10 Feb 2019 | Thomas Hobbs | Observer
George Harrison was miserable from frame one to frame 500,” says Ethan Russell. “He was so over it. I don’t think he did anything but scowl for three hours.” The photographer is recalling the day he unknowingly took the last ever shot of the Beatles together. It was 22 August 1969, and they were all at John Lennon’s countryside estate near Ascot.
“Paul was trying to hold it together,” he adds. “He had his arms crossed like, ‘Come on, lads!’ But the concept of the Beatles just didn’t sync with who they were any more. I could have asked them to smile, but it would have been totally fake and I’m glad I didn’t. This marriage had come to an end – and boy does it show.”
The fact that this hugely significant photograph isn’t even one of Russell’s best speaks volumes about his career. Over a prolific 10-year period that culminated in 1978, Russell shot the world’s biggest rock stars, usually at their most candid. He had a ringside seat at what’s often seen as rock’s golden era. Russell wasn’t just friends with Lennon and Yoko Ono, he knew their cat as well. And when pandemonium gripped 1969’s Altamont free concert, where a fan was killed as the Rolling Stones played, Russell was airlifted out with the band.
Born in Mount Kisco, upstate New York, in 1945, Russell fell in love with rock’n’roll after seeing Elvis Presley do the snake hips on TV. But it was the 1966 thriller Blow-Up, about a photographer who swaggers around swinging London photographing models, that really turned his head. “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.”
Russell immediately felt at home in the city, which was a far cry from the turmoil gripping America as the Vietnam war intensified. Still, he felt slightly underwhelmed. “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.”
Convinced that a career as a rock photographer was no longer possible, Russell started taking pictures at a children’s hospital. Then one day, he noticed something from the top of a double-decker bus. “I’m going to pick up my car after a service – and I see John Lennon’s psychedelic Rolls Royce whizz past. I was jumping up and down like a little kid.”
It was a sign of things to come. A journalist called Jonathan Cott, who was a friend of his flatmate, needed a photographer for an interview – and Russell got the nod. The interview turned out to be with Mick Jagger, for a feature in Rolling Stone magazine. That’s quite a first gig. “Then Jon called me again,” says Russell, “and asked if I wanted to come and photograph John Lennon. The rest, as they say, is history.”
Actually, it almost wasn’t. “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?”
The two hit it off: the fact they both had long hair, spectacles and a penchant for spliffs only strengthened their bond. The trust they shared is evident in a beautiful shot Russell took of John and Yoko in their garden, with a black cat playing on the Beatle’s shoulder. It wasn’t long after their first meeting, yet Lennon already felt comfortable enough to ask Russell to take some spontaneous pictures of him and his girlfriend, who was causing a lot of controversy.
“I drove down to the house and no one was there,” he says. “The front door was open so I just walked in. Yoko came down first, in this black cape, and said she wanted to show me something. She had got this brown parcel in the post and inside it was a doll with long black hair. It was dusted with charcoal and had pins viciously stabbed into its torso. There was a note that said, ‘Leave John alone!’”
He pauses, clearly moved. “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.”
Russell had become “John’s guy” and in 1969 was brought in to capture the Let It Be sessions, alongside a film crew. It was a tumultuous time: the Beatles had split by the time the album came out. “The atmosphere was very tense,” says Russell. “Years later, I bumped into Ringo, but he didn’t recognise me. He said it was because he was stoned out of his mind throughout Let It Be. I don’t blame him as those were difficult times.”
Russell was one of the lucky few who got to cram on to the roof above the Apple studio on Savile Row for the Beatles’ last public performance. Russell’s wide shot from behind has lost none of its power half a century on. “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.”
Russell was no longer struggling for work. In fact, he was hired for the Rolling Stones’ now legendary Let It Bleed tour, which culminated in Altamont. “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.”
Russell prefers to remember the good times. Backstage at a sold-out Stones show at Madison Square Garden, he remembers seeing Jimi Hendrix jamming with then Stones guitarist Mick Taylor. Although he felt intimidated by Hendrix, Russell’s photograph captures a more down-to-earth side of the star.
Later that night, Russell also bumped into Janis Joplin. He had shot the singer a few months earlier, running on stage during a performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London. It’s a striking shot, with Joplin looking right down the barrel of his camera. “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?’”
And now their paths had crossed again 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.”
Russell, who lives in Marin County, California, thinks two of his greatest photos are also the cheekiest. One shows Keith Richards in front of an anti-drugs poster at a US airport. In 1969, says Russell, things weren’t druggy at all. But by 1972, when the shot was taken, everything had changed. “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.”
The other cheeky shot was taken for the Who’s landmark 1971 album Who’s Next. Pete Townshend, the band’s guitarist, was driving the band home from a gig through the rain at 100mph. “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.”
Russell pretty much gave up on photography towards the end of the 70s, depressed and disillusioned after hearing music referred to as “product” by a studio executive while working on a shoot with the singer Linda Ronstadt. “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.”
Now 73, Russell is happy to look back, though, comfortable with the idea of being defined by this work. “You see photos from that era,” he says, “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!”
Ethan Russell’s CV
Born: New York, 1945.
Influences: “Henri Cartier-Bresson had beautiful framing. If I can do one thing well, it’s finding the right frame.”
High point: “The 1969 tour with the Stones. But I also made a 44-page photobook to go with the Who’s Quadrophenia album. I got to create this whole world based on Peter’s songwriting. It felt exhilarating.”
Low point: “When music became show business in the mid-70s and there was more of a barrier between photographer and artist.”
Top tip: “Only shoot stuff you believe truly matters – and make sure you own it. There’s no point taking photos of Beyoncé if you don’t own the rights.”
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