Interview: Ethan Russell, Rock Photographer From The 60s To Now
(First published on April 28, 2018. Edited to remove past show dates.)
Famed rock and roll photographer Ethan Russell has a story to tell, or make that, many.
Starting in his early 20s, Ethan Russell fell into photographing the biggest of the 60s British Invasion bands, such as The Rolling Stones, whom he also went on tour with. He also photographed the concerts and created album covers for The Beatles and The Who. And he has the distinction for being the only photographer who provided album covers for those three iconic bands. He also gained friendships with the renowned band members, and was invited to capture more personal shots, such as those between John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
That was then but this is now and yet, there’s no slowing down for Ethan Russell. His work is ongoing.
For example, in 2006, he captured some ethereal photos of Chris Cornell while he was working with Audioslave. And the list continues.
Apropos to his past touring with rock greats, Ethan Russell currently tours with personal stories, music and over 350 images of times well-lived. He shares stories of friendships, concerts, music, and unique moments that are best exemplified with the side by side screening of his legendary photographs. It’s an up-close and personal telling of rock and roll history. These are his Live shows.
In the meantime, I have interviewed Ethan Russel about his aesthetic, his longevity, and his luck.
Although luck is debatable. Just listen to the lyrics from the best Rolling Stones’ song ever, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,”
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you just might find
You get what you need.
In other words, Ethan Russell fell into a lot of luck (opportunities), but he had the work ethic, skill, and abilities to try and pull it off. And he did.
Q: You weren’t a trained photographer. Yet, it’s clear you had a strong aesthetic in mind when you were offered those early opportunities. How were you so confirmed in your aesthetic convictions at such a young age (early 20s)? Or were you just a natural?
Ethan: I was intuitive, but I was entirely untrained. Photography was not a career choice of mine.
However, in 1966 during my age of music and all things wonderful emanating from London, I went to see the movie Blow-Up, which, as it turns out, changed my life. The star of the movie was an English photographer and it was set in London. I thought to myself maybe there’s something in this photography thing (about which I had only the most rudimentary knowledge. A college roommate had taught me how to develop black and white film and what an “f-stop” was.) Maybe it will let me get close to the music, I thought to myself, not very consciously. I think I was as much in love with the London I saw in the movie as anything else. And this love affair with London turned out to be real.
When I was shooting, I could never have answered your question because I never thought about it. But years later, I did wonder to myself how was it possible I could do this, and an image popped into my head of me as a young boy — maybe 10 — standing on the edge of a small orchard. I had a .22 caliber rifle, and I was hunting blue jays (at my grandmother’s urging). That act, standing on the edge very quietly, but alert, and waiting for something to happen, and then, when it did, I would move very slowly, bring the rifle to my shoulder, focus and shoot. That act, and how I performed it, really was the way I took photographs, certainly in my early years.
I was never afraid to get as close as I needed to be, although I don’t know why. Everything else was a gift and skills developed over time.
Q: Do you feel you lived a rock star life? Or did you remain in the sidelines just documenting?
Ethan: I certainly have been lucky to have an interesting life. Funnily, I wouldn’t constrain it to a “rock star” life. I think that limits it. It was a real life, with real, extraordinary people living their real lives. I have to own a distaste for the phrase “Sex, drugs & rock and roll” which showed up, I don’t know when, late Sixties. It reduced something that was magnificent yet important into a professional wrestling clone. So really too bad. It was hard to resist though because it was hard to argue with the premise. “Sex, drugs & rock and roll” was a lot of fun. But somehow it made that hedonism the goal, which didn’t require anything. And a price was paid.
Q: You got your first big break while living in London, but you were living in San Francisco before that.
Ethan: I think (subliminally) growing up in San Francisco laid the groundwork for my love of London. They’re very similar with some magnificent architecture, and parks, the great amount of nature in an urban environment.
Q: Did your early life in San Francisco influence: anything about the choices in your aesthetic? Any local influences?
Ethan: Not local. “The Family of Man” was a huge influence. Once I was paying more attention to photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bill Brandt…. But “The Family of Man” remains I think the main thing. It might bear mentioning that the quality which I saw as the core of the singer/songwriters of my era — a kind of humanism — was also the core of that book.
Q: Did your early life in San Francisco influence: your dealings with the famous rock stars? Gaining their friendships?
Ethan: My experience is/was basically that they were friendly, especially the English. I attribute that to two things. One, especially in those days, the English were just polite as a rule. Secondly, I was an American and all of them, especially of that era, looked to America as this golden place. You have to remember they were emerging from the Second World War. And where did Rock ‘n Roll come from, after all?
Q: Did your early life in San Francisco influence: how you handled your own success? You’re still with us and thriving. Many others from that time aren’t.
Ethan: Grace of God and not wanting to become One of Them. I was friendly — if I could get over my awe — and so if they were, we became friends. And I was working, and learned early on that working and imbibing did not go together, and work was obviously more important.
Q: You later became and now are a writer. Were those early photographs evidence of your early storytelling abilities?
Ethan: I don’t think so. I was trying to be a writer. (If there’s any justice, none of it will ever be discovered.) But I didn’t have the life experience to write, and then my photography career, and the life it brought to me, gave me something that I felt it was important to write about. Those stories are really the foundation of my live show: BEST SEAT IN THE HOUSE. The gag line “True Stories. And the photographs to prove it,” is real….
Q: The youth tend to disregard their elders as irrelevant. You lived through some extraordinarily exciting, cool times. You photographed some greats. Jim Morrison lived for such a short time, yet you photographed him. Those experiences are a part of you, just like a history book. You also seem very aware of the importance of history, such as through your book, “An American Story”.
Ethan: It’s a saw of mine that “our” (or my) history has been reduced to that of a cartoon. There are a lot of reasons for that, but the foundation I think is how our “history” was portrayed through television. That technological change — along with, basically, the invention of rock and roll — is all part of our history. This is demonstrable if you look at grade and high school history reports. They are often done as videos, cut to music, with violent demonstration footage, etc. Sort of bad music videos. Portraying people and issues in a simplistic way became the norm. It allowed for the inception — and now continued ad nauseam — of culture politics and our political “discourse.” I like to point out — to an often blank stare as to why it might matter — that all of the heroes from my time: Lennon, Dylan, Stones….all of them were children in an age before television. Especially in England.
Q: It’s a given that you have tons of stories of your times with The Rolling Stones, The Who…..Does any one, single story stand out that best exemplifies how you are a living history book? And so eternally relevant.
Ethan: I don’t know how one can really be reductionist. That’s part of the deal…. Some things are complex or even just require time to relate properly, and to insist that they not be (no time, no interest or, worse, no capacity to deal with complexity) has consequences. I do have a grumpy, ol’ line: “Steal my history? Steal my life.”
Q: How can your luck in life rub off on the rest of us? (Although I already feel lucky because I am getting to interview you!)
Ethan: The Daily Beast said, “Ethan Russell (had) more luck than any human being should be allowed to have.” Can’t argue, and gotta say thank you for that. John Lennon had his line: “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.” That’s certainly my experience. I couldn’t have had a plan…. Certainly, one that looked anything like what I got to do…. I would have been laughed out of the room.
There’s no denying such an extensive body of work behind Ethan Russell and his work is continuing into the future. He might not have planned it all, but then if he did, maybe it wouldn’t have turned out as great as it did.