Ethan Russell, legendary rock ’ n’ roll photographer
Whether you’re an aspiring photographer or just appreciate a good image, you should be familiar with Ethan Russell’s body of work. The legendary rock ’n’ roll photographer made a living when photography was a highly revered (and lucrative) profession, taking an interest in it as a UC Davis student in the 1960s. Now, at the ripe, young age of 70, Russell’s impressive list of subjects includes the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Traffic, Cream, the Moody Blues, Janis Joplin and Linda Ronstadt. The photographer’s work is currently on display at Harris Center for the Arts, giving us the perfect excuse to get his insight on classic photography, acid and monkeys with Blue Cheer and whether that was real urine on the cover of Who’s Next.
How would you describe your experience at UC Davis?
I was a completely unconscious kid who thought I wanted to be a vet. I later switched from veterinary science to English, and then again once more to art. Davis was a huge experience for me and, at the time, the school had only 5,000 people attending. The art department was only a subset.
What specifically do you recall about that time period?
When the British music invasion first happened, I was actually still a sophomore. I remember when [President John F.] Kennedy was assassinated, I was on D Street in downtown Davis. I heard it on the radio and later went to a friend’s house to hear more. When I was born, there was no television and Elvis was only 13 years old. Also, rock ’n’ roll was a really big deal.
How much was your tuition?
Honestly, I don’t know because my father paid for it all. I really have no idea about the cost of things, as I came from a wealthy family and was one of four kids. I have three siblings: Two passed away and one is still living.
Are you familiar with the late rock ’n’ roll photographer Jim Marshall? Your work echoes some of his subject matter.
Thank you. And yes, I know his work well. I never really wanted to be a photographer until I saw the movie Blow-Up by Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni. It changed my life. Music was everything to me, but I didn’t know how to play anything. I learned how to develop black-and-white film from my roommate soon after. My brother, Jeremy Russell, was the manager of Blue Cheer. The band had a monkey in their house and they all took acid. I remember walking with them in the Haight and photographing them when I heard a voice behind us yelling to “get the fuck out of here” and that [the Haight] was his territory. That was my first encounter with Jim Marshall.
This is getting rather hairy. What next?
I traveled abroad and soon met a friend named Jonathan Cott … also a London-based stringer for Rolling Stone magazine who was just coming up at the time. He asked me to photograph his next interview and that was Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. I was scared at first, but very excited and the pictures came out great. In hindsight, it was so unlikely. Two months later, he asked me to go on the road with them.
What books caught your attention at an early age?
I really enjoyed a book called The Family of Man, edited by Edward Steichen. It was also featured at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1950s and features many photographers, including the popular “Migrant Mother” image by Dorothea Lange.
Does the camera make the photographer or the other way around?
Of course, it’s not the camera, but rather the person taking the picture. There are a whole group of people still, however, who think the camera makes them.
Did the members of the Who actually urinate on the Who’s Next cover image?
I had been hired by the Who and we were driving back from a gig. Pete [Townshend] drove like a madman at nearly 100 mph and we suddenly saw three odd shapes. I had him go back and we stared at the pieces wondering what to do next. All of a sudden, I turned around and noticed Pete had pissed on it. I grabbed some film cans, filled ’em with water and made what looked like several streams next to his.
Do you feel professional photography is overshadowed by Instagram?
No, is the short answer. I think it’s like being pissed off that the world changes.
Any advice for the young sprite who think he or she knows it all?
Young people always think they know it all. I know I did when I was younger.