Ethan Russell’s ‘Best Seat In the House’ Exhibit Comes To Los Angeles
By Kevin Wilkerson, PubClub.com Music Blogger
To hear Ethan Russell tell it, how he became friends of Mick Jagger and wound up on tour as the photographer for the Rolling Stones North American Tour in 1969 was sheer coincidence. Or luck.
“In my flat in London, a friend of a friend visited me and saw my photographs and asked me if I wanted to photograph his next interview,” he recalled. “I said, ‘who’s that?’ He said ‘Mick Jagger.’ That was being in the right place at the right time.”
From there, Russell went on to not only photograph Jagger and the Stones but went on tour with them and is the only photographer to have shot album covers for The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who.
As you might expect, Russell has nearly as many stories as photographs and both will be on display at the Luckman Center in Los Angeles on Saturday, April 28. He is hosting what he calls: “Best Seat in the House: True Stories & the Pictures To Prove It.”
Tickets are $30, $40 and $50 and are available via Ticketmaster and the Luckman Box Office.
The night is a combination of many of Russell’s most prized pictures combined with his speaking about his incredible experiences as one of rock’s top photographers of that era. A Grammy-nominated photographer, author, and director he is one of only a handful of people who toured with The Rolling Stones at the peak of their career.
Russell was backstage at Altamont to witness the tragic unfolding of events that many define as the end of the ’60s and was with The Beatles during their last days together and was at Apple Studios.
Below, in an interview with PubClub.com, Russell talks about the show, his photographs and his experiences, which you can experience live at the Luckman.
Q1.) Please tell us about this particular exhibit, how you chose the photos for it and what photos you are featuring.
A.) Everything I do now is much more about the experience and the story of my journey instead of simply being about specific photographs. Nevertheless, the exhibition covers my journey and so includes The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, John Lennon, solo. and John Lennon and Yoko falling in love, Linda Ronstadt, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Eagles, and others. But it’s presented in an unusual way.
The exhibition at the Luckman will consist of 16 four-by-eight-foot panels curated somewhat narratively, i.e. there are two panels dedicated to the Rolling Stones 1969 and two panels to the Rolling Stones 1972 tour, one panel to the Who’s “Who’s Next,” another to the Who’s Quadrophenia.
There are also two to John and Yoko. Two are devoted my Los Angeles years including Jerry Lee Lewis and Linda Ronstadt (“Hasten Down the Wind” and “Prisoner in Disguise.”) Nothing is behind glass, and the sizes range from 11×14″ to 3×4 feet.
I particularly like that they’re not behind glass because you can approach so closely, without reflection, and the different scale works tremendously to engage the viewer.
A portrait photograph of John Lennon is larger than life size.
Q2.) How did you get hired for the ’69 Stones’ North American tour? Right place at the right time, had a connection?
A.) The somewhat longer answer but absolutely in the same vein was that I was a 20-year-old kid in London who knew no one and was working in a hospital with autistic children. I grew up in San Francisco, which was at that point 1966 explosively engaged with the music coming from England, and I was no exception.
When I arrived in England expecting to find a Haight Ashbury on steroids, that was not what I found it all. Although I had taken a couple of photographs when I was an art student in college, I wasn’t really a photographer.
In my flat in London a friend of a friend visited me and saw my photographs and asked me if I want to photograph his next interview. I said, “who’s that?” He said Mick Jagger. That was being in the right place at the right time.
It continued to happen. The Daily Beast wrote that “To know the career is to witness more luck than any human being should be allowed to have.” By the time the Rolling Stones were in America waiting to go on the Rolling Stones tour I knew them and all the people around them. It was a very small group.
In fact in 1969 there were only 11 people besides the Rolling Stones that made up the tour.
Specifically to your question I heard they were down in LA and drove down from San Francisco.I went up to the house where they were staying when Mick came out of the back room having finished the meeting with Ronnie Schneider, Allen Klein’s nephew. He saw me and said hi, which was not unusual since I’d worked for them now multiple times.
And then he asked, “You want to go on the tour with us?” So, yes, right place right time.
Stories like that, many many of them, are the narrative of the live show at The Luckman, the intent and value of which is to really share with the audience stories about these extraordinary people and the places where I got to with them , so the audience actually gets to experience being there, right next to it, because that is what I got to do.
Q3.) When you were taking the photos, was there anything in particular you were looking to capture (such as facial expressions, off-the-cuff moments, etc) and what were your favorite moments?
A.) When I was young I didn’t have any desire to be a photographer and only sort of drifted in that direction.
In 1966 I was a college student, an English and Art major, and I went with a friend to see the movie Blow-Up, which was about an English photographer and set in London. The movie was mesmerizing to me and made me wonder whether or not the life this guy had could be something I might be able to do. I had only the most rudimentary skills, which I learned from a roommate. (I never took a course in photography.)
What I possessed that allowed me to become a photographer only occurred many years later, when an image of me as a 13-year-old kid with a 22 caliber rifle popped into my mind. I was hunting blue jays on my parents’ ranch.
That process, which was to stand perfectly still, be very observant, and wait for something to occur, try not to disturb anything, and then focus, and shoot……this is exactly how I photographed for a good part of my career.
Q4.) Please tell your favorite story about being around and knowing these great musicians/groups.
A.) There are too many.
I shot all of Let It Be, The Rolling Stones 1969 and 1972 tours Who’s Next and Quadropehnia, The Beatles last photo session, Brian Jones’s last photo session and The Beatles’ last performance on the roof. I do know that if I had to choose one artist (and I really don’t like doing that it’s a bit like choosing one of your kids) it would be John Lennon partly because I was close to him (I was a John Lennon clone) and in so many ways he represented what mattered to me in music.
Music was not “entertainment.” Rock n roll wasn’t, in its early years, “entertainment.”
But after those two explosions which literally did chance the world, it was slowly sucked back under the umbrella of entertainment business. When I first got involved it was very much in the explosive stage. As it turned into entertainment, I withdrew.
John Lennon’s last words to me (I was directing the footage of him in Central Park for “Woman”), when I asked if I could get a picture with him, was to say “Sure you should hold on to your memories. They’re all you’ve got.”
Ethan Russell LA Rock & Roll Photo Exhibit Information
General: $30, $40, $50
Available via Ticketmaster or the Luckman Box Office.
Cal State L.A. students: $20
Other students: $25
(in-person only at the Luckman Box Office)
Luckman Center (www.luckmanarts.org – 5151 State University Drive, LA)