Written By: Bill Syken
In 1961 LIFE photographer Ted Russell received the assignment: bring back a picture of J.D. Salinger, the reclusive author of Catcher in the Rye.
At that point Salinger hadn’t made any public appearances for years, and he had even asked his publisher to remove his author’s photo from Catcher in the Rye so he wouldn’t be recognized. It was clear that any new photos of the iconic figure would be a rarity. LIFE reporters had located Salinger’s fortress of seclusion—a home in Cornish, New Hampshire that was surrounded by an eight-foot fence. Russell’s plan was to park at least a half mile up the road, walk the rest of the way, hide in the bushes with a telephoto lens, and wait for Salinger to show himself. It was winter, and Russell had a cold. The first two days, Russell endured drizzly weather without even a glimpse of the author. But on the third day, Salinger opened the home’s gate to let out his dog, and then briefly stepped outside himself. Russell took aim, hoping that Salinger’s dog wouldn’t flush him out. “I got off three or four frames,” he says, before the author disappeared and Russell left with his photographic treasure.
While hiding in bushes was not the norm for Russell, it could serve as a metaphor for his basic approach to photography, which was to make himself invisible to his subjects. Once in their presence, he would talk to them as little as possible, in the hope that they would forget he was there and act naturally. “My style of photography is to keep my mouth shut and my eyes open,” says Russell, 91.
That technique served him well for a particularly memorable story—photographing young Bob Dylan in his Greenwich Village apartment. Russell first met Dylan in the fall of 1961, months before he released his self-titled debut album. Russell was tipped off by a publicist that this newcomer to the music scene was someone worth paying attention to. Russell saw Dylan perform downtown and the next day pitched him a story. “I explained to him that I wanted to do a story on the struggles of an up and coming folk singer in New York,” he says. Dylan agreed, but after their shoots Russell, a freelancer, couldn’t find any takers for the story. He recalls playing Dylan’s music for editors at the Saturday Evening Post in a formal conference room around a big oak table and them losing interest after one song. He was only able to make use of the photos after Dylan had been widely recognized as a revolutionary songwriter and the voice of a generation. In 2015 Russell published a book of his photos of Dylan’s early years. When people ask him to describe what the future Nobel Prize winner was like as a young man, the photographer tells people “I haven’t the vaguest idea,” owing to his fly-on-the-wall approach. “There was no verbal interaction between us, just the bare minimum,” Russell says. “At some point he must have given me the address of his apartment.”
Working in the 1960s, Russell captured many images relating to race and to civil rights. He photographed Malcolm X giving a fiery speech in Harlem, with the middle-aged women in the audience reacting as if they were bobby soxers at a concert. He shot a star-studded jazz party fundraiser for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the home of baseball great Jackie Robinson, with performances by Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck and others. Russell was in Mississippi for the trial of the murder of three civil rights workers in 1964, capturing images of African-American prayer meetings and of a smiling Sheriff Lawrence Rainey after federal charges against him had been dismissed.
Russell served as both photographer and reporter for a memorable story in LIFE’s Dec. 8, 1961 issue titled “From Washington to New York, Four Lanes to Trouble.” The story documented how the segregated businesses on U.S Route 40 would refuse service to African diplomats headed from the United Nations to Washington D.C., and Russell captured quotes that were startlingly brazen. When Russell asked a waitress why she denied service to Malick Sow, the ambassador from Chad, she shamelessly explained, “He looked like just an ordinary run-of-the-mill n***** to me. I couldn’t tell he was an ambassador.”
When talking about his most memorable images, Russell mentions “one of the saddest things I ever photographed.” On the morning of Sept. 15, 1958 in northern New Jersey a commuter train derailed and went off a bridge, plunging into Newark Bay and killing 48 people. He captured the moment when the train was lifted from the waters, and later went to the funeral home and photographed the wife and mother of the train’s engineer mourning together.
“The poignant moments, that’s what I set out to capture,” Russell says. “They’re the ones that stay with me.”