Rock n' Roll Photographers - Bob Gruen

Last month I was invited to a screening of "Rock Seen", a documentary about rock n’ roll photographer Bob Gruen.  A New York City boy, Bob has been photographing musicians for over 40 years.  In 2011,  many of his iconic images were compiled into a beautiful anthology of his career in the book Rock Seen that accompanies the film.  He has worked with countless music legends such as Mick Jagger, Tina Tuner, The Clash, Blondie, New York Dolls and the list goes on and on.  In the early 70s he developed a very close friendship with John Lennon and was the man behind the legendary photo of John in the New York City t-shirt.

What strikes me most about Bob's work is the intimacy he has with his subjects.  Having toured with bands myself for many years he has a similar point of view and is able to capture them in private moments that most people do not get to witness.  It is one thing to see a musician in their element on stage, but it is the behind the scenes photographs that are closer to my heart because they capture the essence of who his subjects really are.

I was honoured to have a chat with Bob last week about how he works and the stories behind some of my favourite photographs he has given us.  

CB:  We have both spent a lot of time behind the scenes with famous rock stars. We were the "flies on the wall", so to speak.   What was your key to making yourself a fly on the wall or invisible so you could get the intimate shots - or were the musicians you shot so comfortable with you that you didn’t need to?

BG: I don’t bother people.  Think about where you are, what situation you are in, and not to control it but just to observe it. 

CB:  Like I am sure many of the bands you shot did, do you have a pre show ritual?

BG:  I sometimes had a beer.

CB:  Live shows are very unpredictable, how do you get the perfect shot?

BG:  Its different every time. You don’t always get the perfect shot.  And although I have gotten the shot, most times I walk out at the end of the evening and think about the ones I missed.  You almost got something.   You really have to anticipate what is going to come up , and where you will have to be to get the best view so you have to move around a lot.    You have to understand the music and the show so you can anticipate what is going to happen and be aware of what is going to be the good moments.  I am a fan of rock n’ roll so I tend to have more of a feeling of what is going on and what is important to express what is going on.

CB:  Are you a fan of the band before you shoot them?

BG:  Not necessarily.  I am a fan of anyone who will pay me.

CB:  How have you learned to quickly read the mood of the artist you are assigned to shoot. Do you have have general rules on how to feel them out?

BG:  I get along with people.  I can empathize with other people's point of view and I try to see the situation from different sides.

CB:  Is there anyone in the past or present you didn’t get to shoot and wish you did?

BG:  Otis Redding.  When I started photographing he was already gone so I didn’t get a chance to meet him. 

Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop

CB:  My favourite line in the movie was Iggy describing Debbie Harry as a “world class set of bones”.   She had killer personal style in the 70s and on my blog this month she was the first Rock Style Icon I featured.  Knowing her personally what is the special something she has and how would you describe her allure?

BG:  It’s hard to describe what charisma is, some people have it and others don’t.  And some people just know how to put themselves together and she’s just got a classically perfect look.  Her wide face, her expressive eyes and she has a very New Jersey girl rock n roll attitude.

Joe Strummer and Gaby

CB:  This is the most romantic rock n’ roll picture I have ever seen.  I don’t know the story behind this image....can you tell me about it?

BG:  Joe was a very romantic guy, so you don’t have to set up something like that you just have to wait around and capture it.  The car he is leaning on is my ’54 Buick Special which kind of gives it that rock n’ roll car look.  It was during a day that Don Letts was filming The Clash in June of ’81 and during that time I was driving Don around a lot during the days we were filming.  We were down at the Battery overlooking the Hudson River and at one point during the break Joe just leaned over and kissed Gaby and it is a very rock n’ roll moment to me.  There is that Chrissie Hynde song “You Got Me Flat on my Back of a Cadillac” and it is that kind of feeling.

Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious

CB: This image makes me laugh out loud.  I can’t believe you were able to catch this exact moment, it is classic.  Where were you traveling from and to on that flight?  Did this little girl have any idea who they were? 

BG:  London to Radio Luxembourg.  It was at about 8 in the morning, they were probably having a vodka orange and they were happy.  We always wondered who the little girl is, she would be in her 40s by now.  It was a funny day.  They were just rock n’ roll musicians with attitude but the public reacted to them quite strongly.  

Mick Jagger, John Lennon and Yoko Ono

CB:  I can only imagine the energy in this room and what a glorious moment it must have been to see two of the most influential music legends ever have a moment of creativity. 

BG:  They had a good time together.  It was very late at night, early in the morning and I had been spending a lot of time hanging out with John and Yoko at the Record Plant in New York.  The nights typically went late but that night I think I had gone home around 3 in the morning and just as I got home I got a call from the road manager to come back because Mick Jagger was on his way over. John and Yoko were really happy to see him, like they were really greeting an old friend they knew well.  For awhile John and Mick and Tex Gabriel were going over some guitar lines.  Meanwhile Yoko had written a song and they sat down at the piano and they were playing one of Yoko’s songs called “Is Winter Here to Stay” and they are obviously having a good time.

Tina Turner

CB:  This image is a dream to me.  The texture, the movement, the power of this woman.  You said you captured the picture by luck.  She was dancing in front of the strobe light and you opened the camera up to one second exposure and let the strobe flashes expose the film....and with that magic happened.  Do you still pinch yourself sometimes when you look at it?

BG:  It is one of my better pictures.  It is five images in one picture.  Yeah it’s so perfect.  It captures all of that energy and I joke with people that I am like that and you do what I did and I will do what Tina did.  Obviously we have never been able to come close because nobody could do what Tina did.

A few of Bob's favourite things:

What is your favourite city:  New York
Where is your favourite place to people watch:  Avenue Square, West Village
What would be your city soundtrack if you were walking through the streets:  the sounds of the city

To learn more about Bob and view his catalog go to 

All images copyright Bob Gruen.

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