The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Who, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin. Their unmistakable faces all appear in Ethan Russell’s enviable photography portfolio, but his career path almost took a different turn.
Russell moved to London, England in 1968, when he was in his early 20s, with aspirations of being a writer—a career as a photographer had never been in the cards. He had a camera, basic photography knowledge and loved music, but that was the extent of it until a chance encounter became the catalyst for an entirely new vocational trajectory.
“Someone came to my flat and asked me if I wanted to photograph their next interview,” he recalls.
“It was Mick Jagger.”
Russell chuckles that luck is half the story, one that he delves into in great detail—with 360 photographs to prove it—during the course of his live show, which is less about the technical aspect of his photographs and more about his experiences: travelling with the Rolling Stones and photographing the Beatles’ sombre final photo session, for example.
“I think being an American helped me a lot,” he notes, of his opportunities upon relocating to England. “I never would have thought it at the time, but I think it did because they didn’t quite know how to place me. Once I took the pictures of Mick Jagger, all of a sudden I must know what I’m doing because I just took a picture of Mick Jagger. It was my first session.”
His next subject was John Lennon, and Russell admits that he really didn’t know what he was doing—he often attempted more ambitious ideas than he may have been technically skilled for—but he had a penchant for capturing visceral candid moments that evoked a much more organic sense of his subjects than a polished, set-up shoot could.
“People dress it up today … they try and create something which doesn’t exist, and if you’re particularly good at it, it’s impressive. But it’s not reflective of anything except the ability to create illusion, right?” Russell says, bluntly referring to photo shoots as “grotesque.” “Whereas if you photograph people when they’re engaged in something that interests them, you get an entirely different experience with the photographs, and most of the work I did is like that. And because I was around incredible people … at the end of the day, it nets out to being great—but principally because I didn’t mess with it.”
Russell maintains a calm demeanour as he discusses his photographic journey, but he has no qualms in admitting that working with the likes of Lennon and Jagger was positively terrifying at the time.
“I remember my knees were just shaking,” he says, of photographing Lennon. “I’m not a particularly brave person, but I just kept doing it, and after a period of time you get used to it. But I don’t think you can do that kind of stuff without being nervous. I mean, it’s funny how people have a desire not to be nervous. Nobody wants to be nervous; it’s not a nice feeling, but it’s totally part of being alive, and you’ve got to move through it because if you’re afraid to be nervous you’re really going to limit your opportunities.”
Accompanying Russell’s show is an exhibition at Gallery@501 in which 15 of his most iconic photographs, including the “Patience Please” shot of Keith Richards that has become synonymous with the rocker, as well as an image from the aforementioned Beatles shoot, will be displayed as four-foot-by-eight-foot prints—which makes some of the figures portrayed nearly life-sized.
“It’s 120 feet of rock ‘n’ roll,” he says with a laugh.