At the grand opening of the Keith Richards photo exhibition Keith, Unfiltered at West Hollywood’s Sunset Marquis Hotel on Thursday night (May 23), anecdotes about the legendary Rolling Stones guitarist and all-around icon were in ample supply.
“He was just easy,” recalled photographer Timothy White, who is also a partner of the Sunset Marquis’ Morrison Hotel Gallery, where the exhibition runs from May 24 to June 22 with concurrent showings at the gallery’s New York and Maui outposts. That relaxed manner came as a surprise to White, who was early in his career as a celebrity photographer when he booked an assignment to photograph the rock star in 1988.
“Here I am with this like rock idol god, you know?” White continued. “And he was…unpretentious. Shows up by himself, met him in a bar, had a drink, played a little pool, went for a walk, just started taking pictures on the street. Like, who does that, you know?”
White’s photos from that day’s session — during which Richards was notably mobbed by a swarm of fans and police officers — were just a few of many represented at the exhibition, whose opening gala drew the likes of Fleetwood Mac drummer Mick Fleetwood and ZZ Top frontman Billy Gibbons, among other well-heeled attendees (a rumored appearance by Richards sadly did not materialize). These included shots taken by such legendary rock photographers as Bob Gruen, Lynn Goldsmith, Norman Seeff, Gered Mankowitz and Michael Joseph, who photographed the band’s legendary Beggar’s Banquet album cover. An outtake from that session was a centerpiece of the exhibition, which according to the Morrison Hotel Gallery marks the “final opportunity” for collectors to own “one of the very last prints” from that famous session (pricetag for the 60×75 version hanging on the gallery’s wall: $20,000).
Another notable name in attendance was photographer Henry Diltz, a co-founder of the Morrison Hotel Gallery who photographed Richards during a 1979 tour with Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood‘s short-lived side project The New Barbarians. Diltz echoed White’s characterization of Richards as a laid-back presence.
“He’s just got a real good attitude and a real good outlook,” said Diltz, who also famously photographed the cover of The Doors’ 1970 album Morrison Hotel, from which the gallery took its name. “Compared to other people that you see, you know, they don’t handle it as well, or get agitated, or get insecure or say, ‘What’s that guy doing here?’ I mean, you never hear that from him. He’s always relaxed, cool, kinda ready for whatever.”
Inside the gallery, Richards’ five-and-a-half decades in the public eye are represented in dozens of photographs from all different eras of his career, from his early, pre-fame days with the band to his later years as a bona fide rock icon with nothing left to prove. In one shot taken in early 1963 by the late Philip Townsend, the Stones’ freshly-scrubbed lineup of Richards, Mick Jagger, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts and Brian Jones sit outside a pub, empty beer mugs situated on the table in front of them. Even at that early stage, Richards’ effortless cool stands out from the rest.
That cool remained even as the Stones rocketed to a nearly-unprecedented level of fame and beyond. Another stunning photograph taken three decades on by Stephanie Pfriender Stylander for British GQ shows a crinkly-eyed Richards staring directly at camera, cigarette in mouth, one ghostly smoke ring hovering in the center of his forehead. He holds our gaze directly, perfectly self-possessed.
“I think he has this mystery about him,” said Morrison Hotel sales manager Jamie Bucherer, who co-curates all of the gallery’s exhibits with Casey Fannin-Kaplin. As Bucherer explained, Keith, Unfiltered was inspired by the Stones’ recently-rescheduled No Filter tour that was delayed last month when Jagger was forced to undergo heart valve replacement surgery. But they’d been looking for an excuse to host a Richards exhibition for awhile.
“We’ve always wanted to do a Keith show, because he’s one of our biggest sellers,” she said. “And he’s such a dynamic person, obviously.”
There’s also an aspirational appeal at play when it comes to Richards — a sense that he personifies the wilder, more confident and even defiant aspects of ourselves.
“There’s something about what Keith Richards represents to people,” said White. “If you’re a chiropractor in the suburbs, Keith represents that inner person in you that you want to be.”