In autumn 1961, New York City photographer Ted Russell got a call from a friend who spoke of a folk singer presenting himself as “an itinerant hobo-like person in the mold of Woody Guthrie,” complete with “funny cap and blue jeans and all that,” Russell says.
The photographer was deeply into jazz and knew nothing about folk music, but sensing intriguing story possibilities, Russell showed up at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village to photograph 20-year-old Bob Dylan in action. Russell was mightily impressed with the tiny club’s great lighting, but he doesn’t remember a thing about the music.
“I was looking through the viewfinder for every change of expression and oblivious to everything else,” he says. “I didn’t have a clue that the man I was photographing would become this international star idolized all over the world.”
A couple of days later, Russell visited Dylan and his girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, at their Village apartment. “I said, ‘Please do whatever you would be doing if I weren’t here,’ and they did just what I asked them to do: They ignored me.”
Russell failed to drum up interest in what he’d conceptualized as a photo essay about the trials and tribulations of an up-and-coming folk singer.
“Saturday Evening Post editors were enthusiastic about my proof sheets and a rave New York Times review that I brought in, but when I played a Dylan demo record, they asked me if I was playing it at the correct speed,” Russell said, laughing. “They passed.”
His candid portraits of the artist as a young folkie lay largely dormant in a file cabinet for decades, but they have been resuscitated in the new Rizzoli book “Bob Dylan: NYC 1961-1964.” Co-written by Chris Murray, the book also includes shots that Russell snapped during a 1964 Life magazine interview.
“The funny thing is, 50 years later, everybody raved about that film ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’” Russell says. “I was basically trying to do a still version of that story.”