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Rock & Roll Photographer Bob Gruen: A Legend’s Encounters

From John Lennon to Keith Richards, Gruen’s lens captured their spirit and charisma

Bob Gruen @ Inauguracion de su Exposicion Rockers-Monophonicgirl

"Rock and Roll is an innate freedom of self- expression. Never before or since, has there been one singular ability for a musician or group to formulate an impactful blend of raw and emotional responses to the world." The eminent photographer talks about his career.

Bob Gruen and Keith Richards.

The invitation to the photo exhibition ‘keith unfiltered’ as well as the added attraction of hearing Bob Gruen speak of his history with stellar musicians, made it a rare and highly coveted ticket. The Morrison Hotel Gallery described the show as “a group exhibition offering fans a celebratory glimpse into the many ways that Richards’ time-honored artistry has shaped the uncompromising face of rock culture and vice versa”.  After attending this talk at the Morrison Hotel Gallery in Soho, in June, I became intrigued by his  creative range.  A collection of his iconic photos was on exhibit, most focusing on Rolling Stone lead guitarist, Keith Richards.  What evolved was my desire to dig into Gruen’s extraordinary past; getting into the head of this artist to uncover his motives, impetus and background, in order to understand his photographic genius.

Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones kneeling on stage at The Beacon Theatre, NYC. February 1993. © Bob Gruen / www.bobgruen.com

Research connected me to Carol Klenfner, Bob Gruen’s public relations agent. The following is a ‘behind the scenes’ excerpt from our conversation last month.

Who was your earliest role model?

“At age 4 or 5 when I had trouble sleeping, my mother would take me into her dark room to develop her photos.  As a practicing attorney, photography was simply a hobby for her”.

How did this influence your interest in photography?

“Years later, when a career path was suggested, I hadn’t settled on academics as a choice, I began circling NYC’s downtown music scene, following my passion. Although this was not what was expected in the mid-60s as the son of two Great Neck attorneys. They felt that following a career was more stable than following a passion.”

John Lennon on rooftop in New York City. August 29, 1974. © Bob Gruen / www.bobgruen.com

How did your interest in rock and roll lead you to photographing celebrity musicians?

“It was during this time that I began traveling with a rock and roll band, making invaluable connections. Beginning in ’68, with Bob Crewe, whose recording of the soundtrack for the movie, Barbarella, brought him into the limelight. Crewe’s link to the group, the Four Seasons, might spark your memory as a more recognizable connection.  It was at that time that my circle began to expand.”

How did that happen?

“One moment occurred in 1970. I attended an Ike and Tina Turner show at a theater in the round, outside of NYC. What resulted was a desire to return and capture the performance with my Dad’s borrowed Minolta 7 camera.  A well-intentioned friend purposefully pushed me in front of Ike, insisting I show my photos. Ike was duly impressed and insisted on bringing Tina over to view them.”

How did the impact of the music scene shape your destiny as a photographer?

“My thoughts on composing one integral message would be that Rock and Roll is an innate freedom of self- expression. Never before or since, has there been one singular ability for a musician or group to formulate an impactful blend of raw and emotional responses to the world.  Recently, at a show of my work at the List Gallery in Toronto, I was approached by a young man who mentioned that for his thesis (20 years ago) he chose my photos. I was amazed that I had that sort of impact that long ago.”

Who were some legendary photographers who inspired your love for the camera?

To this question, Gruen replied that  to an extent, his early inspirations have been the photographic images of Henri Cartier- Bresson, Man Ray and Weegee.  Weegee’s paparazzi style ‘flashbulb in your face’, may have been an unconscious thought when photographing Rock and Roll’s icons.  One image came to mind as being a clear example of ‘in the moment’, his photo of John Lennon in a sleeveless NYC tee shirt. Furthermore, the shot of Tina Turner at the Felt Forum,  was the one that changed his approach. The photo was shot in multiple exposure, an influence set by Man Ray.

Tina Turner multiple image on stage at the Honka Monka Club, NYC. July 8, 1970. © Bob Gruen / www.bobgruen.com

Is there one moment that stood out for you in your luminous career?

“It’s hard picking one stand-out moment. I’ve spent time with people like John Lennon, Debbie Harry, Yoko Ono, Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Patti Smith. Two moments that should be mentioned are Chuck Berry performing on a flat- bed truck, and having Joe Strummer, co-founder of The Clash, crash on my sofa.”

How does the mood of the subject affect your approach?

After due reflection, Bob suggested that when photographing an artist such as Keith Richards, the vibe he brings to the shoot is his own brand of nonchalance.  It’s in his well-carved face that his tales of sin and wicked take on life are revealed.  He shoots what he sees, while capturing the mood of the subject. Richard’s devil-may-care attitude is visible in every print.  Bob remembers that at the time, in the 80’s, Keith was entering a spiritual realm. He seemed to have come into his own. His marriage to Patti Hansen, could have contributed to that. Whatever the reason, it would be safe to say that Keith stands alone.  And to add to his depth, Keith is also a voracious reader.

What makes these legends stand out from other celebrities?

“The difference between most common folk, and rock stars is simply charisma. There is absolutely nothing cute about Muddy Waters! “

How has politics entered your realm and how has it informed your work?

“It was people like Pete Seeger, Buffalo Springfield, The Clash and more currently, Green Day, who speak openly about social and political reform.  A message deeply needed in today’s world.  A book on Green Day that I’m currently working on, along with an album by the group, will be coming out in the Fall.”

Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones during an interview for the “Night Flight” TV show in NYC. February 1984. © Bob Gruen / www.bobgruen.com

The 1960s was a decade of profound beginnings and endings.  It was the dawning of Aquarius, the end of innocence, and the beginning of a new age. Kudos to Bob Gruen for capturing so many of these moments through his photographic lens.  His is a legacy to be saved for posterity, and I was honored to be able to chat with him about it.

Bob Gruen’s work is currently on exhibit at the Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey, including 75 images of some of rock and roll’s most legendary performers, displayed in 2 rooms.  Through Nov. 10, 2019

In addition to his photographic body of work,  Bob has written 15 books, and is currently working on his biography.

Special thanks to Carol Klenfner for coordinating this interview.

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