Music News & Reviews

Rock photographer Ethan Russell shares stories in Folsom talk

Yoko Ono and John Lennon with cat, Weybridge, Surrey, England, 1968
Yoko Ono and John Lennon with cat, Weybridge, Surrey, England, 1968

Ethan Russell uses a passage about himself that was published in the June 2012 Daily Beast to launch his multimedia performance “The Best Seat in the House”: “To tell the story of the now-famed rock photographer – known for shooting iconic images of ’60s music legends including the Who, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Cream, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones – is to strain the amount of luck you imagine any one human is allowed.”

The 70-year-old Grammy-nominated rock lensman, art director, video-film director and author will share his story Friday, May 20, at the Harris Center in Folsom. Russell’s show transports the audience back in time and into the veritable lap of rock royalty while on tour, in the studio and at home using a candid, intimate blend of about 275 photos, music, videos and live narrative.

Russell serendipitously entered rock photography with a Nikon and no credentials, eventually shooting album covers for the Beatles, the Stones and the Who and becoming friends with many of rock’s key players. He went on the 1969 and 1972 tours with the Stones, stood next to the cameraman who filmed the stabbing at Altamont, was on the roof of the Apple Studios headquarters for the Beatles’ last public concert and directed the final film of John Lennon and Yoko Ono in Central Park.

“Best Seat in the House” captures these and many other moments of Russell’s jaw-dropping experiences and embeds them with lucid emotional depth.

As corporate control choked the creativity out of still photography in the mid-1970s, Russell began translating the work of singer-songwriters (such as Leon Redbone and Hank Williams Jr.) onto film years before the advent of MTV. And his three books (“Dear Mr. Fantasy,” “Let It Bleed: The Rolling Stones 1969 U.S. Tour” and “Ethan Russell: An American Story”) crystallize how much early Presley-era American rock and roll meant to the British youth and diminish the cartoonish spin of the era that he believes was and is perpetuated by television.

“Rock and roll was not about being stupid,” Russell said recently. “The single most (quoted) line from that period of time, and trust me I get it, was probably ‘Sex, drugs and rock and roll.’ And it turned something that mattered into something like the World Wrestling Federation.”

Russell moved from the East Coast to San Francisco with his family at age 8. The mid-1960s British Invasion saturated America with rock and pop acts as he transitioned from an all-boys boarding school to college.

Music was the biggest thing going.

Ethan Russell

“Literally, I was so unconscious that I thought ‘well the only job I ever had was working on my father’s horse ranch, so I’ll be a vet.’ That’s how come I went to (the University of California at) Davis,” Russell said. “By orientation week, I realized that I hated science, and didn’t really care much for animals. So I changed my major to English. I dropped out in the last part of my junior year. It was all about angst.”

But before leaving, Russell acquired some photography skills from a fellow student and shot stills for a local band, the Oxford Circle.

“Everybody that I knew pretty much wanted in one way or another to be associated with the music,” Russell said. “Music was the biggest thing going. By music, I really meant the British Invasion. The Stones. The Beatles. Dylan becoming electric (1965 Newport Folk Festival). All that stuff. It was changing the world. It was exciting. It was like nothing that ever happened before. And in large measure that’s what photography was for me, trying to get close to music.”

Russell picked up the camera again to shoot San Francisco-based Blue Cheer. “My brother lived with Blue Cheer in a house in lower Haight with all the windows boarded up and a pet monkey. It was very druggie and all the rest of that, and he kind of became the manager,” Russell said. “I wasn’t really a photographer, but had seen the movie ‘Blow-Up,’ (which) changed my life and changed the life of several photographers I know because it was ‘Oh that looks cool. I think I’ll try that.’ 

From 1968 to ’72 Ethan Russell was the Rolling Stones’ main photographer.

Russell first heard the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” in July 1967 while driving down Golden Gate Park’s Panhandle, at the height of the Summer of Love. “I was right in the heart of the beast,” he said. “I could have just died then and there.” Then, after a decisive chat with his father, Russell got on a plane to England and was there pretty much until 1972.

By 1968, Russell was an aspiring, unpublished writer living in a one-room flat and working part time with autistic children. A friend of a friend on assignment from Rolling Stone magazine discovered he had a camera and asked him to photograph an interview with Mick Jagger and, at a later date, with John Lennon. “Best Seats in the House” documents those sessions and their ripple effects on Russell’s life and career.

“I think the value of the show (which includes a Q&A, print giveaway and photo exhibition that runs until Sunday, July 10) is that it lets the people go on this incredible ride,” Russell said “The pictures that I have, especially from the early stuff, I didn’t change anything, so you just get to be there. It’s mostly a night of stories. I have a gag, which I will recycle here, which is that it’s a night of stories with pictures to prove that I’m not lying.”

Ethan Russell: The Best Seat in the House

When: 7:30 p.m., Friday, May 20

Where: Harris Center, 10 College Parkway, Folsom

Cost: $12-$45

Information: 916-608-6888

Note: The companion exhibit of photos runs in the Harris Center’s Bank of America Gallery from Friday, May 20, through Sunday, July 10. Gallery hours: noon-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, and two hours before and during intermission of any performances at the Harris Center.