Beatles/Rolling Stones Photographer Ethan Russell on the De-evolution of the Music Press

He's taken iconic album cover photos for the Who, Stones and Beatles, but now Ethan Russell won't even call himself a photographer. Here's why.

- Nov 11, 2013

Ethan Russell might be the luckiest guy in music. Although he’s best known for shooting the pics that became the iconic cover shots of the Rolling Stones’ Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! the Who’s Who’s Next and the Beatles’ Let It Be, Russell never considered himself a photographer. Today he uses the term “creative” to encompass a career that’s included following the Stones’ on tour in 1969, helping to invent the music video in the late-'70s and penning a series of books to accompany his stunning photographs of some of music’s greatest legends. In fact, he hasn't done a photo session since 2005 and doesn't have any plans to get back into it now.

“I didn’t take stupid pictures,” he says today when asked how an American writer with almost zero photography experience managed to capture some of rock’s most iconic images. “I didn’t tell anyone what to do and I stayed on the edge of things so that I was very non-intrusive. And when they saw the pictures, they liked them.”

Ethan Russell's photos are currently being displayed at Analogue Gallery in Toronto, so we got him to walk us through some of his best known photos from throughout his career, which is storied enough to double as a miniature history of rock and roll itself (not to mention a critique of the record industry).

Mick Jagger, Rolling Stone cover

In college someone taught me how to take black and white pictures. I was in San Francisco and I took pictures of my brother's band. Then I gave up on photography and moved to England where I was trying to be a writer. I was living by myself and didn't know anyone. Somebody came to visit me, ostensibly to look at my writing. He was a friend of a friend and he turned out to be an interviewer for Rolling Stone. He asked me if I wanted to take pictures of his next interview, which turned out to be Mick Jagger. It was really my first professional session. My second was John Lennon.

John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Rolling Stone

It was 1958. [American music] was Fabian, Bobby Vee. They looked like that, they sounded like that. So I left America to go England thinking that England was the absolute Mecca of everything. Everything other than Dylan was English music. So one would have expected that I would have gotten off a plane and it would have been nothing but music. It was completely inaudible and invisible. The British music press was a joke. It was non-existent.  It wasn't there. Pirate radio had been shut down. The British music press was "What's your favourite colour?” I was associated with Rolling Stone and Jann Wenner,  who took [British musicians] seriously. Americans treated them like Gods because they were Gods. But they weren't getting the same treatment in their own country. John Lennon was very aware of that. People weren't talking to him seriously about his work and Americans were.


The Beatles, Let It Be album cover

As a kid living in California, every time I saw a new picture of the Beatles it was like a new era, but every time I listened to new music from the Beatles it was like a new era. It went with the way they looked. Every time you saw them they looked different. They changed the way they looked. No one talked to them about it, no one dressed them up. There were no stylists, no art directors.

I wanted to be on record covers because that was as close to the music as you could get. [Let it Be] is the only Beatles cover where it's not a group shot. The Beatles didn't have any thing to do with it. The designer and I just did it and showed it to them and they said fine. There was never any record company involvement at all. I got Let it Be because they saw these pictures of them that were real. If you look okay and it's real I think you're halfway there. Unless you're in a packaging universe where it's about not looking real, where it's about looking better than you look.


The Who, Who's Next album cover

The Beatles grew up outside of the system. The Stones grew up outside of the system. The system was trying to hire Elvis Presley. That's what it was. [Record labels] are always behind the curve and still are. But most of that stuff got started outside. Then the record business caught up. David Geffen was the start of that. Management gets involved and controls and wrangles and becomes powerful and it becomes about money. They're paid to think their way is better. But I don't think that record company art departments... That never went to an art department (points to the cover of Who's Next). And if it did it probably would have never happened.


Linda Ronstadt, Hasten Down The Wind album cover

I did the Eagles, I did [Linda] Ronstadt, and I did other people, but I was, at that point, a photographer doing album covers. It was never comfortable for me for a lot of reasons. But mostly it was the growth of management and separate independent art departments. I was a cog in that machine. It was uncomfortable and that's partly what drove me out of it. By 1975-75 music was being called “product.” And of course when music is product, the pictures that go with the music are product, and I didn’t like that particularly. I certainly didn’t like having my work evaluated based on that metric. And I was inventing something entirely new that I thought was going to be big and fabulous.


Hank Williams Jr & Sr - There's A Tear In My Beer

Hank Williams Jr. & Sr., "There's a Tear In My Beer" music video

The fundamental idea of a narrative performance with a music performance (that's not just a guy sitting at a mic, singing and playing) is silent movies. There was no such thing as music videos. I wrote a 12-minute piece, the first long piece that was done with Rickie Lee Jones. It was a really good collaboration. It was several years before MTV. [ed. note: the Rickie Lee Jones video isn't available online, but Russell also directed the video above.]

My vision was, the singer-songwriter had driven this entire revolution, but they weren't on this new big medium, which was television. What happened instead was that it was seen to be powerful for all the reasons that it was powerful and it was used as marketing. It sort of imploded because it was just an ad and sooner or later everybody saw that it was just an ad.


Audioslave, final photo session

The last session I did in 2005 with Audioslave, I had to fly to a boardroom because they wouldn't send me the music. It was preposterous and horrible. I did it because I got paid a lot of money before the money tanked. But I don't think that I'd do it again. When you really think about it there is nothing more abstract in life than a photo session. What the fuck is that? What going on? “We're having our picture taken!”

I have a ten-year-old boy who all of a sudden became a Macklemore fan. I find Macklemore a really interesting character - he's honest, it appears, he's passionate, he struggles and he tells you about it. And he told Jimmy Iovine to go fuck himself. And he's kind of fun to look at. I've become a big fan through my son. I wanted to go photograph him. I could have gone through his manager, but I couldn't stand the process. What I really wanted was for my son to think I was cool.


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