Ethan Russell covered the Rolling Stones 1969 tour and the Beatles Let it Be sessions that led to the film in 1970. He photographed the Who’s Next album cover, as well as the inner booklet for their 1973 opus Quadrophenia. At Morrison Hotel Gallery, Russell took on his storied career in support of his new book Ethan Russell Photographs that showcases his work in the sixties and early seventies that he left behind in the eighties to produce music videos by Leon Redbone, Rickie Lee Jones, and Paul Simon, just to name a few.
Russell started out shooting promo shots for Blue Cheer, the band his brother founded and managed in San Francisco. After being encouraged to travel the world by his father, he ended up in England, landing smack in the middle of a vibrant music scene that was lacking the same promotional support American bands were provided by their labels. Russell’s story is very much about being at the right place at the right time.
His first assignment was shooting Mick Jagger, nonchalant and unguarded as he was being interviewed for Rolling Stone magazine. The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus was next. In January 1969, Russell showed up at Twickenham Film Studios in London uninvited, and was eventually allowed to photograph the Beatles Let it Be sessions for what was their final studio album release and last live performance.
He covered the infamous Altamont concert where the Hell’s Angels worked security and a concertgoer, Meredith Hunter, was killed by bikers in a scene documented in the film Gimme Shelter, directed by the Maysles Brothers. At the Morrison Hotel, Russell discussed at length the Stones naivete in attempting to pull off the free concert in a country they didn’t fully understand that was also on the brink of imploding. To the Stones, it was just another gig.
In the question and answer that followed, Russell discussed the Beatles Let it Be sessions as monotonous and dreary that began on the January 1, 1969 and ended on the January 31. They started at nine in the morning and ended at dinnertime. Russell added that Yoko Ono, who many blame for the breakup of the Beatles, has been one of the most vilified women in musical history and in no way did she break up the band.
He also added that the Beatles were quibbling up until the moment they got onto the roof at the Apple Offices for their famous last performance, and no one was sure if they’d be able to pull it off until the last moment. The deplorable conditions and daily cameras at Twickenham studios made them long so much for the comfy confines of Abbey Road, which was where they returned next for their swan song.
Writer Legs McNeil, who wrote the manifesto Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk and is currently working on a book about 1969, along with photographers Bob Gruen and David Godlis, were also on hand at the SoHo gallery to celebrate the occasion.