We catch up with Bob Gruen – undoubtedly one of the most important living Rock photographers – to pick his brains on stars, shots and social media
Bob Gruen is without a doubt a living legend, albeit one who has spent more time out of the spotlight and behind the lens than in front of it. You likely haven’t heard of him, but you’ve almost certainly seen his work. One of the most prolific rock photographers of the ‘60s and ‘70s – and still producing iconic images to this day – a recent exhibition of some of his most famous photographs (we’re talking stunning shots of Dylan, Bowie, Lennon and many others) has recently gone on display in Shoreditch, for a new show: “Rock Seen”, introducing his talent to a whole new generation of fans: kids who were raised on their parents’ vinyl and the myriad myths and legends that accompanied them.
Gruen’s talent is, as he sees it, to capture each person as they want to be seen, and it’s an attitude that’s clear in each and every photograph, which not only shows the subject aesthetically, but somehow translates their spirit into a still image. He is a master of the portrait and, having spent much of his life working with film, possessed of reams of knowledge about a dying art.
I had the honour of catching up with the man himself to discuss his upbringing by less-than-conventional parents in New York in the ‘50s, his entry into the world of Rock N Roll in the ‘60s, and how things have changed thanks to the advent of social media and digital photography. Plus, you know, some casual anecdotes about John Lennon and Yoko Ono!
How did you get into taking photographs?
Well photography was my mum’s hobby. So when I was very little, about 3 or 4 years old I was too little to go to sleep very early and too little to be left to around the house, so she’d bring me into the darkroom where she was doing her work. So some of my earliest memories are of developing pictures and counting the seconds. By the time I was 8 years old, since my parents realised I already had an interest in photography they gave me my first camera. And pretty soon I became the family photographer, which I think was good training, because trying to get 5 or 6 dysfunctional people all looking good at the same time was good training for a Rock band!
Who were the first band you took photos of?
I lived with a band. When I was growing up Rock photography wasn’t a career goal, so my goal at the time was to turn on, tune in, and drop out – to live with a Rock n Roll band. These guys that I lived with changed names when they changed drummers, but by the end of the ‘60s they were known as the “Glitterhouse”. Just as they were about to break up they were discovered by Bob Crewe, who was an amazing producer, and he did an album for them, and since I’d been living with them and my hobby was photography, I’d been taking photos of them, not as a business, but just, you know, for their publicity as friends – you know, when they played a show they needed a photo to put up outside the place – and the record company started using those photographs, and hiring me for more pictures, and pretty soon every time I went on a job I’d meet more people and they’d ask me to take more pictures and it just kinda went on from there. That’s still pretty much what happens now.
So you’re still taking photos?
Yes, but not as much, because everybody takes pictures. Because what I used to do was news: you’d take some pictures, go home and develop them, find out what you had the next day and make some prints out of that and then send them to a magazine and a week or so later it would get published, and that was news, because people didn’t have the kind of media that we have today. Certainly Rock n Roll wasn’t in the mainstream media in the way it is today. The New York Times would not review a Rock n Roll show. Nowadays they do it all the time. So the fact that everybody is taking pictures now, it changes what’s news because by the time the first song is over there are pictures on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram – it’s not news. So I don’t take pictures the way I used to. But thankfully people like my pictures, and I can have exhibitions like this, with pictures that people will never be able to take again.
They’re really amazing.
There was something exciting that happened in the ‘70s you know, when Rock n Roll was really developing and going through changes, now it’s much more derivative from those origins.
Is there a particular scene that you identify with the most?
Well it’s not something I think of in that way. I think of myself as today. I learn from the past, look to the future and live in the present. That’s what I try to do.
Do you still listen to all those old records? They must hold so many memories for you.
Well I have a huge collection of records and a huge collection of CDs but I mostly listen to what my assistants play. I have a great collection of compilations – I have a good friend in France, Bruno Blum, who makes some amazing compilations of the roots of Black music, the roots of Rock n Roll, like really rocking music, but from 1926-62, so it’s kind of a Punk attitude, but it’s not necessarily Punk bands. But yeah I listen to whatever, I just put it on shuffle. I’ve got The Clash, everybody from Miles Davis to Green Day and The Strypes, and John Coltrane, Fela Kuti – there are some great African compilations Bruno has done.
How did your parents feel about your career path?
Photography to my mum was a hobby. Both of my parents were lawyers, so they were expecting me to go to college and have a profession where you wear a suit and tie. The fact that I just wanted to take pictures, they had no concept of that as a job, that was what you did after work, so for many years the fact that I was living with Rock n Roll bands, the fact that I was getting drunk all the time, they didn’t think I was accomplishing much. It wasn’t until I got my first book published and some of my parents’ friends started commenting on how amazing the photos were that my mother began thinking I’d accomplished something. Then about 8 years ago I had a large exhibit in a museum in Brazil and my mum came down to that and met a Senator and the Mayor of Sao Paolo, and so I was lucky she lived long enough to see me accomplish something. She’s 101 now!
Wow, she must have seen a lot!
Yeah, she’s a strong woman. I mean becoming a lawyer in 1932 she was one of 5 women in a class of 200 men. And the type of woman my mum was she liked to play basketball, so she founded the St John’s University Women’s Basketball team. And she did that by going up to every woman she saw on the campus and asking if they played basketball. One woman became a good friend of my mum’s. My mum went up to her and asked her if she played basketball, and the woman raised her hand, and said “but my hand is deformed.” And my mum said, “I wasn’t asking about your hand, I was asking if you played basketball.” So that’s where I come from.
You’ve literally photographed everyone.
Just about. I didn’t get to photograph Otis Redding.
Who’s the favourite person you’ve taken photos of?
It’s a tough one, like asking who’s your favourite son. I don’t make lists – I have a lot of favourites. I have great experiences everyday, and I don’t want to do any of them over again. Certainly wouldn’t want to get on The Sex Pistols’ bus again, but it was a hell of a lot of fun when I did!
So you went on tour with these guys, it wasn’t just a one-off?
Well it depends, some were just a one off, I’d meet someone for an interview for magazine and I’d see them for twenty minutes. With some people those twenty minutes led to a long conversation and a night of debauchery or whatever, and some I’m still friends with today. I’ve become friends with a lot of the people I’ve worked with. I’m lucky, I’m good with people.
Do you think artists back then were less wary of photographers than they are now?
They were less wary because you couldn’t be as exposed as you can be today and there were fewer photographers around, so people would tend to like it when someone turned up to take a photo of them or write about them for a magazine because that was unusual. Now there’s so much more information out there that people are more careful. But again some people approach photography the way you might approach going to the dentist, they see it as a very painful process, they feel they’re going to be exposed, as though someone’s going to reveal them in a light they don’t want to be seen in. I tend to do the opposite, I like to show somebody the way they want to be seen, and you know, I always made a point to try and show my pictures to the artist and to choose the ones that they liked, because I want them to hire me again!
Given how many of the people you’ve shot are performers, do you ever feel like the image you get is of a performance, or do you think you manage to capture these artists in a candid, honest way?
Well some people are good actors. You see someone like Alice Cooper onstage and he looks like a terrifying monster, and then you meet him backstage and he’s actually very intelligent and personable. Gene Simmons is a monster onstage, but backstage he’s one of the funniest joke-tellers I know! And Ozzy is quite intelligent, and intellectual, which is surprising when you look at his image. Johnny Thunder always used to ask me if I’d read this or that book. He was reading a lot, learning a lot on the tour bus. So some people are very surprising backstage, although other people were very much who they were all the time. Like John Lennon was not acting a part when you met him off camera. He was still telling jokes, he was still being really smart, he didn’t preach about peace or anything, but you talk about the weather, what you’re going to eat, somebody’s new record or something. People ask me how did you become friends with these people, and you know, you like them, they like you, you become friends, it’s a natural process. And fortunately, I seem to be likeable!
Have you ever been awestruck photographing anyone?
Sometimes. I do remember meeting John and Yoko because I’d heard so much about them and I was such a fan, so to get to work with them was incredible. I couldn’t believe I was actually meeting John and Yoko, especially after they contacted me and said they wanted to use one of my pictures, which meant I got to meet them more and more, but I always felt they were John and Yoko and I wasn’t. And I still feel that way today, I still think that Yoko is one of the most amazing women on the planet! You know, people ask me what kind of woman Yoko is, I say she’s the kind of woman John Lennon could marry, and he certainly had his choice. Other than that it wasn’t so much awestruck – I mean meeting Keith Richards, that was like “Oh my God”, but now I see him and he knows my name and says hello which is just incredible, that I can speak to Keith Richards. Meeting Tina Turner, also, because in my wildest dreams I never thought I’d meet Ike and Tina. I saw them play and they were absolutely incredible, and I went to another show and took some pictures. Then I went to see them a few days later, and I took my pictures, because they were playing around New York, and the first time I saw them I thought they were amazing, I was immediately a fan, and when I went back the third time, a friend of mine saw Ike going from one dressing room to another and literally pushed me in front of him and said “show Ike your pictures”, and Ike said “oh my God these are great pictures, come into the dressing room and show these to Tina.” And I was standing there, talking to Tina Turner and she was liking my pictures and that was an awestruck moment, my first. Then he brought me to a record company the following week and I ended up going on the road with them, and a year later my first album cover was a Tina Turner picture. So that’s how I became a star, it was all by accident.
The exhibition is on at the Huntingdon gallery, 28 Redchurch Street, Shoreditch until October 27th.
Words: Maya Hambro