Visual, verbal images of a turbulent era

Dear Mr. Fantasy: Diary of a Decade, text and photographs by Ethan A. Russell. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 256 pp. $29.95 until Dec. 31, $34.95 thereafter. Every once in a long while, one finds a book that wholly captures the mood and essence of an era. ``Dear Mr. Fantasy'' is just such a book. Ethan Russell weaves a tapestry of prose and photos that bring to life one of the most turbulent decades in history -- the late 1960s and the '70s.

Russell launches both his photographic career and this book with the impassioned visage of John Lennon. In one of the book's more touching moments, Russell recounts that the results from the first photo session had to be scrapped, forcing him to call Lennon for a retake. Lennon emerges warm and kind, and Russell far more lovable and believable for his fallibility.

The title comes from a song in the preface which Russell says ``could have been our mascot.'' With retrospective insight he explains, ``We had experienced the line between real and not real to be very thin. And on that very thin line we set up camp, held a rally, gave a concert, and proposed to change the world.'' This is the backdrop to the '60s and '70s -- the underlying mind-set that shaped the candid, lucid images laid upon these pages.

Although he focuses mainly on the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and The Who, Russell's encounters range from the hippies of San Francisco to the streets of London, from James Taylor to Linda Ronstadt.

Russell generates a warmth reflected in his subjects and evident in his prose. He acknowledged the challenge of reaching his subjects to elicit some sort of inner expression. While shooting James Taylor, for example, he writes, ``Whatever I say meets with no response. Roll after roll of film passes through the camera but his expression is unvarying, a look that would be bored if it could rise above indifference.''

But he does meet with success, often with shockingly truthful results. Brian Jones readily exposes his disheartening state in one of Russell's most haunting portraits of the original Rolling Stones.

A genuine sensitivity and a love for his fellow ``dreamers'' raise this book beyond the level of documentation to the sphere of expression.

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