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Watching the end of The Beatles through the lens of a camera

Last month marked the 50th anniversary of the release of The Beatles "Let It Be" album, the last release by the famed British foursome. Ethan Russell was the photographer who took the album cover's images of the band members. Christopher Booker spoke with Russell about witnessing the end of The Beatles.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The coronavirus pandemic has left little room for us to take note of the things we commemorate and remember.

    Last month marked the 50th anniversary of the release of the very last Beatles album 'Let It Be'.

    For millions of listeners this album was the end of one of the most transformative periods in music.

    But as the NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker learned, it has particular resonance for photographer Ethan Russell.

  • Christopher Booker:

    It was on his second assignment that American photographer Ethan Russell found himself watching John Lennon listen to the White Album for the very first time.

    The 22-year-old had arrived in London just a few months before.

    The plan was to be a writer, but he had brought a camera with him – Russell was untrained, but a fledgling Rolling Stone magazine from his home town in San Francisco needed some photographs. His first assignment, Mick Jagger. The second, John Lennon.

  • Ethan Russell:

    I was really nervous for that one, you know, because because it was a Beatle, because it was John Lennon. Once the camera goes up in front of my eye, the nerves go away.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Lennon liked the image Russell captured that day. So much so, that later he invited him to photograph him and Yoko Ono in the hospital, shortly after Ono had miscarried.

  • Ethan Russell:

    I think I think the secret was they could see themselves in my photographs. and I think that it was easier for them to recognize themselves in the picture, recognized what they were doing. Here I am. You know, they're musicians here making music. And when you see them through my lens, it looks like that because I don't change stuff.

  • Christopher Booker:

    While luck may have played a roll in how the untrained photographer got his start, Rusell's ability took control from there. He would go on to capture some of the most iconic moments in music during the end of one of the 20th centuries most influential periods.

  • Ethan Rusell:

    It was very much the John Lennon life is what happens while you're making other plans. I didn't think about being a photographer. I just did what was in front of me.

  • Christopher Booker:

    In 1968, he was hired by the Rolling Stones – to photograph their Rock n' Roll Circus tour – the year after, their cover for their album Through The Past Darkly and later, their Let It Bleed tour, which ended infamously in Altamount, California. Woven in would be stints with the Beatles, the band's last public performance…the band's last album cover…..followed by the band's very last photograph together as a group.

  • Ethan Russell:

    That was supposed to be a studio shoot for which I was preparing the whole week. Right. And then the night before I got a. Oh, no, we're not going to do that, we're gonna go to John's house., but they were kind of miserable.f I shot eight rolls, if that six rolls, I don't think George looked happy in one photograph.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Did you have a sense that you were capturing all these last moments, the last performance, the last photo shoot, the last album cover?

  • Ethan Russell:

    No. There's something about the Beatles breaking up, which was fundamentally unthinkable. You know, because of who they were.

  • Christopher Booker:

    After the Beatles, Russell began working with the Who. A chance drive outside with the band outside of London past some strange objects and Russell asking Pete Townshend to pull over resulted in one of rock's most famous album covers.

  • Ethan Russell:

    I notice out of the corner of my eye these shapes. I have no idea what it is. We go up to it and I have no idea what it is and then I look up and Pete's pissing on it. And I thought, that's good. I didn't shoot a lot of because I thought it was too outrageous. And then, you know, we get in the car shortly thereafter a few minutes down the road I go "I hope I got it!"

  • Christopher Booker:

    He had gotten it and the cover Who's Next was done. After came the photos for the book that accompanied the band's next album – Quadrophenia. This work earned Russell a Grammy nomination. For the first time Russell has collected his photographic work into a single retrospective.

    The book is, in Russell's words, a collection of the pictures he likes. Among his favorites, that the very first photo of John Lennon.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Why do you think that photograph has had such resonance for you?

  • Ethan Russell:

    Intimacy.

    It's much more about feeling, which is what you're sort of going for, you know. I mean, to extend it a little bit, you're going for composition, you're going for the moment, you're going for certain elements, but ultimately for me it's about communicating, feeling and specifically about communicating, feeling about the individual in front of the camera. I want to be able to feel the person.

    You can really feel him, can't you?

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