Daniel Alonso reports, “I had the opportunity to chat with the legendary music photographer in his apartment/studio overlooking the West Side Highway to discuss his career, famous friends like John Lennon and how Flickr is slowly destroying the art of photography.”
Daniel Alonso: As I was doing my research, I found you got your first camera, a Kodak Brownie Hawk Eye, at the age of eight. What are you first memories of photography?
Bob Gruen: Well, my mom’s hobby was photography. She used to develop and print her own pictures, so I got into it kind of early on. When I was eleven I took pictures of the other kids at summer camp. I sent my pictures home to my mom and she developed them for me and sent them back. That’s when I first started selling pictures, back to the campers.
What was it that initially drew you in? Was it the business aspect?
I just enjoyed moving around. When I see a show I don’t like sitting in my seat.
I like to take pictures and tell people about the show. I don’t know, it was a natural feeling, like when I am at a show I have the urge to take pictures. It was like storytelling.
As you then pursued photography, was there a moment when you knew what you were doing was more than just a hobby?
I never knew that. I didn’t really picture my life. Nowadays, people make career decisions early on but you have to remember, I was more of the generation who “tuned in, turned on and dropped out.”
And plus back then you couldn’t go to school to be a “rock” photographer?
Absolutely not. You couldn’t go to school to be a rock anything. Rock and roll was not accepted as a subject. It is still barely a subject.
Do you remember who your first music-related subject was?
My friends formed a band called the Justice League and that was the first group that I photographed. Over the next couple years, they went through different drummers and names and they ended up being called The Glitter House, this was about 1969 or so. I had been photographing them over the years so when they made an album as The Glitter House, the record company used my pictures for publicity. Since they liked them, they started to hire me for other jobs. One thing led to another and I started meeting more people. It was around 1970 that I started working in the business.
Shortly thereafter you became chief photographer for Rock Scene magazine. Can you explain what that was that like?
Rock Scene gave us access to a lot of things although it was actually kind of like a hobby, it wasn’t an ongoing business; we didn’t have an office that we ever went to. It only came out three or four times a year so it was basically seasonal. I would get all the pictures I had taken over the last few months and send them up to Richard Robinson and Lenny Kaye; they would write captions and put the magazine together. Richard’s wife Lisa basically organized all the things that we did with major groups. The thing about Rock Scene was that there were a lot of little groups that sent in pictures, groups that were unsigned. This was much more difficult in the ‘70s to make your own records but some groups did or at least they made their own gigs and publicity and they sent in pictures and Rock Scene would print groups of pictures of unknown bands.
It sounds like it was more of a D.I.Y. publication than music magazine?
It was very much like a glorified fanzine. We had very little advertising because we had no sales staff. Since none of us were getting paid we weren’t doing it to make money. But because of Lisa’s connections and the rest of us, we did major bands — Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and Kiss and Alice Cooper.
So it was really through Lisa’s connections that got you access to the superstars of the day?
Lisa Robinson was a columnist for the New York Post and her column was syndicated in 175 newspapers around the world, including NME in England. She was a very powerful, and still is a very powerful person in the music business who could connect with just about anybody and did on a regular basis. We saw all the bands; saw all the parties and got a lot of private interviews.
How did shooting established bands in those days differ from shooting up and coming acts?
Well back then there was in some ways more access as people didn’t have as much legal restrictions on taking pictures of bands. There weren’t nearly as many outlets — magazines or newspapers — that were interested in rock and roll so bands were more open in working with someone to get publicity. Now a band can just put themselves on MySpace or Facebook and people around the world can see them. Back then there was no way of doing that at all. It was only a few magazines that even carried rock and roll. Things like Life magazine or Look or even The New York Times, they didn’t cover rock. If the Rolling Stones played New York, it wasn’t reviewed in The New York Times. It was rock and roll and therefore didn’t matter. Nowadays, you’ll see that The New York Times will review a show at [the venue] Terminal 5 or a crummy club out in Brooklyn because the music is more a part of the culture now. Back then it was still considered a teenage fad that would pass away.
With regards to the downtown New York scene, you said that you didn’t feel you were necessarily documenting the people because you were one of those people.
What did submersing yourself in that lifestyle do you for you?
It wasn’t a conscious decision. Like I say, “tune in, turn on and drop out.” You know, I didn’t decide I was going to become a rock and roll photographer. There was no such word, “rock and roll photographer”. It wasn’t a job description and in fact for many years you didn’t make much money. I don’t know why anyone would make that job description if they had the opportunity. [laughs.] These kind of things, looking back, it wasn’t really a choice. I couldn’t work 9am – 5pm because I couldn’t get up in the morning. I enjoyed hanging out all night with bands. I was barely getting by from check to check by taking pictures of them but I kept doing it. People now seem to look more carefully, think about the future and make decisions based on where they want to be and what they want to do. Back then we had no future and we accepted it lustfully. It was be here and now. The world was going to hell and nobody thought they could own a house or have insurance or a nice car. I was pretty lucky because I had a used car but only because I couldn’t afford any other kind of transportation. [laughs.]
One thing that differs now in the digital age is that you almost need little skill or education to shoot live bands as you have the luxury to stop, look at your image, edit in camera, etc. How were you able to capture live acts so successfully in the days of film?
It’s funny, somebody asked me the other day if there were more photographers now that everybody has a camera in their pocket and I said there are a lot more people taking pictures now but not really more photographers. There is more to getting a good photograph than just holding up a camera and pushing the button. There are things like proportion in a photograph, there is timing, there is cropping, etc. It is not just clicking anything; it’s getting the right moment. But yeah, photography used to be a much more nerdy kind of thing because you had to know how to operate the machinery of a camera. You had to know how to focus, what f/stops were and how to set them, how the speed matters and changes different pictures. Now all that is done automatically so it is much more open to more people taking photos. But it’s a question of if they are thinking of what the photo is going to look like and making conscious decisions or just snapping just to say, “I was there.” Just because someone uploads 127 pictures up on Flickr doesn’t mean that any of them are good. I think that is really a problem with people posting everything to Flickr and other sites, people don’t edit. My advice is to take a lot of pictures. If you take a lot of pictures, you get a couple of good ones and people think you’re very good. But if you show it all, people are going to see too many bad ones. I mean, if I shot a roll of pictures, if one or two of the pictures were good, then that was a good roll. I didn’t like to show my contact sheets. I don’t want people to see thirty-three bad pictures. I rather just show two good ones that people would like. The trouble with putting everything up these days is that it’s overkill. Why do you need 127 pictures of the exact same thing when 125 of them are bad? Why don’t you just post two good pictures?
When you were given assignments to shoot bands, did you go into it with a specific concept in mind or did you prefer a more spontaneous style of shooting?
I usually didn’t think of an idea beforehand. Sometimes an art director would give me an assignment and say this is what we want it to look like. Usually, I just show up and do the best I can in the circumstances with whomever I’m working with. It was more of collaboration with the group. I like to know what they like to look like. My pictures tend to look natural because I don’t pose the people. I really let them do what they normally do and then I just try to capture them looking good doing it.
I think that one thing that set you apart from many other photographers was that you created a relaxed atmosphere with the people you were working with. That comfort level with your subjects evolved into some long lasting friendships. Did you know that would get you a better photo by creating a laidback environment?
Knowing your subjects helps you get better pictures because you spend a lot more time with them. You can be around when there is good lighting and good moments happening. But I don’t know if the pictures are necessarily better just from hanging out. I think that part of what I did is that I was good at taking pictures to begin with. I just had a natural understanding of what a picture should look like with proportions and knowing what looks good and what doesn’t.
Apart from making them feel comfortable though, I get the sense the famous people you were shooting knew you weren’t going to take advantage of them?
Yes, they knew I wasn’t going to embarrass them. I was in it for the long run. I liked to be liked. If I take somebody’s picture, I want to be able to come back and do it again. I don’t want to just get a quick shot one night to embarrass somebody. I always saw these musicians, even famous ones, as people. I had an agent once who used see them as if they were some kind of different species. To him, it didn’t matter if you embarrassed them, especially if you were making a couple dollars off of it. To me, that’s a horrible way to make a living by embarrassing people. I always related to it personally. I myself wouldn’t want to be embarrassed. I would think of what it would mean to see yourself in an awkward situation or to lose your marriage because someone snapped a shot of you with a girl you happened to be talking to that was misinterpreted.
Still, was there anyone you worked with that you were in awe of?
Sure, there were still some people you were kind of starstruck by. I got to be friends with John Lennon but every time I was with him, I always knew I was in the presence of John Lennon and that was pretty fucking special. He was a unique and amazing person and I always felt very lucky I was able to know him. A couple of other people I knew were like that too. At the same time I never forgot John was a normal human being and had normal feelings so we could get along on that level. It’s not like you completely forget that these people are famous and with good reason.
A lot of people in my generation are guilty of looking back at New York City as this mystifying place that encouraged radical artistic expression, decades before mass gentrification. What was it do you think that the city had, or didn’t have, that made it the birthplace for such movements like the ones you documented?
I think it still is an inviting place. I recently met a college student who came to New York and she just can’t get enough and a lot of other people feel the same way. That is why New York is full of tourists. It’s a special place, a cool place, still is. We don’t have CBGB’s but at the time, we didn’t know it was CBGB’s. It was just some dump downtown. It wasn’t a world destination. We got a hundred dumps out in Brooklyn now where you can go out and have fun every night. There was a time in the 70’s I suppose when it was really special, kind of like Paris in the 20’s, which was a place and time I always wanted to go to. Now people wish they could have been in New York in the 70’s. But you can only be where you are. I never got to Paris in the 20’s but managed to have fun anyway. It is just kind of sad to me when people come up to me, and they do all the time and say, “I was born too late.” Well, what the fuck are you doing with yourself? Why don’t you go out and have fun? In the 70’s we weren’t wishing we were around in the 50’s. Kerouac, Ginsberg . . . we weren’t wishing we were one of them. It would have been nice to see what was going on but you know in the 70’s, it wasn’t like everybody knew that it was a special time. Mostly, people were standing around going “what are you doing tonight?” “I don’t know, what are you doing tonight?” “Well I heard Debbie (Harry) is playing at Max’s.” “Yeah, let’s go over there.” It was no big deal, you know? Most of the people standing around at Max’s (Kansas City) were bored shitless. Why do you think they were taking drugs and drinking so much? They weren’t happy, they weren’t successful and weren’t feeling good. Is that a special time to look back at and wish you were there? I don’t think so. [laughs.] It’s just a different world now. People think they can stay home and communicate on Facebook and have loads of friends that they don’t even know. Some guy came up to me in the lobby last night and said [sarcastic tone.] “I’m your friend on Facebook” and I’m looking at him and thinking I don’t even know you. That’s not a friend, just because you send some sentences back and forth. Meeting and touching is more important than having online friends. You have to get out of your house. Go meet people and be somewhere. You can’t go to CBGB’s online. Well, actually now a days that’s the only way to go. [laughs.] But you can’t go to a club online and meet somebody online. It’s a different kind of world. People are afraid to go out. People think they are going to run into a bombing or a disease or something. They rather just stay home and be safe; but nobody is ever safe anyway. It’s a different world that people have to negotiate and travel in. It is not for me to figure out how to work this modern world. It’s also not for me to complain about. Things change and I expect things to change. I’m just delighted to be alive. Most of my friends didn’t live to see this change.
You are vocal about not being too nostalgic and looking ahead to the future. What does it mean for you to follow current music and photograph more modern acts like Green Day for example?
Well I’m not dead. [laughs.] I have to do something everyday that amuses and entertains me. Sitting around listening to old Clash records doesn’t do it. I like to listen to a Clash record on the way to see Green Day, that’s a little more interesting. And Green Day is a fantastic band and they are alive and they are in touch with the moment and I like that. I always liked going out and doing things. I didn’t set out to create a chronicle. I set out to have a life; the chronicle came with it. I’ll go out and see two or three groups a night now. There are still a lot of things to see out there but I don’t seek out new bands. I mostly see my friends or things I am invited to.
Your work has been exhibited all around the world – from Brazil to Japan. Music fans appear to be more passionate about American rock and roll then their counterparts here in the States. Do you find your international fans respond differently to your work?
Well I was lucky I made a point of developing international contacts. For one thing, magazines paid so little for photos so I needed several outlets to pay my expenses. In Japan certainly they appreciate photography as an art more and artists in general are appreciated a lot more as if an artists are people who have talent. In America, artists are generally considered dropouts who don’t want to do any other real job. In other countries, like Japan and France, artists are respected. I like being in those places but I am getting a lot of respect in America now. It seems every time I go out now, someone comes out of the crowd to shake my hand and thank me for what I have done. That is something I never expected. Photographers were never really recognized, it’s only recently that people are making a point how much photos influenced what was going on. Photography brought rock and roll to people and it was how they received it, learned and understood it. It wasn’t just the music. Sure, you heard the music on the radio but people have a natural curiously of who’s doing it and what they look like. The photographs convey the attitude of rock and roll. It wasn’t just the beat; half of rock and roll was the image. It was an attitude of confidence and freedom that comes across in the pictures.
Within the last couple years, you had your “Rockers” exhibition, the photo-collage installation at MOMA and most recently the “Who Shot Rock and Roll” show currently at the Brooklyn Museum. Looking back at your life and career, how does that make you feel?
Vindicated; I wasn’t wrong. After all these years I am finally getting recognized. Back in the day, you know, your family thinks your wasting your life and you pretty much agree. Most of my mom’s life she thought I was a failure because being recognized in the world of rock and roll didn’t matter. There were many times I doubted what I was doing and thought I should drive a cab or be a short order cook. Finally, major museums of the world recognize your work. Looking back at history, that’s the way it was for a lot of artists who created something new. When Andy Warhol first put out his Brillo boxes and silver balloons, he was considered a clown. It was absolute not art whatsoever. Now he’s considered the master and a genius and a person who basically invented the future. To be vindicated after a lifetime of being on the outside . . . it feels great.
“Who Shot Rock and Roll: A Photographic History, 1955 to the Present”
On view through January 31, 2010 at the Brooklyn Museum
(Interview originally appeared on Juxtapoz Magazine online, December 10, 2009)