With the Band

Rock Photographer Ethan Russell’s ‘American Story’: Beatles, Rolling Stones & More

One of the definitive chroniclers of the '60s music scene on his new ebook and why our memory of the decade is so warped.

Simon Russell / Getty Images

It’s a 1968 afternoon at 48a Maddox Street in London and a 25-year-old Mick Jagger is sitting and smoking a cigarette. He’s being interviewed for a new American magazine called Rolling Stone and is politely deflecting all accusations of genius. (His lyrics? “They’re crap,” he demurs.) Silently moving around the room is a (very) young photographer who exchanges only the requisite pleasantries with Jagger before going about snapping three rolls of film. The images that emerge from the shoot are close-up and intimate—Jagger is alternately bemused, brooding, or jubilant in a striped rugby shirt and a ring on his pinky. A photo from the shoot ended up making the cover of the magazine—all in all, not a bad day for a kid named Ethan Russell who, before this gig, had no professional photography experience whatsoever.

“I had zero expectation of ever getting in the same room with Mick Jagger,” Russell recounted in an interview with The Daily Beast. “All I knew of [him] was what got exported … that [the Rolling Stones] were the bad boys and the Beatles were the good boys.” Russell then chuckles. “It’s kind of completely the opposite, in a funny way, in real life. The Rolling Stones, the first thing they are is English—even on their downside, they have a set of manners that are embedded in the culture. So all of them, when I met them, were really extremely polite. Just delightful, really.”

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. Russell’s new ebook, An American Story, details how at 21, living as an American expatriate in London, he was introduced to a friend of a friend who just happened to be the London correspondent for Rolling Stone. Russell mentioned his interest in photos and was casually invited along to the Jagger interview. Soon, a shoot with John Lennon followed; then with Stones bassist Bill Wyman and guitarist Brian Jones. Later, after being turned down for a shoot with The Beatles, Russell got up the wherewithal to drive over to the band anyway and demand three days to photograph them (which he got.) And through some star-aligned combination of timing, luck, and the consequences of his immense talent, Russell became one of nine who accompanied The Rolling Stones on their now-legendary 1969 tour—which culminated in the infamous Altamont disaster.

“It was the same way that it was completely absurd and ridiculous that I got to be [at the Rolling Stone interview] in the first place, just ‘cause some guy asked me if I wanted to take pictures of Mick Jagger,” Russell said, explaining how he got on the tour. “I went home to San Francisco and then I heard that all my friends—all the people around The Rolling Stones—were all in L.A. so I got in a car and drove down … Jagger walked out from a back room and said, ‘Hi, how you doing, what’s going on?’ ‘Well I just came home for a while.’ And he says, ‘Do you wanna go on the tour with us?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’”

The tour came in the months following the apparent drowning of ex-Stones member Brian Jones, whose erratic, sometimes violent behavior had recently gotten him ousted from the band. Before he was found dead in his swimming pool in July 1969, Russell captured some of the last images of Jones, including some taken the year before at the musician’s home (which formerly belonged to Winnie the Pooh creator A.A. Milne.) The photos feature a prematurely aged 26 year old, worn by drug and alcohol abuse but, with a floppy curtain of long, blond hair, looking something like the Christopher Robin statue he choked and kicked in the photos. Russell said of the days after Jones’s death, “It was like a face had been removed from the picture that was supposed to be in the picture. He wasn’t supposed to be able to go away like that. But I don’t think anybody else—certainly I didn’t—thought that he was going to be the first of many. It just seemed like, this is what happened and it was really weird that it happened, but it wasn’t like, a first of many—and it turned out to be.

Russell lost more than just some of his most famous subjects by the end of the era—he laments the music photography of the ‘60s and explains that it has been replaced largely by something he calls “product photography,” or photos taken to sell a product. “You know how people make a living because they can photograph a car beautifully? It feels similar,” he said. “As a rule, I never asked people to do anything, I didn’t ask them to change anything. I was just there. And what you get now, 50 years later or however long, is you get to feel like you were there—it’s a true historical record. If you don’t take those pictures, you lose that history … You get nice images, but you just get image. That’s a pretty big loss to make a buck.”

Image, Russell also asserts, is an issue when it comes to the way that the ‘60s are remembered today. “I think we were branded by television,” he said, speaking of his generation and going on to use the example of high school video reports on the ‘60s that he has stumbled across on YouTube. “They’re like really bad music videos. There are hippies that are cut next to shots of people in the Vietnam War that are cut next to shots of political riots, and I would argue that that’s the persistent image of what the ‘60s was—and that’s bullshit … When I started to work on [An American Story], I talked to other people who went through the same period and they all had the same feeling, which is that the legacy of our generation that’s in place now is a big lie. But nobody else had any real capacity to think about how to address it. Then I wanted to. That was a big motivator for me.”

An American Story is Russell’s answer to that dilemma. By presenting his own story—and encouraging readers to post their own accounts of how music of any decade has affected them on the ebook’s accompanying blog—he hopes that a more accurate story of America’s recent past emerges. Though in the meantime, for inspiration, there are always photos like his famous cover shot for The Who’s 1971 album Whos Next. It captured public imagination for its resemblance to a scene called “The Dawn of Man” in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which a group of apes gather around a similar monolith—the main difference, of course, being that while the apes feared and respected the monolith’s smooth, flawless surface, The Who promptly pissed on it.