going to this fantasy place of the greatest rock & roll that was going on at this explosive time. But at the end of the day I was totally naive. And back then, there was no such thing as a rock photographer. We didn't exist. “
While Jagger took to Russell first, inviting him to tour with The Stones in ’69, the photographer says his connection with Lennon was deeper. “What was interesting about Mick to me was how cosmopolitan he was," he recalls. "This is a thing that people don't really know to this day. I mean, I think they get it more now that he’s Sir Mick Jagger.
“I had more of a connection, a friendship with [Lennon] than Mick,” Russell says. “When I wrote my first book, what I found was if I had to choose one person that mattered the most and seemed to represent it the most for me, it was John Lennon. Here's the reason why — one, I was a John Lennon clone. I looked just like him. He invited us to go to Abbey Road on the first day that we met. We were so engaged with his work and he was engaged with his work. Two, John as a writer, almost more than anybody, reflected what I thought was the most important quality of that era, which was being a humanist. He was a spiritual humanist. He was a funny and witty man, but he was extraordinarily down to earth; if he was having a bad day, he would write a song about having a bad day. His work was brilliant and he was very much a wordsmith."
Russell’s passion for the music and lifestyle, combined with his intuitive, blend-in-with-the-scene approach, made him the perfect person to document rock stars as they worked and played.
“I wasn’t trying to be anybody's best friend," he says. “I had no interest in being invasive. I didn't want people looking at the camera. Because I'd never been trained in photography. I didn't really have the chops to change what was in front of the camera and I didn't have any interest in that, because why would I want to change what these people were doing?”
In the case of Altamont, Russell’s book Let It Bleed conveys both the hedonistic energy of the Stones in their heyday and the stark reality of the tour's deathly end, when a Hell's Angel gang member murdered a young black man in the crowd. It is considered the end of the peace & love era, and Russell's book depicts the dark and light of it all, in both photos and words.
“The Maysles brothers made a brilliant, brilliant movie [Gimme Shelter] about it, but they made the whole tour seem like it was about Altamont,” Russell says. "I was on the whole tour and they didn't actually join it until the last three days. I knew that for 18 or so of the shows, there were no problems. The band just went out and did a spectacular show and everything was spectacular. Then it ended with this car wreck. So one of the reasons I wanted to do that book was to tell the real story — I have the pictures, but the point was to make people understand that entire thing in context.”
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Bringing the viewer into the scene is one of Russell’s gifts, and he's done it with so many greats in addition to the aforementioned three, among them Jerry Lee Lewis, Phil Everly, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, The Eagles, The Moody Blues, Cream, Traffic, Eric Clapton, Linda Ronstadt, Rickie Lee Jones, Santana, Audioslave and Rosanne Cash.
“You really get to be there. And it's my personal opinion that these artists liked [my work because] they recognize themselves in it,” Russell says. “If you look at my contact sheets, you don't get 36 pictures of the same picture. What you get is maybe four or five. That's how long the moment lasts.”
Ethan Russell's "Best Seat in the House" photo retrospective ends Sat., May 26, at the Luckman Gallery (at Cal State L.A.), 5151 State University Drive. Gallery hours are noon-5 p.m. Free. luckmanarts.org.