Photographers talk about shooting the Stones, in all their dark, magic coolness

The Stones in 1972 (© Ethan Russell)
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“I love the Stones from the bottom of my heart. The majestic beauty of the darkness of the Rolling Stones ..."

D.J. and Academy Records vinyl-seller Teddy K. was walking down to the Tribeca Grand Hotel, for an afterparty celebrating the Morrison Hotel Gallery exhibition, 50 Years of Rolling Stones Photography.

“There’s something so dark and magical about them," he continued. Teddy K. had been in thrall to the Stones since he heard his older sister's copy of Sticky Fingers, and now he was trying to explain the depth of his wonder at the atmosphere the band created.

Gallery owner Peter Blachley and his partners are doubtless hoping that this sort of deep emotional hold on the hearts and minds of Boomers and Gen-X-ers will bring people (and buyers) out to the show.

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15 artists who photographed the Stones during their heyday are represented in the exhibit, including Terry O’Neill, Bob Gruen, Ethan Russell, Michael Cooper, and Henry Diltz, who is also a co-owner of the gallery with Blachley. The opening brought out a curious mix of well-groomed uptowners (collectors, P.R.-types) and a sufficiently scruffier set of longtime downtown rockers like Dennis Dunaway (former Alice Cooper bassist/Blue Coupe leader), and the gallery and loft spaces were packed. Diltz was in a clutch of people at the loft’s far back corner by the bar, and I talked to him about his photos of the 1978 Ron Wood mini-tour.

“All 15 of us, at one point or another, our paths crossed the Rolling Stones’, right, somewhere along the line … so you know, consequently, it’s a show of all the different parts of the Rolling Stones’ life […] My part was when Ron Wood had a solo tour, and he had Keith in the group [New Barbarians], Bobby Keys on the sax, the jazz bassist Stanley Clarke, and Ian McLagan from the Small Faces playing keyboards. So it was like a group of really good friends and pals, the Stones without Mick Jagger—nobody there to kinda tell ‘em to tone it down (laughs). Although I photographed the Stones in concert several times, that was my three weeks on the road with Keith and Ronnie—really great, day and night, better than being on tour with the Stones because they were freer and having fun. It was more open.”

Diltz’ great black-and-white portrait of Richards and Wood aboard a tiny jet, in which they resemble dissolute twins, demonstrates the intimate access these photographers had to the group before they became the machine they currently are.

“Yes, very few people could hang and get all-access today,” Diltz said. “You have to gain their trust, they have to really get to know you and accept you being there. You have to really know how to back off, sorta learn how to be a fly on the wall. And respect them. I don’t think you can be one of them, and like join in … because you’re not one of them. So that’s the wrong approach. I can’t be an aggressive type of photographer, just hustling to get the photo. You got to be cool, that comes first.”

Speaking of “cool,” the two best renderings of Mick Jagger that I've seen appear in the show are taken by Andee Nathanson at Joshua Tree. In one, the Stones frontman is wrapped in nothing but a plaid shawl; the other is taken in Hollywood in 1969. Long before Jagger's Swinging London friend and mentor, the director Donald Cammell, made his thinly veiled prophecy in the movie Performance, before it came true and Jagger morphed into the human equivalent of the band’s Kali-lip logo, Nathanson had caught the singer unguarded, devoid of glamour. The Hollywood photograph even manages the rare feat of making Jagger mythic without any glitz or affect.

Ethan Russell is another of the featured artists whose work on display at Morrison Hotel seemed to best make the Stones’ humanity legible, mainly in photos of the band onstage during the 1969 and 1972 tours. Russell, who still doesn’t consider himself a professional photographer, is one of those wonderful, laid-back mavericks who was able to parlay a connection via a friend into shooting album covers for the biggest band in the world (such as Get Yer Ya-Yas Out!) and documenting them live at their turn-of-the-Seventies height.

Russell actually came into the Stones’ London orbit while wanting to become a writer. So it’s intriguing that among his images displayed in the show are some laden with narrative, ones that continue to talk to the viewer decades later.

“Keith with Jack and Coors” and “Patience Please,” both from 1972, are particularly poignant. When asked about the latter photograph of Richards standing diffidently by a sign reading “Patience please … A drug free America comes first!"—which has been reproduced countless times on T-shirts available at the stalls on St. Mark’s Place and beyond—Russell explained that while he retains the copyright, he's not getting any bounty off all the bootlegs. He was game enough to pose before the photo in his own rakish scarf with Dunaway and London-born Joe Hurley (leader of the Gents Rogue's March), as the event wound down.

It is easy to see why the San Francisco Chronicle called that image of Richards "one of the great rock photos of all time." How many bands have been launched just from this portrait of cool? It's nice to remember a time when the Stones still felt (and were) truly dangerous, and the energy behind many of these photos gives some sense of why, so many years later, they're still at it.