LIVE: Ethan Russell’s “Best Seat in the House” @ Proctors, 3/28/15
Review by Don Wilcock
In a world so self-absorbed that we turn the camera back on ourselves with selfies, it’s a treat to find a photographer whose images so totally are outwardly directed that they give the term “candid” more poignant definition.
Ethan Russell bills himself as the only photographer to shoot album cover photographs of all three of the most iconic rock bands of the ’60s: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who. He presented a show he calls “Best Seat in the House” last Saturday (March 28) at Proctors in Schenectady, a splash of almost 400 images from the most explosive decade musically and culturally of the 20th century. His accompanying commentary, honed from nearly 50 years of reflection by a man who calls himself “the luckiest guy in the world,” are as important and interesting as the photos themselves.
These are not images cropped, edited, air brushed or Photo Shopped by record labels to create pictures that reinforce product that sells to the masses. Nor are they media-produced commentaries on the manufactured cartoon reality of sex, drugs and rock and roll of a larger-than-life era. Completely untrained, he “took pictures just like I hunted which is, you’re quiet. You stand on the edges, and you pay attention and you move quickly and quietly.”
Russell almost literally stumbled on his first photo assignments of photographing Mick Jagger and John Lennon while on a quest to become a writer. That early entree led to an eye-popping intimacy with the private world of the most public personae of the era. Long before the term paparazzi was coined, he was taking candid photos from the perspective of a music lover, not just a voyeur. On tour with the Stones for three years and at home with John and Yoko, we see the stars in unguarded moments. They become real in ways that force us to view and understand them as never before revealed.
I remember being transfixed at the Memphis Civil Rights Museum looking through the glass at the cigarette butts in Martin Luther King’s bedroom at the Lorraine Motel, left there since the night he was murdered. Russell’s photos and commentary give us similar and stunning context. We see John Lennon’s music room. We see Mick Jagger conversing with Chuck Berry, and Keith Richards pouring over 45 RPM records.
If most rock photos are dream catchers, Ethan’s are reality catchers, but as he says, the ’60s were the first time that dreams inspired reality rather than the other way around. The media gives us a staged reality. Ethan’s photos take us back stage and into the work-a-day reality of rock legends. And the fact that he is a writer first makes his choice of what to photograph more about the grit behind the glitz.
I once spent an afternoon in the living room of Buddy Guy’s brother’s house in rural Louisiana while his family cooked pig’s knuckles in a big oil drum in the driveway. As I looked around, I wondered if a white man had ever witnessed that room before. Ethan’s photos of John Lennon’s man cave in 1968, and the Stones’ basement recording studio struck me the same way. Had a “civilian” ever seen these rooms before – or since?
There was the time I interviewed Eric Clapton for my Buddy Guy book at a cabin in the Adirondacks and used his bathroom to relieve myself. As I walked into the room I noticed a toiletry case by the sink. “That’s Eric Clapton’s toothbrush and his comb,” I remember saying to myself. I felt like a voyeur somehow. Ethan is a voyeur, and almost a half century after the fact, the images are made more interesting by the fact that we’re seeing the ordinary trappings that surround these icons in their everyday lives. That’s not to say we don’t see the passion of the Stones performing in front of adoring fans, but it’s from center stage instead of the pit.
Russell’s perspective as a writer who has the patience and attentiveness of a hunter indeed gave his presentation the eye-popping perspective of his promised “Best Seat in the House.” That he also happens to be very fast on his feet as a speaker made his 90-minute presentation pass with the speed of light.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but some of Russell’s photos are worth a million. The portrait of a wasted Keith Richards standing laconically in front of an anti-drug poster at the Canadian border says more about changing values and the youth culture of the era than any Ph.D. thesis. And for all those people who come up to me asking what were the ’60s really like, I can now refer them to Ethan Russell, one of the few people left alive who has seen John and Yoko naked.
A Few Minutes With… Ethan Russell