Not many of us would have been lucky enough to witness the swinging 60s and the era of rock’n’roll first hand; instead relying on videos, films and pictures to tell the tale. Well Ethan Russell was the storyteller. Capturing some of the defining moments in rock’s history, his infamous pictures help us to dream of a genre at its pinnacle, but also shows the human side to the icons of today, and how this humanity led to the era’s end.
Growing up in New York in 1945, Russell was first bewitched by the genre, as so many were, watching Elvis. After seeing a film that followed a photographer shooting all the beautiful models in London, Russell was off.
“I asked my dad to borrow money to buy a camera and got a plane to London with just the clothes on my back. I didn’t have a plan. I knew I loved all of the British bands, but photographing them seemed impossible.”
There was no rule book in rock at that time; you didn’t need a fancy degree to work your way into the industry. You just needed a bit of luck. Initially, this evaded Russell having arrived in London, failing to fall straight into the heart of rock and roll as he thought.
“I couldn’t find a scene,” he says. “In San Francisco, where I had been a student, everyone was smoking dope, and music was driving people’s lives. But London was a bit drab. One was like an Eden, the other this monstrous urban metropolis. London had its charms, but you had to know the right people.”
If so by fate, or a sign of what was to come, when Russell was sat atop a double-decker bus , picking up his car from a service, he saw John Lennon’s car (a Rolls Royce of all things) shoot by.
“I was jumping up and down like a little kid.”
After scoring a job to take some photos for an interview, which just so happened to be Mick Jagger, he had found his in. Much of the art of photography seems to be the ability to befriend whoever you are taking pictures of. Gain their trust, and they will give you their most honest account of themselves.
Russell was a master at this.
The photo taken below was when Russell was on tour with the Stones on their Let It Bleed tour, with Keith cracking the smallest of smirks standing next to this anti-drug poster at a US aiport.
“The Stones were taking dangerous quantities. I thought getting Keith to stand there was hilarious. It was ironic. People ask if I ever was tempted to take drugs with them, but I never worked high or drunk. All the people who wanted to be just like Keith ended up dead.”
As ironic as the shot is, beneath it lay a truth that most rock stars at this time were all too aware of; the drug abuse. As Russell noted, after the Stones infamous tour ended with a fan being killed during a concert at Altamont, the weary, happy headiness of the 60s was appearing to subside, giving way to a darker decade.
“It was like being in Vietnam,” says Russell. “We were airlifted out and it was traumatic for everybody. Our lives really were in danger. The happy hippy days had ended.”
It was John Lennon who gave Russell his certification within the rock community.
“I remember thinking my photos of John were no good,” says Russell. “So I called him up and said they were shit. He said, ‘Come on by.’ And I took them again. There were no barriers between us: he was so human, so warm, present and giving. He was John fucking Lennon! How could John Lennon be being so nice to me?”
Lennon’s show of trust was his invite for Russell to take pictures of him and Yoko, who was at the heart of the media militia at the time. Many didn’t accept Yoko, something Lennon was all too aware of. So asking Russell into their home was a real sign of trust.
“Look, they had the greatest love story of the 20th century. At a time of enormous sexism and racism, they managed to block it all out and create their own universe. That’s what I wanted to show with my photographs. It was just the three of us and the cat – that’s as intimate as it gets.”
And it catapulted Russell right into the heart of rock and roll.
Russell’s pictures have an air of sadness to them, mostly because of the context in which they were taken. Particularly the one above, which shows the Beatles’ last public performance on a rooftop in London.
“I had to climb up a wall and almost fell to my death. I like that picture as there was nobody bigger in the world, yet they really were quite small in the context of the city of London. The photo shows they were mere mortals after all.”
Janis Joplin was another star to suffer a fatal fate, with this picture being taken just shortly before her death.
“She was phenomenal,” says Russell. “Her voice was a force of nature. How I got on stage, I have no idea. But I ran on and took that. When I look at it now, I see her thinking, ‘Who the fuck is that?’”
They would meet again when Russell was in New York at Madison Square Garden, “I would usually leave the venue with the Stones in their limo, but it was completely full. This other black limo pulled up and a woman with a husky voice said she could give me a ride back to the hotel. I got in and I was on the back seat with Janis. She was drunk and coming on to me. I didn’t really like it as I was way too uptight back then. I was so nervous, I got her to drop me off at the nearest hotel and ran for a cab.” Not long after their encounter, Joplin died of a heroin overdose. “It was sad. She just couldn’t beat her demons.”
It wasn’t all doom and gloom for Russell, far from it. His shot here of Jimi Hendrix jamming backstage with Mick Taylor from the Stones.
As if his CV wasn’t impressive enough, he was also the eye behind the cover shot of The Who’s iconic Who’s Next album in 1971.
“I was terrified by Peter’s driving,” says Russell, who suddenly noticed a monolith as they were passing Easington colliery in County Durham and sensed it might make the perfect shot. “Only Peter actually pissed against it,” he says. “The rest was just cans I filled with water and poured down its sides. We thought it would be fun to show the band taking a loo break. The sky was put in later to give the photo this other-worldly quality. Without it, it would just be a boring grey English sky.
He also produced a 44 page photobook to go with the album, following the storytelling of the songs.
However, things soured for Russell and the genre and culture that he once fell in love with had changed unrecognisably.
“The minute that’s the mindset,” he says, “they want product photography – and something dies. I knew I had to leave, so I shifted my attention to video and film-making. I rarely take photographs any more.”
“You see photos from that era, and it’s just people getting their picture taken. I never wanted it to be posey. I just wanted to record what was in front of me. I guess I want people to say, ‘Ethan Russell was someone who captured the truth’ – and almost fell off a roof doing it!”
The rock stars of the past were gods in their day. Loved, adored and misunderstood. They eclispsed the hearts and minds of people from all over the world, but it’s the work of Russell that helps to strip back the facades, and reveal what lies beneath. Regular human beings, that were destined to be the victims of their own catchphrase.
Live fast die young.