Bob Gruen is a legendary music photographer with an inquisitive lens that has captured iconic images such as a post-Beatles John Lennon clad in his New York City tank top, Led Zeppelin in front of their plane, and Debbie Harry emerging from a flipped over car wreck, which was in fact a completely spontaneous picture suggested by Blondie guitarist Chris Stein after Gruen and the band had stumbled across the two-day old wreckage on 6th Avenue. Gruen began his career by shooting Bob Dylan’s infamous plugged-in performance at Newport’s Folk Festival in 1975, and went on to head up Rock Scene magazine in the ’70s (as Chief Photographer), steadily crafting his signature aesthetic of candid, behind-the-scenes photos of rock and pop stars, art glitterati, and emerging punk and new wave bands including The Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, The Sex Pistols, Patti Smith, Elton John, Andy Warhol, Joan Jett, New York Dolls, The Ramones, and David Bowie.
Now in a definitive exhibition called ‘Rock Seen,’ which has just opened as part of the London New York Festival, Gruen’s impressive and illuminating archive of work allows the viewer to re-live iconic moments and experience how bands revolutionized the way we listened to and saw rock music.
What was the first camera you owned?
Kodak Brownie Hawkeye, but it’s not the camera that’s important, it’s what you do with it.
The Bee Gees and Bob Dylan were really the first acts you shot and then later Tina Turner, New York Dolls and more. Of all your earliest work, which experiences really shaped your visual aesthetic the most?
It’s hard to say which shaped me ‘the most. ’Everything I’ve done has added to who I am.
You’re credited with the now iconic shot of John Lennon in his ‘New York City’ top. How did you come to forge such a good friendship with him and Yoko that they decided to make you their personal photographer?
I was comfortable with them so they were comfortable with me and we developed a friendship as time went on, as people who like each other do.
Yourself and Yoko chose to display that same picture during John’s public memorial in 1980. Was it to reinforce his love of the city despite something so horrible having happened there?
I chose that photo because John had become very comfortable in New York, and yes, not to blame New York for what happened to John. The person who shot him came from the other side of the world. John died in New York because he lived in New York. He died going home.
Before that you were the Chief Photographer for Rock Scene magazine in the ’70s. Was it really rock’n’roll all the time, or did Alice Cooper for example, ever put his feet up with a cup of tea in his dressing room?
It was rock’n’roll most of the time. Alice didn’t put his feet up with a cup of tea, he put his feet up and had a beer.
Talking of Alice, there is a great photo of him and Salvador Dali. Can you tell me more about how the pair came to be in the same room?
Salvador Dali thought Alice Cooper’s act was surreal and similar to his art in that way, so he chose Alice as the subject for his 3D hologram ‘The Brain of the Pop Star’.
Was Sid as vicious as his name?
Sid wasn’t vicious, that was a role he played and he was a good actor. Sid was a pretty nice guy to his friends.
Aesthetically, there is always an edge to your work. What are the key elements for you when shooting?
I try to capture a moment to show what the feeling and passion of the moment is, not just the facts.
And which other photographers do you personally admire, or perhaps have hanging on your own walls?
I admire Man Ray for making photos that are Art, Henri Cartier-Bresson for catching the ‘decisive moment,’ and WeeGee for always being in the right place at the right time.
Do you think a lot of your own success was down to being in the right place at the right time?
I sought out people I was interested in but also had the good fortune to find them in the right place at the right time.
When you look back at your work, do you ever feel nostalgic for the past? Was there more fun and freedom back then?
I learn from the past, look to the future and live in the present. Though I have many happy memories, I don’t miss the past and I still find fun and freedom now.