Hidden Archive, RVM #09
Name: Bob Gruen
Date and place of birth: New York City, U.S.A., 1945
First camera: Kodak Brownie Hawkeye
Last picture taken: Bruce Springsteen at his birthday concert in New Jersey, on September 22, 2012
• I LEARNED PHOTOGRAPHY FROM MY MOTHER, an attorney, who enjoyed developing and printing her own pictures. She took me into her darkroom when I was four years old and gave me my first camera when I was eight. Soon I became the family photographer, which I always thought was good practice for what I eventually ended up doing because rock bands are very much like families.
• MY PARENTS GAVE ME A KODAK BROWNIE HAWKEYE CAMERA FOR MY EIGHT BIRTHDAY, and for my 13th birthday I got a Kodak Pony II 35mm camera. The first camera I bought was a 4×5 sheet film Crown Graphic (so I would look professional). I was using my Dad’s Minolta when I started to photograph musicians, and as soon as I could I bought a Nikon F. I found the Nikon very strong but heavy and when Olympus came out with the OM series I used them from 1975 until 1990 when Canon came out with the very high quality EOS system. In 2000 I switched to the Canon 5D Mark II digital system and that’s what I use now.
• THERE ARE MANY PHOTOGRAPHERS THAT WERE IMPORTANT TO ME, but I have been influenced particularly by Man Ray (for making art with photography), Henri Cartier Bresson (for catching the decisive moment) and Arthur Fellig, known as Wee Gee (who was always in the right place at the right time).
• AFTER HIGH SCHOOL I LIVED WITH THE GLITTERHOUSE, a group of friends who formed a rock’n’roll band. When they got a record deal the company used the photos I’d taken of the mand started to hire me to shoot other bands. That’s how I approached the music photography. After that one thing just led to another. I’ve always been open to photographing anything, but most of my contacts were in the music business.
• ROCK ‘N’ROLL PHOTOGRAPHY IS NOT EASY. The subjects and the lightning are constantly moving, so you have to react very fast. It helps if you like music, since you’ll be very close to very loud music! And it helps if you can get along with people who think they are the center of the universe. I think a large part of rock’n’roll is “haircut and attitude”. I find that when people tell me about a band I often want to see what they look like before I listen to their music. Many times photography is a job that I do to pay my rent, I don’t have to like a band to be able to photograph them. I try to work as closely as I can with the members of the band to capture the image they want. I generally like to help them express their image as they see themselves. Every night when I came out from a concert I would always be thinking about the moments I missed.
• I WISH I WOULD HAVE BEEN ABLE TO PHOTOGRAPH OTIS REDDING. I have met many musicians over the years. During my career I’ve traveled the world from New York, to Paris, London, Moscow, Berlin, Tokyo, Mexico and Sao Paulo and I’ve made friends with many great, interesting artists and seen some really good live music shows. I first traveled with the Ike and Tina Turner group and got a great education in show business. I’ve had some great times with John Lennon and Yoko Ono who always kept me laughing. Then I met the New York Dolls and spent many nights drinking and going out all over town with them. I went across the USA with the Clash on their bus three times, and also went across the country with the Sex Pistols. More recently I’ve been spending time with Green Day who are also really fun guys to hang out with.
• THERE IS NO ONE WAY “TO BECOME FRIENDS WITH SOMEONE”, it’s always a natural process that either happens or it doesn’t, either you get along or you don’t, in my case I get along with a lot of people. I met John Lennon & Yoko Ono through an interview about their backing band the Elephants Memory Band. I took some photos of them together with the band which they liked and used in the package for the album “Sometime in New York City”. They lived around the corner from me in Greenwich Village and they asked me to come to the studio often to photograph them. Soon we became friends and I am still friends with Yoko today.
• JOHN LENNON ASKED ME TO COME TO HIS APARTMENT to take portrait photos for the cover of his Walls And Bridges album. He wanted it done in a quick and simple way that wouldn’t interrupt his recording schedule. We went out on the apartment’s rooftop terrace, I put white paper on the wall and we shot the series of portraits. Then John suggested we take some more pictures to use for publicity. After we had taken a few pictures I remembered that I had given him a NYC shirt one year earlier, and I suggested that with the skyline of NY around us it would be a good idea if he could put the shirt on. I was surprised that he knew exactly where it was and he quickly put it on and we did the series of photos. We had no idea they would become as well known as they have.
• MY APPROACH HASN’T CHANGED VERY MUCH AT ALL. I like to photograph musicians and artists in their natural settings and capture their personalities as they like to be seen. That hasn’t changed at all, the biggest change is that I use digital equipment as opposed to last century’s film equipment. But I’ve always been more interested in image rather than the technique that creates it. I go out all the time to see live music mostly played by my friends and I still enjoy taking pictures of them.
• THE WORLD CHANGES EVERY DAY. I’M JUST VERY HAPPY TO BE A PART OF THE CHANGES. I never expected things to stay the same. Photography used to be much more complicated…figuring out the exposure and speed to set the camera then developing the film and making prints. It was easier to control the use of the photos when there were only a few prints made of each one, but now digital photos are reproduced around the world in minutes. And no one seems to want to pay for the use of photos which of course makes it hard to make a living. Luckily for me, I can put on exhibits, give talks, sell signed prints and publish books of my work so I can still pay myrent.