When it comes to rock and roll photography, Bob Gruen is one of the greatest of all time. From his seminal portrait of John Lennon on a New York roof to his picture of Johnny Thunders and David Johanson perched on a trash can outside Frederick’s of Hollywood, Gruen’s thoughtfully composed portraits and energetic performance shots go far beyond the glamour of celebrity to reveal an intoxicating look at the humanity, creativity, and originality.
The consummate insider, Gruen charted the history of rock and roll at its peak — and has the stories to prove it. In the new book, Right Place, Right Time: The Life of a Rock & Roll Photographer, Gruen takes us on a whirlwind trip through his extraordinary life, sharing the behind-the-scenes stories of his seminal photographs. Embracing the spirit and soul of rock and roll at its very core, Gruen’s work is about freedom at its most pure.
Self-expression isn’t just what you say — it is also where and when you choose to tell the story. This can require you to travel off the beaten path and make a way for yourself. “To be independent, you wake up every day unemployed. It takes a lot to strike out on your own and not listen to your parents or get a job just because it’s comfortable and pays the rent — but to actually be in a situation where you can’t pay the rent and your phone gets cut off. But that’s okay because you’re pursuing what you want to do,” says Gruen, who started making and selling photos at the age of 11 while at summer camp.
Gruen got his start as a music photographer by being friends with the bands, and could readily provide them with promotional images for their projects. Through the bands he’d meet record label publicists, who liked his work and would connect him with new talent — such as a young piano player out of England who went by the name Elton John — who needed photographs. Gruen was just the guy for the job. “I was living the lifestyle, staying up late at night, listening to new records when they came out, and going to shows,” he says. “It was natural to me — I wasn’t a journalist who had a job working for a newspaper and assigned to cover the new scene at CBGB. I was there with my friends, and found people who wanted to publish the pictures I was taking.”
When Bob Gruen arrived in New York City in 1965, music journalism was in its infancy. Photography was by and large limited to album covers and concert posters. “The music was everywhere on the radio. You could hear it but to know who the band was, in the sense of seeing what they looked like — there were no music video, internet, and teen magazines like 16 and Hit Parade. That’s why the Beatles were so different — they actually went into the mainstream media, but most other bands did not,” he says.
“There was much less media and photography wasn’t something everyone could do. It required having a camera, which was an expensive piece of equipment, and knowing how to operate it, develop the pictures, get them done on time, and deliver them. There weren’t many photographers in the music business because there wasn’t much income – it wasn’t like the fashion business or advertising.”
With the November 1967 launch of Rolling Stone, all that would begin to change as a new generation of journalists and photographers gave music the same respect accorded to politics, culture, and art. Image and sound went hand in hand, as they both conveyed elements of style integral to a new generation letting its voice be heard on the global stage. “A lot of people bought records based on the album cover. They saw something that looked entirely different from anything they had seen before and they wanted to take it home and find out what it was,” Gruen says. “A lot of people brought the record back because they didn’t like it!”
Working Class Hero
On July 8, 1970, Gruen, then 24, caught the legendary R & B duo, Ike and Tina Turner, at the Honka Monica Club in New York and watched as Tina moved like a “whirling tornado” under the strobe light. Thinking on his feet, Gruen decided to open the camera for a one second exposure, and let Tina and the strobes do the rest. The result was a multiple exposure of Tina Turner that evokes the spirit of Marcel Duchamp’s 1912 painting, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2. Two nights later, Gruen went out to New Jersey to see them perform again and showed the prints to graphic designer Judy Rosen, who in turn encouraged Gruen to show them to Ike.
Ike was impressed, introduced him to Tina, offered to buy the photos and take him to meet with United Artists, the record company. Gruen met Marv Greifinger, the publicist, who purchased 10 prints for $75. Realizing publicists were the true gatekeepers, Gruen built relationships with them, which in turn expanded his reach — as did maintaining a direct line with the artists themselves.
“Artists were much more open to meeting people back then. I mean I didn’t have access to Frank Sinatra but I saw Richie Havens on the street in the Village, talked to him and gave him a picture,” Gruen says. Some people, like Bob Dylan, I couldn’t really reach but bands like the Clash made a point of meeting people in public. They would let all their fans come into the dressing room and talk to them. That’s how I met them. Joe Strummer would stay up until dawn not just talking to the fans but asking them what their life was like and what the songs meant to them. Joe was constantly listening.”
In the book, Gruen shares memories of the Clash on tour with Bo Diddley, the blues turned rock pioneer whose soulful contributions to the form earned him the title of “The Originator.” The Clash, keen to work with an icon, agreed to take less money to have him on tour — so that even though Bo was the supporting act, he was getting paid more. This level of integrity is pervasive throughout the book; Gruen didn’t photograph stars, he aligned himself with like minded artists.
Strawberry Fields Forever
On the night John Lennon was killed, Bob Gruen was in the darkroom, developing pictures he had made two days before of John and Yoko Ono for the Village Voice. Lennon’s senseless murder shocked New York, a city that had already been through a financial crisis. Officials understood the massive outpouring of grief, and organized a memorial at the Central Park bandshell. American concert promoter Ron Delsener helped organize the event and asked Gruen to supply one photograph for the poster.
Gruen chose the portrait he made on August 29, 1974 — where Lennon sports a sleeveless New York City t-shirt and sunglasses, arms crossed, on a Manhattan rooftop, which had originally been conceived as a publicity photo for the Walls and Bridges album. Gruen explains in the book that he selected this image after Ono took out a full page ad in the New York Times to say, “Please don’t blame New York for John’s death—what happened could have happened anywhere.”
Although Lennon remained British to his core, stiffening at the idea of renouncing his citizenship, New York was his adopted home, just as it was Gruen’s, and millions others. As Gruen describes what it means to be a New Yorker, his words apply equally to his art. “There’s a certain amount of common sense about New Yorkers. You’re able to see a situation, grasp it quickly, go with the flow, and make the best of it. There’s an acceptance of reality and you move on,” he says.
“Being in New York you get involved with so many things, and because it’s a 24-hour city, things are constantly going on. You get really tense after awhile as the pressure builds, so one of my favorite things was to get on a plane, fly out of the city and see the Empire State building drift off in the distance behind me, knowing I was going somewhere on an adventure and it’s going to be exciting. That was one of the best things I could do. And second only to that was when I came out of the sky and saw the Empire State Building, knowing I was finally back home.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
Right Place, Right Time: The Life of a Rock & Roll Photographer by Bob Gruen is published by Abrams Press, £13.99, $32.50.