New York-based photographer Bob Gruen is a rock & roll icon. From photographing some of the earliest concerts of Ike and Tina Turner to chronicling months on tour with bands such as the Clash and the Sex Pistols, Gruen has done it all. He always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, capturing loving and candid shots of both emerging and established artists including the Rolling Stones, the Ramones, Blondie, Led Zeppelin, Patti Smith and New York Dolls.
Decades of constant documenting yielded many famous photographs and subjects, including John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Gruen befriended the couple in their New York years and shot some of the most iconic, enduring photos of Lennon, among them the one of Lennon wearing the sleeveless New York City ringer T-shirt and the photo where he's flashing the peace sign in front of the Statue of Liberty.
Gruen's newest book, Rock Seen, serves as a collection of the photographer's favorite shots from throughout his 40-year career — he also wrote captions and included behind-the-scenes stories to accompany the photographs. We spoke to Gruen in advance of his appearance this week at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival and asked him about his work habits, past projects and plans for the future.
Jaime Lees: Part of what I like about your work is that you seem to be a fan first, and I think that it shows in your photos.
Bob Gruen: Yes, well, that's because I didn't choose to have a career. I was a child of the '60s. You know, "Turn on, tune in and drop out"? And I did. I lived with a rock & roll band because I like rock & roll music, and I tend to be friends with musicians and performers and artists. And when they got a record deal the company used my pictures. And then they hired me to take more pictures, and every time I would go and do that I'd meet more people who would hire me to do more photos. And I just kind of fell into this career of rock photography. It wasn't something I sought out — I really wasn't planning to have any career. I was pretty aimless as a kid. I really wasn't expecting much to happen. [Laughs] I couldn't really do a nine-to-five. Like, my parents were sort of trying to get me into a nine-to-five office career, which didn't appeal to me at all, especially the nine o'clock part. [Laughs] So that's why I was living with a rock band, and it just kind of turned out that that's what I was suited for and that's what I ended up doing.
In spite of myself I have a strong work ethic. I figured out what it is: It's because I really don't like to work. And until I finish something, I feel that I'm working because I live in my studio. And if I came home at night and the film wasn't developed, I'd have to do it the next day, and I had other things to do the next day. So I'd tend to go out and spend the night hanging out with friends and drinking and carrying on, and then I'd come home, and it's four or five o'clock in the morning, and I'd develop the film.
How do you decide where you're going to go shoot if you're not on assignment?
Oh, if I'm not on assignment, I go to see friends or bands that friends recommend, pretty much. I'm not really looking for the next big thing. I never was. Usually the bands that I like don't make it. [Laughs]
I still go out all the time, but I don't work as much as I used to. Photography has changed nowadays; it's much more accessible, so a lot more people are involved in photography. A lot more groups are doing their own work; a lot of groups are much more restrictive. Record companies got much more corporate, and they want to own the images.
And you have less access now.
Yeah, they control the access a lot more, and it's not as interesting for me. They came up with a three-song rule, where you're only allowed to take pictures for the first three songs of a group, and I was never into it in that sense of just being on assignment to take a picture of a guy onstage to show what color shirt he's wearing. To me, I was always more involved as a fan, as somebody who really likes the music, and I wanted to capture the feeling and the passion of what's going on. And a lot of times that doesn't happen in the first three songs. Usually in the last three songs, not the first ones. [Laughs] When all of the lights are on, and all of the effects that the band has brought with them are on, and the band is really putting it all out, and the audience is really pumped up, and you have much more excitement and much more feeling — that's what I'd rather photograph.
I do tend to think of myself as a photojournalist, but I didn't visit this lifestyle as a journalist. I live this lifestyle, I've always been friends with musicians and artists; I feel very comfortable there. So that many times if I had an assignment to go to Madison Square Garden and shoot a band, I'd do that, but after that on my own, as a person, I'd go down to CBGB or Max's just to hang out. And, you know, I like staying up late. I like going to clubs and hanging out with people, so that wasn't really an assignment, it was just something I did in my life.
Yeah, you were just kickin' it. So what's your next big project?
Well, in December I have to go do an exhibition that we're putting on in Buenos Aires, sponsored by the American Embassy down there.
Wow! Does it get any bigger than that? I mean, that's huge!
I don't know; it's pretty big. They've done more and more events, but not many people in rock & roll are sponsored by the embassy, that's for sure! But they're starting to come around. I mean, rock & roll is not teenage music. When Bob Dylan played at Newport, I got my first photo pass there, so I was down front when he played with a rock & roll band, so a lot of people were very upset about that. But over the years I've thought about it, and I think what Bob Dylan was doing was kind of making the statement that rock & roll is the folk music of America.
Now we have people like the New York Times recognizing rock & roll; it's part of our culture. A lot of the magazines did not cover rock & roll or rock stars. There were music magazines, but Life magazine or the New York Times didn't really review rock & roll at all. Nowadays, you'll see a review of the Lollapalooza tour or Bonnaroo. We just had the CMJ festival in New York, and there was a big story in the Times about that. It's becoming more and more regular, but I'm old enough to recognize that it didn't happen 20 years ago, 30 years ago. Rock & roll was not a part of mainstream culture.
I just met a CEO of a major corporation the other day, and he was telling me about going out just about every night of the week to some different rock show, and he had this big smile like a teenager. And people who are into rock & roll tend to stay young in feeling. It keeps you excited and alive in a sense.
Well, I was at a rock show until 2:30 a.m. last night, and I can't say that I feel all that excited or alive today...
[Laughs] Well, the next morning is a little difficult, but it is fun at night. I mean, for me rock & roll is about the freedom to express your feelings...loudly. I think that's what people really like about it.
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