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Bob Gruen in his studio. Photograph by Gloria Cavallaro.

 

Many categories in photography have a talented artist that, more about over time, remedy becomes the definition of that genre.  It is what Ansel Adams is to landscape photography, Richard Avedon to fashion, Diane Arbus to deviant characters.  In the genre of rock and roll there is one name that stands above the rest: Bob Gruen.  You may own any one of his books, Rock Seen, John Lennon – The New York Years, Rockers and The Clash.  Maybe you saw the documentary, “Rock ‘N’ Roll Exposed: The Photography of Bob Gruen” which canvassed his expansive career and influence.  Or, you could be a longtime fan of his images of Bob Dylan, John Lennon, the Clash, the New York Dolls, Ike & Tina Turner, Elton John, Blondie, among countless other iconic musicians.  Whatever your knowledge of Bob Gruen may be, he has documented the performances, personal lives, and tours of some of the most famous acts in modern musical history.  We were able to sit down with the legendary photographer and talk about how he got into the business, his method as an artist, how he made it all happen, and the photographers that inspire him.

 

 

How did you get started in photography?

My mother taught me photography when I was little, about three or four years old.  Photography was her hobby and she used to develop and print her own pictures in the 1930s and 40s.  After I was born in the late 40s she was still doing it.  She built a dark room in our house.  I was too big to go to sleep early and too big to leave running around the house so she brought me in the dark room with her and taught me how to develop the film and pictures with her.  I liked it and I’ve been doing it ever since.

 

What was the first concert you documented?

Dylan, Bob

Bob Dylan, Newport Folk Festival, Newport, RI, 1965.

Well, the first photo pass I had was the Newport Folk Festival, which was a three-day concert.  It was the year Bob Dylan played electric but there were also people like Mississippi John Hurt, Howlin’ Wolf, Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul, & Mary, The Weavers; lots and lots of different acts.  I basically got the photo pass because I could take pictures but I did that so I could get in free. I didn’t have money to afford a ticket.  After I’d taken pictures I had absolutely no idea where to send them or who to try to show them too.  I brought a couple of pictures to Bob Dylan’s manager.  They liked them and gave me a ticket to his next concert.  I actually sold one to Richie Havens.  It took him six months to pay me $35.  That was about all I did with those pictures.  And I lived with a rock and roll band in a couple of apartments, in the Village, up in Times Square, for about four or five years.  They changed drummers, they changed names, and they ended up being called The Glitter House.  Just as they were about to break up again they met the producer Bob Crewe and he used them to sing the background vocals for the soundtrack to the movie Barbarella.  That is their Internet claim to niche fame.  Then he recorded an album with them, with The Glitter House, and the record company used my pictures for the publicity kit and hired me to do some more jobs after that… That kind of started the ball rolling.  Friends of ours were fans of Ike & Tina Turner and said we should go see them.  We went and I thought Tina was absolutely amazing.  We went back to see them in a club on Long Island and I brought my camera.  I wasn’t regularly taking pictures of anybody or even thinking about doing that but I thought Tina was so amazing I brought the camera to take pictures for myself.   I got a couple of good ones and at the end of the show, as a strobe light was flashing, I just took a chance and opened the camera to a one second exposure to see if I could catch several of the flashes and see what would happen.  I had no idea where to focus it because it just flashing and her dancing

Tina Turner, Honka Monka Club, NYC, 1970.

Tina Turner, Honka Monka Club, NYC, 1970.

and I didn’t know what the exposure would be or the timing, so I just took a chance and took about four or five frames.  Three or four of them are no good and one of them is that picture right there, which is a multiple image in one picture.  It just came out perfect.  There were a couple of other good ones from that night.   So I made some prints because we were going to see Ike & Tina again, they were playing in New Jersey.  I brought the pictures to show my friends after the concert, and then after the concert as we were walking out, my friend happened to see Ike Turner walking from one dressing room to the other.  With the theater in the round, the dressing rooms were outside in trailers.  She literally pushed me in front of Ike and said, “Show Ike your pictures.”  He stopped and said, “What pictures?”  He liked them and took me in the dressing room to show Tina and she liked them.  That was my big break.  Pretty soon I was traveling with Ike & Tina Turner, my first album cover was a year later and it was a Tina Turner album called “’Nuff’ Said.”  Through them, I met more and more people, more record company people.  In fact, going into Ike’s hotel room one day, I met the manager for the band Labelle.  I ended up doing three album covers for them, for Patti Labelle.  At that manager’s office I met the publicist for Buddha Records and I ended up doing more than 125 jobs for Buddha Records, everybody from Roy Buchanan to Sha Na Na, to Labelle, to all kinds of jobs.  Each time I would do I job, I would meet more people, make more contacts.  It’s still going that way.

 

You’re a lover of rock and roll.  How has being a fan enhanced your photography and how has being a photographer enhanced your experience of the music?

Well, they really work together.  The reason I got into it was because I like music and the reason I went to Newport was because I wanted to hear the musicians; it wasn’t because I wanted to take pictures.  To take pictures got me in free and that worked out well for the rest of my life.  I got into a lot of shows and I like to be down front.   I like to be really in the thick of it and I like all different kinds of music.  I started off in the 50s in jazz.  Then, I went into folk music and into folk rock music.  Ended up getting more into the New York bands in the early 70s, the New York Dolls and so on.  Through them I ended up meeting punk bands.  Along the way, with the punk bands, I met Don Letts and I got into reggae music and also, later, African music.  I like a wide range of music.  My iPhone has quite an eclectic mix.

 

You were also a friend to the musicians that you photographed. What aspects of their rock and roll lives most interested you as a photographer?

Every day life.  Going out and having fun (laughs).

 

Did you find that more interesting than the performances?

I don’t know about interesting, it depends. I mean, the performances were good too, a lot of my friends were really great but there are twenty-four hours in a day.  If somebody plays for an hour, hour and a half, there’s a whole lot more time to spend besides that.  I don’t know what I would prefer, I never really thought about that.  What time with your friends do you prefer more?  Sometimes an hour-long phone call or a 20-minute phone call can be a great experience.

 

What artists inspire you?

Well, growing up, I was inspired by Man Ray because he made art from photography.  Henri Cartier-Bresson, who always got the right moment that captured the feeling or the essence of something going on, and Weegee, Arthur Fellig, who was always at the right place at the right moment.  Those are my main inspirations.

 

Do feel like being at the right place at the right moment is a little bit of luck or a lot of practice?

Both.  You have to be open to the opportunity and then you have to take advantage of it.

 

Do you feel you do that?

Yes, I do.  I was with Malcolm McLaren and someone asked us, what was your plan when you started out?  How did you get to do what you do?  What was your plan?  Nowadays, everybody makes plans for everything, a CV or whatever.  Malcolm and I looked at each other and we went, “Plan?  Who had a plan?”  Malcolm summed it up best where he said; “You go to sleep at night with some plan as to what you think you’re going to do the next day.  And you wake up in the morning and the phone rings, and things change and you do the best you can.”  And that’s my plan.

 

I heard that you have been using a digital camera since 2000.  Is there anything you miss about film?

I don’t think about film versus digital, I think about taking pictures.  I don’t think film is a perfect medium; it’s messy, and it’s easy to make mistakes.  I don’t think digital is perfect either; there are all kinds of limitations.  There a lot more variations and possibilities with digital that you don’t have with film.  You can change the quality of the picture from one picture to the next; you can change the speed of the sensitivity of the camera from one picture to the next.  I’m not really a purist about an image, you know, I’m not Ansel Adams.  I’m just trying to capture a moment and share it with a lot of people.

 

How do you feel about Photoshop?

I think it’s a boon to mankind.  I was able to correct a lot of the mistakes I made over the years.  In the past, if something was too light or too dark, it was too light or too dark.  Now, it’s easily fixed.  I don’t do a lot of photo-manipulation.  We don’t take sixteen pictures and put them together into one.  Although, we have been known to open people’s eyes or switch one expression for another, since you can.  But I don’t really change things. I don’t create in Photoshop.  I put pictures in and I use Photoshop to enhance them and look better, balance the color, make it lighter or darker.

 

It certainly helps if you want to go from color to black & white, you have all these options.

First, you only need one camera.  You used to need three cameras in the old days.  You used to need a black & white camera, a daylight color camera, and an indoor color camera.  Those are three different films that if you wanted to be versatile you had to carry three cameras.  Now, you can do all of that with one camera.  You just push the button later if you want black & white or color or whatever.   I rarely do black & white nowadays unless someone specifically asks for it.  I like color.  Life is in color.  There is a historic quality to seeing a black & white picture but I don’t know that people really chose to shoot in black & white because it would look historic.  They chose to shoot in black & white because it was cheaper and nobody printed color pictures.  Fortunately, I worked with European and Japanese magazines that did print in color in the 70s so I have a lot of color pictures from those times.  A lot of people didn’t even bother to shoot in color because there was no one who would pay them for it; it’s expensive.  Color adds a whole other dimension to the picture.  I could never really define what the difference is.  Like I said, I’m not really picky about image quality or these kinds of things.  If it’s a good picture, it’s a good picture, if it’s not, its not.  If it captures the emotion and you get some feeling out of it, it matters.  If you don’t get feeling out of it, it doesn’t matter.  I try to photograph feelings as opposed to just facts.  I think art is something that makes you react to what you’re seeing.  I always felt that I wanted my pictures to be art.  It’s an interesting thing, looking back to the 50s, the idea of being attracted to Man Ray or Cartier-Bresson, were people who felt that pictures were art.  The way we see photography in America is much more as a journalistic tool and that’s the way it’s developed in America.  Whereas, in France and Europe, they developed photography as an artistic tool, as the French do.  It’s interesting to me that I related to it on that level early on.  I once went to an exhibit years ago, maybe 10 years ago… Man Ray only exhibited a few of his pictures during his lifetime, about forty, I think. After he passed away his companion kept them as well but after she passed away they finally released a large exhibit of a lot of his pictures.  I went there and I saw pictures that he had made in 1929 that he signed and I was very impressed that he signed the picture.  Because in my life, growing up in the 50s and 60s, photos weren’t really considered art.  It wasn’t something you would sign, you didn’t really see it that way, they were only photos, it wasn’t art.  The fact that he signed this picture in 1929, that this was a statement that this was an artistic expression that he could sign as an artist, I was very impressed by that, that he saw it that way.  Of course he did it in France (laughs).

 

There’s a difference between journalistic photos and artistic photojournalism.  Your work would definitely fall into the latter category.

I try.  It’s funny, there’s a comedian named Stan Freberg, an acting, advertising man who would make comedy records, and his motto was ars gratia pecuniae.  I always agreed with that, it’s Latin for “art for the sake of money.”  Because an artist wants to create art but you have to pay your bills.  I always was taking pictures with the intent to try to sell them, try to get some money to try to pay my rent.  At the same time, I always had the feeling that I wanted to make art.  I wanted to make art and get paid for it… I’m not a pure artist like Van Gogh who only sold one painting in his lifetime and kept painting for the sake of painting.  I take pictures to pay my rent (laughs).

 

Now you work often with Green Day.  Are there any other current artists that would like to shoot in concert?

Not really.  Concert photography, in particular, has changed a lot in that it’s much more restrictive.   The acts like to control their image much more.  It’s rare that you actually get access to an act now days.  Green Day is a band I became friends with that likes to give me all-access.  That makes a big difference for me because if you’re just taking pictures of the first couple of songs, you’re not really capturing the essence or the feeling of what’s going on because most bands don’t break out and relax and actually do their show until the fifth or sixth song.  And they certainly don’t bring out many effects until the end of the show.  And also being able to get different angles and move around to different places, it takes time… I think you need to see the whole show to photograph the whole experience.  It’s not just about a guy with a microphone and what color shirt he’s wearing, for me, for a lot of people… I’m not really interested in photographing anybody except friends

Billi Joe Armstrong, Parc des Princes, Paris, France, 2010.

Billi Joe Armstrong, Parc des Princes, Paris, France, 2010.

because I like seeing friends.  I take a lot of pictures of Green Day but I don’t do it for news.  In the long run I might put out a book someday.  I do it more as an exercise… and some news.  I went to Europe with them a couple of years ago; I ended up getting a full page in The NME when they played at Wembley Stadium.  I don’t really do much of that… Luckily, I have a lot of pictures people can’t take now days like a young Led Zeppelin, John Lennon.  These pictures can’t be remade so I make a living selling those and I have a lot of exhibitions.  I work on putting out books.  I had a feeling when I was in my 30s that I was not going to be crawling down a sticky aisle with screaming teenagers around me when I was in my 60s.  I didn’t expect to and I don’t… … I went to a Green Day concert and I was older than the head of security.  But I’m still a fan.  I like rock and roll.  I think Green Day is a great band and they have a message and a great amount of humor.  They’re fun guys to hang out with and I think they’re really saying something.

 

What do you think they’re saying?

Well, for me, rock and roll is all about freedom.  Rock and roll is the freedom to express your feelings very loudly and I think that’s the kind of freedom Green Day talks about.  The freedom to be yourself, to express yourself, to live a life without people bugging you, basically, to put it in simple terms.  I think that’s what all kids want, what all people want all over the world.  I think that the Clash was talking about that kind of thing; Green Day is talking about that kind of thing.  People tend to look at punk rock as a negative idea but I never saw it that way.  I think the Sex Pistols kind of gave punk rock a bad name simply by cursing on TV and then people just ran with it and took it in that direction forever, as if that’s what it is.  But, to me, punk rock was always about freedom; it was about a positive aspect.  As the Clash at the beginning of Clampdown, was it? “What are you going to do now?”  People say, “The Sex Pistols made people scream with rage but the Clash gave

The Clash, Top Of The Rock, NYC, 1981.

The Clash, Top Of The Rock, NYC, 1981.

people the reasons.”  That’s why I’m more of a Clash fan because it’s more about what are you going to do?  It’s not, what’s wrong, what’s terrible, the world sucks, but what are you going to do about it?  How are you going to fix it?  How are you going to have a life?  Because whether the world sucks or not, you have to have a life so what kind of a life are you going to have?  And I think that good rock and roll talks about that.  The world is what it is; you can either say everything sucks or you can say what are you going to do now?  I’d rather look for solutions.  What was it a friend of mine said?  “The Sex Pistols were looking back with anger while the Clash were looking forward with hope.”  There’s another expression they say, “Punks are just hippies with short hair.”  It was the same kind of idea, the same dissatisfaction with the status quo and desire to change it and make things better.

 

I read in your book “John Lennon: The New York Years” that one of the highlights of your career was taking pictures of him singing “Imagine” during his Madison Square Garden concert.  What are some other highlights?

Any show I saw Tina Turner do.  Any show I saw the Clash do.  At this point I’ve seen a lot of cool things so I don’t really have a top ten list.  I don’t really think of things in those terms.  Going to The Statue of Liberty with John Lennon was a really special day but a very ordinary day.

 

Did the photo that came from that day make it more special?

Yes, because otherwise it was just – I’d been to the Statue of Liberty with a couple of people, it’s not a place you go often.  If you live here it’s not a big deal.  I know a lot of people who lived in New York all their lives and they’ve never been out there to that island.  But going out there with him was a nice day.  You take a boat; you get out in the harbor on the boat,

John Lennon, Statue Of Liberty, NYC, 1974.

John Lennon, Statue Of Liberty, NYC, 1974.

but the picture that we got made it very special.  That picture to me is very special because it’s one of my pictures that really has a lot of meaning.  I feel like a lot of people relate to John Lennon in terms of personal freedom.  He kind of represents the goal of personal freedom.  Similar to what the Statue of Liberty represents, the idea of liberty and freedom.  And so putting those two together is a really strong, powerful image.  It’s liberty and freedom and here’s somebody who is trying to do that.  Since the US government was trying to throw John Lennon out of the country, I thought it would be a good image for his case to go out there so that’s why I suggested it.  In fact, it wasn’t published very much in the 70s and it didn’t have any bearing on his case at the time but after he passed away in the 80s it took on a lot more meaning.  People started thinking about John Lennon’s life in bigger terms.  Here we are, at the Statue of Liberty inviting people to come to America and we’re trying to throw out one of the world’s greatest artists.  John Lennon’s crime was that he was speaking about peace in a time of war.  I don’t see that as a crime.  I think people should talk about peace all the time.

 

 

I have a quote here.  “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which gave that event its proper expression.”- Henri Cartier-Bresson (1952 monograph, The Decisive Moment).  What is photography to you?

Just what he said!  (laughs)  He said it best.  To me, it is capturing a moment to be able to contemplate it, think about it, and share it: to freeze that moment and carry it somewhere else and share it with other people.  It’s a great quote.  It brings in the perspective and the composition as well which is what makes a good photograph.  It’s not just capturing the moment.  Every photograph captures a moment, it’s whether or not it expresses it in an easily understandable way and that has to do with a lot of other factors including composition.  You have to be able to see it clearly and that’s what the composition is about, being able to see something clearly.  But more and more I’m realizing that my photos, which were also sort of tossed off as rock and roll or pop star or something, I’ve actually created a social history of the time, of what was going on at the time.  Now, people are seeing so much more in the pictures.  It’s not just somebody talking to somebody but it’s what they’re

Ramones, NYC, 1975. Photo via MorrisonHotelGallery.com

Ramones, NYC, 1975. Photo via MorrisonHotelGallery.com

wearing, or they see something in the background, how that room is decorated, whether they’re in a room or not, which is what life was like in those times.  That’s why I think my pictures now seem to express more of a social history than just publicizing a pop star.  I have a picture I took of the Ramones sitting on the subway and for many years, we just used the picture where I was facing the Ramones and it’s basically just them on the subway.  A few years ago, we pulled back and looked at the contacts again and there’s another picture where they’re sitting on a seat and you see everyone else in the train.  That couple [on the left] is what makes the picture.  It’s what places them in a time and place, as well as the subway walls, the style of the car, but particularly that couple.  They are so different from the Ramones that it places the Ramones in that world.

 

What do you love most about New York?

The freedom you have here, the common sense you have here, just a sensibility of getting things done.  I tried to like California but it never grew on me.   In California, people are concerned about life a bit more, you meet someone and they say, “How are you doing?”.  But if you meet someone in New York, they say, “What are you doing?”.   I like that because I like to be doing something. I like to be busy and I like to get things done and there’s a common sensibility in New York of getting things done.  When I talk about the freedom in New York, [I mean] people get along in New York.  In other parts of the world, people from Lebanon and Israel couldn’t possibly be in the same space, whereas in New York they live in the same building and they have a common enemy: the landlord.  I remember being in Japan for a couple of months at one point.  I came back and I was on 63rd Street and Lexington Ave at this hotdog stand and every single person was from a different country, speaking a different version of their language.  Some guy had one kind of accent and was asking for a hotdog from another guy who was answering him with a completely different accent.  Just seeing all of these people from all over the world, the Normal Rockwell melting pot of all different kinds of people and how they all just got along so comfortably… it really impressed me and I was really aware of it that day because I had been away and I hadn’t seen that in so long.  To me, it was like, “Yes!  That’s why I live in New York,” because you have that kind of diversity.  People always came to New York to improve their lives.  It started out as an international place.   New York was a gateway to America; all the different countries came here.  It’s always been that way.  It’s always been multi-national.  I don’t think you could get another place to be like this because it wasn’t created like that but New York was created like this.  In New York, you come in with no history and you create a new history.  Nobody cares where you’re from.  They care, what are you doing now?  That’s why I like New York.  It’s all about, what are you doing now?

 

Any advice for photographers?

Take a lot of pictures because if you take a lot of pictures you’re bound to get a couple of good ones.  The most important thing then is editing.  Editing is a real key to success because if you get a couple of good pictures and then you only show those couple of good pictures, people think you’re good.  But if you go someplace and you shoot 200 pictures because your digital camera allows you to shoot endlessly and then you upload all 200 pictures, no one is going to be able to see the good one.  But if you pick out the good one and put that up, people are going to think you’re good and you’re going to communicate and people are going to look at it because they’re only going to see that one.  I think that in a sense Instagram works like that because people don’t put everything up, they put a picture up.  You have to look through your pictures and pick the one that best expresses what you’re trying to say or show and then just put up that one.  You start to make a statement because you’re editing what you have into what you want to say.  Rather than just constantly taking pictures and putting all the pictures out there and waiting for someone to see something.  You have to see something and make that statement and then other people will see that.

 

Keep up to date on what the artist is doing now, buy one of his books, or learn where his images are sold by visiting his website: www.bobgruen.com

Click here to view more photos from Bob Gruen’s archives.

Photos via bobgruen.com

 

– Gloria Cavallaro
Blog: Silver Halide
Twitter: @gloriacavallaro