On my forty-sixth birthday m’lady and I were in NYC. With feigned innocence and extreme stealth she steered me into the Morrison Hotel photo gallery. I would have been pleased to visit the establishment solely on the notoriety of it’s storefront appearing on the cover of a Doors album, but throw in the fact that it operates as a photo studio that specializes in original rock photography and you couldn’t keep me out of the place if you tried.
Little did I know m’lady had pre-bought me a signed, numbered shot of Keith Richards taken by Ethan Russell. She had arranged to have it framed and surprised me with this very excellent birthday present right there in the shop. The picture was taken during the Rolling Stones tour of America in 1969; Keith is sitting on his amp practising. He’s playing Ron Wood’s translucent guitar and Charlie Watts is drumming away in the background. It’s a great picture of one of my biggest musical heroes, it was a gift given with love, and I absolutely love it.
As a very cool birthday gift bonus m’lady threw in a pair of tickets to hear the photographer Ethan Russell give a presentation on March 29th, 2014 at the Shenkman Theatre, and it was great.
There was a good crowd on hand to hear Russell’s endless stories. The guy travelled with the Stones, he shot album covers for The Beatles and The Who, he was the last photographer to photograph The Beatles together…the man’s got stories.
Most incredible was how he came to be on this path. As a young, underachieving American music writer looking for a break in London he was just about to pack it in and hop a plane home when a friend called asking if Ethan would tag along as a photographer on a story the friend was doing. Russell’s roommate had showed him the basics of photography and Ethan owned a pretty good camera so he said “sure” and soon found himself photographing David Bowie. The shoot went well so he was asked along again the next week. This time the subject was John Lennon.
Ethan and Lennon hit it off and exchanged numbers. A few photo shoots later and he gets the call to accompany the Stones on their entire US tour. Once the ball got rolling it just never stopped for this guy, and with no formal training whatsoever he can now rest on the laurels of one of the most enviable careers in the history of rock photography.
I promise you, you’ve seen this man’s work plenty. And if you ever get a chance to hear him talk about his life’s work you should go. His presentation was really fun and informative, and absolute manna for rock history geeks. Especially ones like myself that have a serious leaning towards The Rolling Stones.
During his Q&A I kept my hand up but was never called upon. I wanted to ask him what he says to strangers who stop him in the street and ask him if he would mind taking their picture. Does he refuse, saying “sorry, but I get paid a lot of money to take pictures”? Does he take the picture and then inform the subjects that he’s a well-known portrait photographer, or does he just say nothing and take the picture like the rest of us would?
I was so curious I went to his website a few days later and wrote to him to ask. In doing so I came upon a survey about the show I saw. I filled it out and was eventually drawn as the winner of a $1,000 Ethan Russell print of my choice for my trouble.
Ethan wrote me back. He told me that he usually just takes the picture and says nothing, but occasionally he’ll mention that he used to take pictures for a living.
For my prize I selected a cool shot of Keith Richards (of course) getting off of the Stones airplane carrying his attache case in one hand and a cocktail in the other. Seize the day.
Incidentally, at some point during the months between the lecture and me winning the print I decided to buy an Ethan Russell photo for m’lady as a right-back-atcha birthday gift. It’s a fantastic shot of the band onstage in Illinois in 1969 although if you ask me it’s really a photo of the hundreds of faces in the audience, each of whom is somehow fully distinguishable and magically in focus. It’s big and it was expensive but we both love it to pieces. Funny thing though, I ordered myself another Ethan Russell print at the same time as a decoy so m’lady wouldn’t be suspicious when the item(s) were delivered. For that print I selected a shot of the band hanging out backstage with Chuck Berry. Unlike the other photos I don’t consider this one very “arty”. Rather, it’s a perfectly candid picture of one of my heroes who is clearly very excited to be in the presence of one of his heroes and for that, I love it.
And then I won the print for filling out the online survey and just like that we are a four-Ethan-Russell-prints-family. We painted our dining room black-and-white to match the photos. I wish I could have asked him to take a picture of us.