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An Interview With Bob Gruen

By Gary Wien

originally published: 01/18/2015
Few photographers are as synonymous with rock and roll as Bob Gruen who has been documenting the rock scene for over 40 years. His work will be on display at Art629 Gallery in Asbury Park now through February 28 through an exhibition that encompasses a new edition of oversize framed silkscreens of classic photographs of rock greats John Lennon, Led Zeppelin, Mick Jagger, and Debbie Harry, the result of a collaboration between Bob Gruen and Gary Lichtenstein Editions, along with more than 40 photographs of Bruce Springsteen, The Clash, The Ramones, Kiss, and many more.

Gruen will also make a special appearance at the gallery on February 7 from 7pm to 10pm to sign copies of his books Rock Seen and the recently released See Hear Yoko. Books will be available for purchase at the gallery and the event is open to the public.

New Jersey Stage spoke with Gruen about the exhibit and his career which first began in 1965 when he shot his first concert photos at the Newport Folk Festival. He talked his way into getting a photo pass so he could be down front to see Bob Dylan. That was the night Dylan first went electric and it launched the career of a photographer that would go on to shoot some of the most memorable photos in rock and roll history. Gruen's photographs have been exhibited around the world and are in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London.

When you first started out, did you ever imagine you would have your work seen around the world and in places like the National Portrait Gallery?
No, I was hoping to take a couple of good pictures of my friends. I had no idea that people would appreciate them and that they would get so far that they'd end up in a gallery.

I had my first exhibit in 1972, so I have been exhibiting for a while but it's taken quite a while for the art form to reach this level. It's more than pop celebrity portraits, it's capturing the feeling and excitement of what's going on. It's kind of a cultural history at this point.

When you see thousands of people take photos at a concert on their cell phones, does it ever worry you about the future of rock photography?
Well, I don't shoot like I used to because so many people are taking their own pictures that there's less demand for the kind of work I used to do. And there's a lot more people taking good pictures as well, it's not all just bad cell phone pictures. It's become quite a popular goal as a profession.

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I think there's a future for rock photography because I think there's a future for rock and roll. As long as there's rock and roll, people will want to see you and see what people look like. Photography is growing exponentially these days. It's exploded now that it's so much easier to make a photo. It used to be very difficult, carrying around equipment and figuring out all of the math involved with F-stops and film speeds, developing it, and printing it. It was a lot harder than just pushing a button and having the computer and the camera do everything for you.

Now that it's easier, a lot more people are doing it and a lot of them are pretty good. It depends. Some people are just pushing a button to get a picture, but others are thinking about what they're doing; composing it and trying to get the right moment. It's a pet peeve of mine that people will take 200 pictures at an event and then put all 200 up on their website or whatever feed they put it on. I think people should take a lot of pictures — that way they're bound to get a couple of good ones — but if they just put the good ones up people will think they're good rather than if they put up 200 pictures and try to have people find the good ones.

What do you think of people who sort of combine art forms by taking photos and then utilizing after effects to alter the shots?
The digital effects have made it much easier, but people have always been doing that with pictures. They used to do it with a pencil or an air brush. Cut and paste used to mean you cut something out and pasted it on something else!

What about all of the great clubs like CBGB's closing in New York City over the last decade?
Well, things change and I'm glad to be alive to see the change. There are some great clubs for their time that are no longer here because their time is no longer here. But I think there's probably twenty times as many clubs now say in Brooklyn or around New York than there were in the seventies when there were two or three clubs. So, those two or three originators are gone but they've left two or three hundred around. I mean, there's plenty of places to go and plenty of bands to see.

Each generation needs their own scene, don't they?
Yeah, I mean I didn't go to the Stork Club and I wouldn't actually want to go back to CBGBs today with that same crowd. Things change and I don't have nostalgia for the past. It was fun to do it, but I wouldn't want to go back to it.

When I hear your name I instantly think of that classic shot of John Lennon wearing the New York City t-shirt. What shots would you like to be remembered for?
Well, certainly I will be remembered for that one but there's a couple of great ones that I like: the picture of John at the Statue of Liberty I feel is more important because it's something I thought of. We went there on purpose to create a picture rather than just capture something that was happening, but also because people relate to John Lennon in terms of personal freedom just as they do with the Statue of Liberty.

There's also the picture of The Clash, which was one of my favorite bands, in Boston that really captures their spirit. There's a picture of Tina Turner that's a multiple image on one exposure where a strobe light was flashing and I opened the camera for one second and caught five different images of Tina dancing. It really captures much more of her excitement and energy than one image would have done.

Around the time of the Lennon Statue of Liberty shot there was a rumor that the United States was trying to deport him.
That wasn't a rumor, the U.S. government was making quite a case to deport John Lennon by saying he had overstayed his Visa. In fact, the real reason was that they were afraid he was going to influence the American election. I felt the Statue of Liberty was a symbol of welcome and we were supposed to welcome great artists like John Lennon to America, not throw them out. So, I thought that would be a good symbol for the case and, in fact, it was. But it got more use afterwards. After he was allowed to stay and after he passed away people started liking that picture. I think it's because it represents personal freedoms.

Some of your best photographs are from times in which the artist wasn't in a stage persona.
I got to know a lot of the people I worked with while working for a magazine called Rock Scene where we covered the whole scene; it wasn't just a picture of a guy with a microphone, we wanted pictures at home, on tour, in the dressing room, with their managers, and at the after party. We covered the whole scene and that gave me access to people I became friends with which lead to better, more intimate pictures.

Tell me about your new book - See Hear Yoko.
I've worked with Yoko Ono for more than 40 years and it's a whole book of pictures I did of her. It was originally conceived two years ago as a birthday present when Yoko turned 80. We made a book of pictures and she liked it so much she asked us to publish it. I'll be signing copies of it along with Rock Seen in Asbury Park on February 7.

for more information on Gruen visit http://bobgruen.com

Bob Gruen exhibit
January 9 – February 28
Art629 Gallery
629 Cookman Avenue, Asbury Park, NJ

Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at gary@newjerseystage.com.

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