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Q&A: Rock photographer Bob Gruen

In a career spanning more than four decades documenting music as it evolved in and around his hometown of New York City, pioneering rock 'n' roll photographer Bob Gruen has pretty much seen it all.

In a career spanning more than four decades documenting music as it evolved in and around his hometown of New York City, pioneering rock 'n' roll photographer Bob Gruen has pretty much seen it all.

Among the icons he's photographed are John Lennon and Yoko Ono; The Ramones; Tina Turner; Alice Cooper; the New York Dolls; and The Clash. More recently, Gruen covered Green Day during their 2010 world tour.

He's learned from the artists he covered along the way. Gruen says Joe Strummer, for instance, "...encouraged me to always see something unique and beautiful in everything I look at."

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Bob Gruen

Slideshow: Bob Gruen and his photography

Gruen is wrapping up his own tour this month, signing copies of his most recent hardcover book, "Rock Seen," the title of which is not only a literal statement, but also a nod to the weekly paper "Rock Scene" (1973-1982), where his editorial work was first published. SoundSpike photo editor Hali McGrath recently caught up with Gruen for an interview by phone.

SoundSpike: How old were you when you first starting taking photos -- do you remember your first camera?

Bob Gruen: I learned photography from my mother when I was about 4 years old, 'cause photography was my mother's hobby, and she used to develop and print her own pictures. She took me into the darkroom literally when I was 4. I took a liking to it, so when I was 8 my parents gave me my first camera. It was a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye.

Do you remember what inspired you to first start taking pictures of musicians?

I started taking pictures of music for two reasons: one I went to Newport Folk Festival in 1964 and I didn't have the money to get into the concert. So when I came back in '65, I was able to talk my way into getting a photo pass. I was able to get into the concert and get down front, and I really liked that. The next couple of years I lived with a rock 'n' roll band, and when they got a record deal around '69 or so, the record company used my pictures and they started to hire me to do pictures of more bands. And that's how the whole thing really started going.

What was the name of the band you lived with?

They were called The Glitterhouse; they sang the vocals for the Barbarella movie.

You've been doing music photography for 40 years now. How long did it take for you to first start getting respect and recognition for your talent?

About 40 years [laughs]. Well close to it, I mean 25 years anyway. Not until I started doing some fancy, limited-edition books.

How many books have you published so far?

My new one, "Rock Seen," is, I think, my 13th or 14th book. But most of my other books were like a "John Lennon" book or a "Clash" book or "Rolling Stones" book -- they were about one group. Where as this new book is actually the first hard cover collection of all my work.

With four decades worth of images in your archives, how did you choose the final photos for "Rock Seen"? It must have been daunting.

Well it was, 'cause I have so many pictures to choose from. But I've been through them before, putting other books together, so we had some collections of my work already picked out. But we expanded it because this book is a lot bigger -- ["Rock Seen"] has a little more than 500 pictures. So it was really kind of sifting through most pictures that I thought were really good, and sometimes [adding] people that I just felt were important to rock 'n' roll and needed to be included.

You were John Lennon and Yoko Ono's personal photographer for many years. I read in The New York Times that Lennon tracked you down by knocking on every door in your the building. What are your memories of that time?

Well, to get my apartment you have to go to the third floor, go through the building and come down to the second, so it is a little confusing. I first met John and Yoko through an interview. Really I met them at a concert one night, but I didn't really speak to them, then I met them through an interview when I took some pictures that they liked. They tried to find me to use one of the pictures -- I mean, they did find me and they used one of the pictures on their album cover -- the "Sometime In New York" album. By the third time we met, when they asked to use my photos, it was the first time I kinda went to visit them. We sat around all afternoon talking, and started to become friendly, so they invited me to come to their studio more often, and that's when I started working with them and visiting them very often.

Stop me if this is too personal, but when John Lennon was killed, how did that feel to know you had all those amazing photos of him? Photographs of people after they die become so much more profoundly meaningful, what was that like?

Well I was devastated. I got a phone call, I was in the darkroom printing pictures of John and Yoko that I had taken two days earlier, and I was supposed to see them that night and I was late -- as usual -- and my doorman called up and said he heard on the radio that John was shot. And then a friend called from across the country and said he heard on the TV that John was dead. My first reaction was that I just sank to the floor, and it was just the saddest thing I ever heard, when he said the word "dead" it was the most permanent word I ever heard in my life. I was just trying to think of how to fix it, how to make it better, how to change it, what you could do about it? And there was nothing you could do about something like that. But then I realized that the whole world was watching, and my phone started ringing and more people started calling and realized that it wasn't just about a friend of mine, it was John Lennon, the world famous person and that it was my job to help him look good in the newspapers and in the press. I basically crawled across the floor to the file cabinet and opened it up and started pulling out pictures to send to the press. I really didn't think about the value in any sense, it was more about the job, ya know, you had to keep going. Winston Churchill said, 'When you're going through hell, you have to keep going,' and that's what I did.

Bob Dylan was another musician you photographed in the early days. He's very reluctant to be photographed these days. Do you remember if he was always like that?

I think so. Actually, I never really got to know Bob Dylan. In the early days I had no contact with him, and then at one point I took some pictures during the "Rolling Thunder Tour," when he wasn't allowing any photography, but I felt the need to photograph it as a news event. I basically snuck my cameras in. I met him on the street a few months later and he said he wanted to beat me up -- because I had gone in and taken pictures without permission. For me, that was like meeting God and finding out he wanted to kill me [laughs].

There is a rumor that he's the one who came up with the "first three songs, no flash" rule, do you think that's true?

I'm not sure if it was him or the Rolling Stones -- I know the Rolling Stones had some restrictions as early as the '70s.

You toured with Green Day last year. What was that like?

Oh yeah, I really have a lot of fun with those guys, they are among the funniest people I know. They're constantly cracking each other up. They're great. They're one of the best band's I've hung out with, and I really enjoy their music and I really enjoy them. They're punks, they've got a real great attitude. You know that Walmart is one of the biggest sellers [of CDs] -- I think Walmart sells about half the CDs and albums in the U.S., and they're very strict about the language on CDs. Some bands will change the lyrics so that Walmart will carry their record. When their last record came out, Green Day refused to change their lyrics, and Walmart wouldn't carry the album. When they asked Billie Joe how he felt about that, he said, "Well if they think it's dangerous why don't they just move it out of the record department and sell it over by the guns and knives and the other dangerous things they sell." That's the reason I like Green Day. They just have common sense and a good sense of humor.

What kind of of shoots do you do these days? Do you still cover a lot of concerts or do you do more portrait sessions?

On my website bobgruen.com I have a feature that I call "Photo Of The Day" (which is usually more like photo of the season, cause I only update it every couple of months instead of every day). The things I've been up lately -- covering everybody from Iggy Pop to Yoko Ono or Patti Smith or Green Day. I occasionally see new bands, but I'm not really seeking out new bands -- I mostly go see my friends, 'cause they're still really good [laughs].

Do you shoot digital or do you still use film?

I've been using digital [Canon cameras] since 2000. The technology has never really interested me; I'm more interested in getting the image into the media and telling people about things.

How much do you think music photography plays a part in elevating rockstars to fame?

I think people want to know what an artist looks like, and you can sit and watch a video, but you can't tape a video to your wall ya know, and kids like to live with their heroes. I actually created an installation as part of MoMA's 2009 exhibition "Looking at Music: Side 2" called "A Rock and Roll Teenager's Bedroom Wall" where I had lots of posters and magazine covers and magazine spreads taped on a wall, with a bed that had a Led Zeppelin blanket on it, a dresser and a radio playing rock 'n' roll. I think that the fact that it's easier to access it and that a lot more of it's available is a good thing. I think the fact that nobody under 30 seems to know what a copyright is is not a good thing. Because just like music, people tend to steal photos and take whatever they want off the internet. But I certainly think it's very important and it makes a big difference in their sales with their images, a large part of rock 'n' roll is haircut and attitude, and that's something you can find out in a second in a photo.

What would you say to someone who's just starting out in music photography?

Don't quit your day job. There's not a lot of money to be made in music photography -- that's one piece of advice, and the other is that if you take a lot of photos, then you're bound to get a couple of good ones, and editing is the key. My pet peeve is when people go to a concert and they put 120 pictures on their Facebook page the next day.

What is one of the best things anyone said to you about your work?

That's a tough one, people have said a lot of nice things about my work [laughs], but I think last actually week -- when president Clinton told me that he really enjoyed my John Lennon book. That made me feel really really good. I was floating. I still am.

What was one of your favorite experiences?

Probably going to the Statue of Liberty with John Lennon, that was really a fun day. But also every Clash show I ever saw, and every Tina Turner show I ever saw. I've been very lucky to see some really great shows.

Bob Gruen will be in Los Angles next week signing copies of "Rock Seen" Tuesday (11/29) at Marc by Marc Jacobs and Thursday (12/1) at the The Fahey/Klein Gallery. On Dec. 7, Gruen will be in Buenos Aires, Argentina for his Exhibition opening at Centro Cultural Borges Gallery.


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