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Ethan Russell’s Iconic Images of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and More

Shots from from his new interactive book

Janis Joplin

Ethan Russell

Ethan Russell is the only person to have shot album covers for the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was pretty much at every landmark moment in rock & roll, from the Altamont stage to the rooftop of Apple Records during the Beatles' final performance to a field in England where he shot the cover of Who's Next. His camera captured many of the most iconic moments in rock history, and his new interactive book American Story: It's Your History. Help Write It displays many of these images along with the stories behind them. It's available for the iPad, iPhone, Nook and all Kindle devices. (Click here for more info.)

Here are 13 photos from the book, starting with this shot from Altamont in 1969. "That's the day the music died," says Russell. "The whole thing was just chaos – just awful from the moment we got off the helicopter. There's 400,000 behind the people you see crushed against the stage. I wanted to leave as soon as we got there. When we did leave, it felt like the last chopper out of Vietnam. The fact that everybody didn't die was really the grace of God."

The Rolling Stones

Ethan Russell

The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones jump onstage during their 1969 U.S. tour. "I shot that whole tour and did a huge book on it," says Russell. "If I had to choose two shots from it, it would be this one and the one from Altamont. First off, this is the photo where I realized the best angle to shoot. You've got the band in front and you see the audience. The energy is spectacular and you can see all those faces. You get this whole sense of history and excitement. The moral of the story is that the stage was never that low again. It doubled in '72 and then doubles again in '75. Now nobody can get near 'em, but in those days you really could."

Keith Richards

Ethan Russell

Keith Richards

Keith Richards rehearses at Stephen Stills' house in 1969. "Some people say that 'Patience Please' picture is one of the best pictures in rock & roll," says Russell. "But it's not really Keith, in a way. It's Keith wearing sheep's clothing – or wolf's clothing, really. It's after Exile and it's after the drugs really kick in; that's his brand. But really, Keith Richards is this picture right here. That's Keith Richards. We're in the basement room at Stephen Stills' house. You're just so close to Keith. Everything about the picture works for me. It's the intimacy and the fact he's so engaged with the music and that tiny Fender amp, and a drink at 11:00 in the morning." 

Janis Joplin

Ethan Russell

Janis Joplin

Janis Joplin at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1969. "I don't understand how I even got into this concert," says Russell. "I must have just gone in and said I was with the press and they must have believed me. I didn't have any credentials. I just wrote out a card saying that I was a photographer. I don't remember anything about the show. Once you put a camera in front of my face I'm 80 percent mute about anything else. If you look very closely you can just make out the highlight of an opera box through the spotlight." 

THE BEATLES

Ethan Russell

The Beatles

The Beatles perform on the roof of Apple Records in January 1969. "This came at the end of filming Let It Be," Russell says. "I was around for all of the recording. The entire time, the movie's director Michael Lindsay-Hogg was trying to get them to do something, like go to Egypt and play in front of the pyramids. They couldn't agree on anything, but one day they all decided to go up to the roof on the top of Apple. There were maybe 20-odd people up there, and some people on the building next door. If I had done it today, I'd have 15 assistants and 50 cameras. And it was me with no assistants and two cameras."

The Beatles

Ethan Russell

The Beatles

The Beatles' final photo session, in England 1969. "This particular photo had never been published until my book," says Russell. "I held onto it. This is at the end of a six-year negotiation with Apple over the negatives, out of which I got the book and various other things. That picture and 25 other images of the Beatles and Let It Be and the last session, most of which are rare and never been published, are in the book.

"[Apple Records executive] Neil Aspinall called in 1969 and said, 'We need a photo session.' I got a big studio in London and prepped all these things. I was gonna put them on a trampoline and do this and that. At the last minute he called and said, 'We're gonna do it at John's house. Also, we're going to have another photographer there, some guy from The Daily Mail.'

"It was kind of weird. There's really nothing worse than a photo session. There's just no real reason in life for it. There are few things more abstract. 'What are you doing?' 'I'm standing here and getting my picture taken.' 'That's exciting.' That means as a photographer you really have to bring energy into it, or you have to create a reality where none exists. And I didn't do that. So the reality that existed is the one you're looking at. To me, that's good news. There are better pictures from the session, and by that I mean more interesting, but none are so quite aggressively sad. I love this one because it's wide and particularly dramatic. Even the tree looks sad and defeated. I call the picture Weep."

John Lennon and Yoko Ono

Ethan Russell

John Lennon and Yoko Ono

John Lennon and Yoko Ono in Weybridge, England, in 1968. "A long time ago and far away, I got a call from John to come on down and take some pictures," says Russell. "I had no idea why. I got in my car and went to Weybridge, about a 20-minute drive from London. I showed up at the house and it seemed like nobody was there. The door was unlocked, so I just walked in. Yoko eventually came downstairs. They had only been together about eight months at this point. They put on black capes, which is certainly not something I would have ever told them to do. I have these extraordinary photos from this session where he serenades her with a guitar, just like every kid ever with a girl he loves. She knights him with a sword in another. In this photo, I love that they're basically one item in black. It's a nice little moment, and not a picture that's been seen a whole lot."

Jerry Lee Lewis

Ethan Russell

Jerry Lee Lewis

Jerry Lee Lewis in Los Angeles circa 1977. "I love this picture," says Russell. "By the time I took it, I had stopped being a full-time photographer. I had a studio on Sunset Boulevard in L.A. Jerry Lee Lewis came in for a shoot and everyone was all concerned he was gonna drink and all that. The red curtain was there, and so was the piano and the ashtray. I just threw them all together on the spot, but my favorite thing about the picture is his outfit. That's just what he showed up wearing. It speaks volumes about where he comes from. Again, I love the picture. The record company just hated it. Hated it! It sat in my archives forever but a few years ago, it wound up on the cover of Oxford American magazine. I was just delighted. There's no other photo of Jerry Lee Lewis like it."

Jim Morrison

Ethan Russell

Jim Morrison

Jim Morrison at London's Roundhouse in 1968. "I didn't really get Jim Morrison," says Russell. "I didn't get his energy. I have more respect for him after the fact than I did at the time. During this show, there was a confrontation between him and the filmmakers. He was like, 'Turn off the lights or I'm not singing!' It was hard to not feel that it was petulant. I don't know what they thought of him in England, but the English aren't really built that way. They don't have that sense of overwrought drama and rebellion."

The Eagles

Ethan Russell

The Eagles

The Eagles at Bernie Leadon's house circa 1970. "I just discovered this photo and I really like it," says Russell. "I was in America with Glyn Johns and the Eagles, who had just formed at the time and were after Glyn to produce their first album. I remember going to soundcheck with him before one of their shows. They played and I thought they were spectacular. Glyn went, 'Not ready!' But he wound up doing their first album. This was at Bernie's wonderful little house in Topanga Canyon. Nobody was a star yet. They're all wanting it, but they don't have it yet."

Keith Richards

Ethan Russell

Keith Richards

Keith Richards on the Stones' 1972 U.S. tour. "I never tell someone what to do – but in this picture, I told Keith exactly what to do," says Russell. "We were going to Canada and somebody had screwed up and not done the clearance, so we couldn't land. I guess we were coming back from Vancouver. I saw the sign and called Keith over and took two pictures. I wanted to do it as Jagger and Richards, but when I called Mick over, the customs man saw me and said, 'If you don't stop right now I'm confiscating the film.' But that picture was just waiting to be taken. The other picture is not that great. He's smoking a cigarette or something."

The Who

Ethan Russell

The Who

Who's Next cover, shot in England in 1970. "The band had done covers they weren't happy with, including a room full of naked women," says Russell. "I was traveling back with them from a gig in the middle of England. It was early and Pete would drive. There was a caravan of two or three cars following each other. Pete was in the lead and he would drive about 120 miles per hour. It terrified me. We're driving along and I see these shapes out of the corner of my eye. At that moment Pete asked if I had any ideas. I don't know why he asked at that moment, but I told him there were these shapes back there. Everybody turns around and we walk out onto this slag. I look up after a minute and Pete's pissed on it. I started taking picture. The others couldn't piss, so we filled old cans with water and dumped it on the thing. I took maybe 14 pictures. Today, I'd take about 400. It was nothing like today. No art directors. No stylists. No nothing. It was off to the record company in two days."

The Who

Ethan Russell

The Who

The Who in rehearsals for the Quadrophenia tour in England in 1973. "What I remember most from this is that Pete and Roger were having a fight about the mirrors that you see behind them," says Russell. "Pete's idea was they were going to project some filmed footage onto them. It was sort of avant-garde and maybe smart. Roger said, 'People come to see us, right? It should just be us against a black background.' The reality is they were both right."