The Beatles last photo shoot.

The Beatles last photo shoot.

Travelling through time with Ethan Russell

Renowned rock photographer takes us to the heart of a musical and cultural revolution

Barry Coulter

To travel with Ethan Russell is to breathe rarified air. And where Russell is travelling, the air is charged with electricity.

Ethan Russell, American photographer, author and video director — is one of the most renowned photographers of the 1960s and 70s — particularly of the rock era and its most famous, influential musicians.

Russell is the only photographer to have shot album covers for The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who. He was the Stones’ official photographer through their most tumultuous and creative period, 1969-72. He has photographed Jim Morrison and the Doors, Janis Joplin, Cream, Eric Clapton, Linda Ronstadt, Rickie Lee Jones, Rosanne Cash and numerous others.

Russell will be at the Key City Theatre with a multi-media presentation of some of the most astounding photographs of that age, Saturday, Oct. 17.

Russell spoke to the Townsman from his home in Marin County, north of San Francisco.

“It’s really a one man show that tells my story,” Russell said. “It’s an evening of stories. But I really tell my story — which is an incredible story, true and unlikely.”

Russell described his early self as “a kid in San Francisco totally immersed in what music was.

“For me it goes back to Elvis. The reality is, my experience with Elvis and ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ as a wonderful revelation is exactly the same experience that Paul McCartney had, that Keith Richards had, that Mick Jagger had, that they all had because they’re all just sitting in England wondering what they’re going to do. And Elvis comes over the airwaves and changes everybody’s life.”

On stage with The Rolling Stones, 1969.

Russell says you can’t tell the story of the ‘60s and 70s without really looking at that early American rock and roll. As an example:

“I was on the set with the Beatles for the making of ‘Get Back’ — when they weren’t figuring out what songs of their own they were going to play, they would inevitably break into something that was like an American rock and roll song — Chuck Berry, Route 66 …’ That’s how much that meant to everybody.”

The real, “hardcore narrative” of Russell’s story picks up circa 1967.

“I’m an ordinary English student at the University of California, a huge Dylan fan — rock is changing, Dylan is changing it, and the Beatles come along and change it, and suddenly everything that seems worthwhile getting involved with is about music.”

Russell’s original vocation was to be a writer (he has since written three books — “trying to figure out what was going on with my generation”), but the lure of rock and roll compelled him to hop a plane and fly to England. “That was the mecca of everything as far as I could tell from San Francisco.”

Russell fell in love with England, and stayed. “I was living by myself in a flat,” he said, “and I wanted to be a writer, but eight months later I’m photographing the Beatles, totally out of the blue. So that’s that story.”

The rest of Russell’s show is “Travels with Ethan.”

Photographing The Doors in London

“It’s the Rolling Stones ‘69 tour, the ‘72 tour, the Beatles ‘Get Back,’ Beatles on the roof (of their offices in Savile Row, playing together for the last time), Beatles last photo session, ‘Who’s Next,’ through coming back to America doing the ‘72 tour with the Stones, ‘Quadrophrenia’ [The Who], more or less inventing music video — and the show ends in 1980, because at the that point I had become a director. And I’m doing film with John and Yoko in New York.”

 

There are many who would argue that the 1960s were as significant an era as the Renaissance. An era that through art, music, political change and social restiveness pushed the world forward.

“There was no question that we thought we were going to change the world,” Russell said. “There was no question that the world was changing. Those two things were just visible at the time.”

Even so, at the time Russell didn’t see himself at the crest of an historical wave.

“I consciously had the feeling that what I was doing was so impossible, for this kid that didn’t know anybody in England to get on a plane, and then for 15 years being at the absolute centre of all this stuff. I couldn’t have told you at the time what my intentions were. But you couldn’t be working with those people and not know you were at the centre of that particular universe.”

Russell’s own journey led him onto a variety of careers in the business and in media, until the early 2000s, when he found himself with a young family. Pondering a new family-friendly career, he found everything so far kept coming back to those photographs.

“I just decided then, sort of late in life, that I would exhibit,” he said. And then he saw the era he had documented from the inside from a different perspective.

“When I did my first show, it wasn’t until that point that it looked to me like a slice of history.”

So much has changed in the decades since — not least the optimism and spirit of cultural revolution represented by the ‘60s.

The Sixties obviously changed attitudes towards individual freedom and culture, Russell said. But two things happened to set the whole movement back, Russell says — the Vietnam War,  and a backlash against the radical look and behavior of the “the hippies” from an “embedded conservative demographic,” creating a unbridgeable divide in the American public.

“Drugs also really hurt my generation,” Russell added. “A lot of people died. That was a self-inflicted wound.

“In my opinion, the result of all the television and cultural division that TV set into play is that people don’t really know about the 1960s. It has been turned into a bad cartoon, in America certainly. It’s a very trivialized history. If you buy the idea that history can be captured as it happens, it’s the first history that was basically told through television.”

Linda Ronstadt getting made up for ‘Prisoner in Disguise’

The art, the media, and the access have also changed profoundly.  There are no more photographers in among the bands, like Russell was. Artists, politicians, even activists are in much tighter control of what we see of them. What we see and understand is what they want they want us to. When it comes to documenting the personalities that influence the times, we don’t see the history anymore. We see the advertising.

“It’s not the media that’s changed so much as it is the management,” Russell said. “It became about money.”

Russell offers a pair of stories to illustrate his point.

“In 1968, I got a call on my phone from John Lennon, not his manager or lawyer or publicist. And he said ‘do you want to come down take some pictures.’ I got to his house, there was no security. And John and Yoko came down and we took some pictures — some lovely pictures that are in the show, of basically them falling in love. Very touching pictures. And I went home.

“In 1990-something, I got hired by a group which will remain nameless — a supergroup package. And I wanted to listen to the music — something I’d been doing with every group I’d worked for over the years, so I could figure out the kind of work that made sense. And they wouldn’t send me the music, I had to fly down and sit in a conference room in Century City with a person in the room with me so I couldn’t walk out with the tape. Put those two images together, and you get the picture.”

This is one of the reason’s Russell doesn’t work in the medium anymore.

“There’s the obvious loss of the opportunity, and there’s the obvious commercialization and productification of the music.

“It was with Linda Ronstadt in the late ‘70s that I first heard music referred to as product. It was at that point that the kind of photography I was doing was getting to be product photography, because I was doing album covers. And I didn’t like it.”

Nonetheless, the images and experiences captured by Ethan Russell during a vital era remain among the landmarks of that history. That sense of history and cultural change is captured in his books, and writ large in his photographs.

“The show is the ride,” Russell said. “I wrote the book, I did my due diligence about trying to make sense out of my entire generation. And by the time the show had to be written, and I had to figure out what that was, I just decided to do what everybody always wanted, which is what it was like to be on that ride.”