Bob Gruen | Low Profile Photographer Discusses His High Profile Work and Career

By Robert Ferraro / September 4, 2019

Bob Gruen has been a prominent rock and roll photographer for so long, that even his ‘newer’ collaborations are celebrating significant anniversaries. His latest book, Green Day: Photographs by Bob Gruen, is a collection of his work featuring the band over the last quarter century. This includes the book’s cover – an homage to a famous photo he took of his friends (and Green Day idols) The Clash, twenty eight years before. 

In this conversation I asked Gruen to look back as he discusses a split-second decision regarding Tina Turner that jump started his career, why staying in focus was never his focus, how working at CBGB’s never felt like work, his role in one of Yoko Ono’s best known artistic statements, and which photo of John Lennon he thinks is his best (it’s not the one you think).

Robert Ferraro: Bob, you’re well known for having spent much of your working and social life around musicians. Have you ever been one yourself?

Bob Gruen: Well, I wouldn’t exactly say I was a musician as much as I had an interest in music. You know, in school your parents get you to try different instruments, and there was a point where I was playing the trumpet. At the time I wanted to play like Miles Davis. I thought cool jazz was the way to go, but in the school band they wanted me to play John Philip Sousa so that wasn’t really working out. And then it turned out that the trumpet was pushing my teeth in so they switched me to the drums, but I didn’t really have the right kind of rhythm for that. When folk music came out, I did play with a group of my friends. It was just kind of like folk guitar, but I never really thought of that as something I would go on to do. I never wanted to be the guy on the stage. I wanted others to go up there and play, so that I could watch.

Robert: Somewhere in between playing in that folk band and taking the photo of Tina Turner that would essentially launch your career, you found your way to Woodstock.

Bob: In 1969 I saw an advertisement in the newspaper for a music festival, and in the middle of the ad I saw ‘The Who’. I was a huge fan of The Who and saw them anytime they came within a hundred miles of me in New York, so I wrote a check and bought some tickets.

Robert: People are often surprised to hear that they issued tickets. You still have them, right? 

Bob: I still do. Interesting fact – we all know that the fences came down and they never collected the tickets. But I only found out recently, when (famed Woodstock promoter) Michael Lang said it, that they never built or even had plans drawn for any type of ticket booth. The booths didn’t fail to work – they never even existed. It was a complete oversight when they were planning. They were slightly disorganized. [laughs]

Robert: I know that your interest in photography came early. Did you see Woodstock as a photographic opportunity, or did you see it as a party?

Bob: I wasn’t there as a working photographer and I actually had no context for this musical event at all except for the band that I was living with, but I did take some pictures that were able to show my experience there – of the traffic, the pond, people swimming naked, the hillside with all the people on it – and I wrote about them for a magazine.

Robert: Have you ever told anyone in The Who that you had gone to Woodstock to see them exclusively?

Bob: Hmm, that’s interesting. I don’t think so. I’ve never really had – well, I did get to know Keith Moon but it was kind of chaotic most of the time. [laughs] We weren’t really sitting around chatting too much. We were doing more drinking and carrying on. I’ve met Pete (Townsend) a few times but we’ve never really had enough conversation to get into that.

Robert: You’ve said that you’ve been an amateur photographer since you were 5 years old. That conjures up a portrait of you being some sort of savant, but your beginnings were actually more practical than that.

Bob: I learned from my Mom, who was an amateur photographer herself. It was her hobby and she would develop and print her own pictures. At five years old I was too big to go to sleep early, but too little to leave running around the house, so she would take me into the dark room with her and teach me how to develop and print my own pictures. When I was eight, my parents gave me my first camera, a Brownie Hawkeye, and I’ve been taking pictures ever since. As I grew up, the problem was that it was considered a hobby, not a job. My parents kept telling me to get a job, which seemed pretty difficult because in the 60’s, you know, the idea was not to join the establishment but to turn on, tune in and drop out. I did drop out, but I actually fell in because I lived with a rock roll band and that turned out to be the key to my future.

Bob Gruen, self portrait. 1977

Robert: You weren’t actually in the band however, which was the start of a perspective you would soon build your career on.

Bob: Right, my dad had a station wagon and I was able to drive the band. Somebody had to carry the equipment. [laughs] So that was my entry into show business. But I loved taking pictures and I took a lot of pictures of the band. They were called The Glitter House at the time and were eventually signed by a famous producer (Bob Crewe of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons fame) and the first thing he did was use them to record the vocals for the Barbarella movie soundtrack. Then they made a psychedelic pop album and the record company used photos I had taken for the artwork. From there they started hiring me for other jobs and every time I did a job I’d meet more people. One thing just led to another.

Robert: Your first steps towards becoming the Forrest Gump of Rock and Roll photography.

Bob: I definitely got around. [laughs] I can see why you say it that way because I don’t think anyone has covered as much ground as I have. Soul music has always been a big part of my work – I started with groups like Ike & Tina and LaBelle – but I was also into the early folk rock bands, and then eventually some of the major rock bands like Led Zeppelin and Alice Cooper and Kiss. Then you have the Stones of course, and everything that came out of CBGB’s with the punk scene, where I became friends with The Clash and The Sex Pistols and did a lot of work in England. I don’t think anyone has as much variety as I do.

Robert: Speaking of Tina Turner, a one second time lapse photo of her on stage underneath a strobe light was your definitive big break. It’s a tremendous image.

Bob: That was the big break and it was kind of lucky. A friend of mine just insisted that we go see Ike & Tina because Tina was so amazing. They were playing several shows in New York and after catching the first one I agreed that they were great so we went to see them again at a place on Long Island except I brought my camera with me this time. I took a few good pictures that night but towards the end Tina was dancing her way off stage with a strobe light flashing and I decided to open the camera to a one second exposure to see if I could catch a few of those flashes in a picture. I just wanted to see what it would look like. Two or three of them were completely useless with the image all over the frame, but one of them caught five frames of Tina in sequence that perfectly showed the excitement and the energy that is Tina Turner. 

Robert: Once you developed the photo, you still needed someone to take notice of it or else it might have become a keepsake in a drawer. That didn’t really take too long, did it?

Bob: No, they had another concert a couple of days later and I happened to bring my pictures with me, basically just to show my friends. But on the way out, my friends saw Ike Turner walking by and literally pushed me in front of him and into the rest of my life. She said, “Show Ike the pictures” and Ike stopped and asked, “What pictures?” I showed him and he liked them and he took me into the dressing to show Tina. She really liked them, and pretty soon I was working with them a lot. Ike also introduced me to a publicist in New York that week and took me to a party where I met several others and my career just started snowballing from that moment on.

The most pivotal photograph of Gruen’s career, was also his first memorable one. Tina Turner, 1970

Robert:  In other conversations, and now here with me, you have described Ike extending many acts of kindness to you throughout your life. You took countless photos of him with Tina appearing to have a good time, including a famous shot of them in a seemingly affectionate embrace, but Tina would later reveal that she was the victim of serious physical and mental abuse at the hands of Ike. Did you ever get any sense of it?

Bob:  No. I spent a lot of time in private with him and with them but I certainly had no idea that it was going on. But my perspective on that doesn’t mean much because you don’t have to hit somebody every day to be doing it, or to have them fear you all the time. If you beat somebody badly, you can just raise your hand and they’ll cringe. Tina telling her story was a very important thing. And I think the movie (What’s Love Got To Do With It?) brought domestic abuse to the forefront and made a very serious issue relatable to the world because we weren’t talking about it as much back then.

Robert: Tina is closely associated with your work and you’re very fond of her, but you were Ike’s friend as well. Is it difficult to know what he did and still have good feelings associated with him?

Bob: It’s terrible how everything turned out and at the same time it makes me sad that Ike’s legacy is being the poster boy for this issue. He was an extremely generous person and helpful to many, many people. I attended his funeral, and over a thousand people showed up, many of whom he did a lot for. I think of him as a good person with demons, who took way too much cocaine and went crazy.

Robert: I look at the nature of the Tina picture and the timelapse ghosting effect that helped make it popular as a funny bit of foreshadowing for your career. You can be refreshingly self-deprecating at times, and you’ve joked more than once that getting the subjects of your photos completely in focus was not always your strong suit.

Bob: Well, it wasn’t, to make a pun, the main focus of my work. I tried to get the feelings, not the facts. Very often you have to shoot quickly to catch the feeling because it’s a moment, you know? It’s not about getting all the technical sides correct. To do that takes time, and you might miss the moment. So although sometimes my subject is not exactly sharp, I think the feelings in my pictures are clear.

Robert: [jokingly] Bob, I’m sure you find yourself compared with Keith Richards on an almost daily basis.

Bob: [laughs loudly] No, I can’t say that I ever have.

Robert: Well, when I was looking over your photos of him, it came to mind that you both inhabit the same philosophical space as artists. You have peers that are more technically proficient, but your art evokes tremendous feel largely because you don’t pursue technical perfection or seem to care too much about it. 

Bob: That’s interesting. I never thought about it that way. Yes, it’s not about purity or perfection for me – it’s more about feelings. You know, how does this picture affect people? How do people respond to what I do? That’s all I’m trying to get, and all that I care about.

Robert: Ironically, some of your shots that best exemplify this are of Keith and the Stones. You captured them onstage at their touring height in the early 70’s. Are you a fan?

Bob: I’m a huge fan. In a live setting I strive to capture moments where people will tell me they feel like they were right there at the concert themselves, and I know I’ve succeeded in doing that several times with The Stones. I was working a concert at Madison Square Garden in 1972 at the end of their ‘Exile On Main Street’ tour – it was the first time I had a photo pass for The Stones so I was shooting like crazy all night. [laughs] I took a lot of great pictures. Then, a few years ago they released a deluxe box set that contained a mock-up of a tour booklet, and they choose to exclusively use my photos from that night. I had more than enough pictures to fill up the work.

A collage of Gruen’s photos of The Rolling Stones from Madison Square Garden, 1972

Robert: Your proximity to Punk opened up a dynamic part of your career in the 70’s and early 80’s, but you grew up on Folk and R & B and Classic Rock. Did you like Punk as soon as you heard it, or did you see it more as a fertile scene for photography?

Bob: What’s not to like? I saw The Clash as the most powerful and amazing band I’d ever seen, and I still do. When Punk came along I wasn’t a fan of Led Zeppelin actually, or any of the sort of bands that were playing these long solos and not really saying anything. They never really did much for me. Punk was different, in a good way. The Sex Pistols, with a few bad words on TV on a slow news day (England’s Today show with Bill Grundy), gave Punk a very bad name. After that, people from that scene were labeled as nasty. Debbie Harry is one of the nicest people I know. She’s not nasty. Patti Smith is powerful and she’s forceful, but she’s not nasty. And there’s nothing nasty about the Clash. I’m sure you’ve heard it said before, but punks are just hippies with short hair. Basically, the punk attitude is one of wanting a better world, questioning authority, and not being satisfied with the status quo. The same as hippies. 

Robert: You worked at CBGB’s a lot. The atmosphere and personalities were sometimes frenetic, the lighting was bad, and the club could get cramped. Was that a difficult assignment for a photographer?

Bob: For me, it wasn’t an assignment. I didn’t approach music as a journalist, where I had another life and would come in at three o’clock in the afternoon and take a look around. Rock ‘n’ Roll was my life and CBGB was my bar and that’s where I hung out with people that were my friends. Luckily for me, I worked for a magazine called Rock Scene, which covered all of it. It wasn’t the same approach as Rolling Stone where they would write an article about somebody and have one or two pictures of the singer on stage. Rock Scene was basically a photo magazine, like a comic book, and they ran pictures of everybody and everything. We would get a picture of a band on the bus and maybe take another of the bus driver, or we would have a picture backstage with not just the band, but maybe the band’s managers or publicist.

Robert: An approach that was right up your alley.

Bob: It was. It opened the scene up like a comic book, and that gave me access to take pictures of just about anything. So, instead of having a specific assignment, if I was at CBGB’s and saw Johnny Thunders talking to the members of the B Girls (Canadian punk band), I would take a picture of that and call it a rock scene moment: “The B Girls meet Johnny Thunders!” We made theatrical moments out of everyday events. So CBGB’s wasn’t really difficult or an assignment. It was fun.

Robert: I’ve gathered that you’re not much for routine or rigidity – whether it be in regard to who you photograph, or how you photograph them. 

Bob: Yeah. I mean some photographers prefer to be in the studio where they can create and control a moment. I don’t really create moments. I capture them. I’d rather be in a band’s dressing room when they finally finish getting dressed and feel like they’re ready to go on stage and the audience is chanting for them, leaving me maybe 10 seconds to get shots of that moment in time. I’d much rather do that and get a picture of a real and unique situation than spend an entire afternoon trying to create one.

Some of Gruen’s best known work was taken in and around New York’s CBGB’s. The Ramones, 1976

Robert:  You’ve seen an inordinate amount of your work find a place in popular culture – Tina’s time lapse image, Led Zeppelin in front of their plane, Kiss in business suits, Debbie Harry walking across a parking lot in Coney Island, etc. But let’s face it – you could probably shoot a Mars landing while standing on the actual surface of Mars and still be primarily identified for your work with John Lennon. The New York City shirt photo most especially. Does it bother you when someone synthesizes your career down to that picture of him?

Bob: Not at all. I’m lucky to have met the gentleman and even more lucky to have had a connection with him and become his friend. I’m very happy that I had that in my life. John was such a huge inspiration to people all over the world that of course, when they find out that I knew him and I took that picture, they’ll ask me what he was like. 

Robert: What was he like?

Bob: He wasn’t much different than what you would see in interviews. He was smart and creative and very funny. For the most part, what the world knows – that was him. He was also a good cook. After John and Yoko got back together, he really started to take care of himself and eat healthy and he turned me on to the Macrobiotic diet – a bad name for a good diet. 

Robert:  You gave John the New York City shirt as a gift. Who cut the sleeves off of it?

Bob: I did, but I gave it to him a year before I took the picture. Some people hear the story and think I took my own shirt off and handed it to him during the shoot. [laughs] Those shirts were made by two guys who used to sell them on a blanket on the sidewalk in New York. Occasionally I would ride my bicycle around the city and see them. One night when I was on my way to the Record Plant to see John, I ran into them on the street and bought the shirt for him. I thought cutting it up would give him a New York sort of tough guy look. I used my buck knife to cut the sleeves off of it because I didn’t have a pair of scissors.

Robert: How much did the shirt cost?

Bob: Five dollars. 

Robert: Sure, but in 1973 money!

Bob: [laughs] It was 1973, but we actually didn’t take the pictures until a year later. John had a penthouse apartment on the East Side, and we were shooting the cover for his ‘Walls and Bridges’ album, which was a series of close-ups of just his face (one of which would become a United States Postage Stamp in 2018). Afterwards he suggested that we take some more so that we wouldn’t have to do another session when it was time to make the press kit. We started taking pictures on the roof with the skyline all around us and I suddenly remembered the shirt and asked him, “Do you still have that shirt I gave you? The one that says ‘New York City’ on it?” He knew right where it was so I knew that if it had made it back and forth with him to L.A. during that chaotic year (when John and Yoko Ono were separated), he must’ve liked it. He put it on and it looked terrific and we took a bunch of pictures. We had no idea that was going to be a moment that people all around the world would see and come to associate him with.

Robert: So the images for the United States postage stamp, John’s ‘Walls & Bridges’ album cover and the famous New York City shirt photo were all taken on the same day?

Bob: Yeah. It was a good day. [laughs]

Robert: Do you know if the shirt that John wore that day still exists?

Bob: It does. Yoko has it. John kept it and then it became part of his estate. It’s actually been in exhibits in several places. The first time I saw it on display was when Yoko and a group opened a museum outside of Tokyo in 2000.

Robert: That was the first time you had seen the shirt since you took the photo?

Bob: Yes, the first time since John was wearing it. The woman who is the curator of Yoko’s exhibit used to be my assistant, so it was quite ironic that a person who was in my dark room printing those pictures of John at that time would now find herself in Tokyo wearing a pair of gloves, handling the shirt, as the only person who was allowed to touch it. 

Robert:  You are clearly proud of that picture, but over time I’ve garnered the impression that you are surprised that people gravitate to that one the most, and you care for other photos you took of John a bit more.

Bob: Well, it is a very straight on and friendly photo and because we were friends who were having a conversation while it was taken, he looks very accessible. I think that’s what people like about it  – that he’s so open and ready to engage. But in my mind, the picture that I took of John at the Statue of Liberty is a better picture and makes a much more important statement – mainly about about freedom and immigration. The Statue of Liberty is literally about personal freedom and I think people relate to John Lennon in terms of personal freedom. I think that makes that one a much more powerful and important picture. But I don’t mind if most of the world feels otherwise. I’m just glad that John and I can make so many people happy.

John Lennon, Statue of Liberty, 1974. Gruen considers this his most important photograph of Lennon.

Robert: Bob, where were you when you found out that John was killed?

Bob: I was in my dark room printing pictures that I had taken of him two days earlier. It was quite a bad shock. It still is.

Robert: How did you find out?

Bob: I was actually in the dark room when my doorman rang my bell and asked if I had the radio on. I told him I hadn’t, and he said he just heard that John had been shot. Then my phone rang and it turned out to be the publicist who had worked with John and Yoko back when I first met them. He said, “Do you know what’s going on?” I told him I didn’t know a thing and he said, “I just heard on the TV that John is dead.” Hearing that word, ‘dead’…I mean, when you first hear ‘shot’, you think maybe the person is just wounded. But dead is the most permanent word in the english language. It was, and still is, the worst thing I’ve ever heard. 

Robert: Not long after John was killed you took more than a few pictures of the surviving family, some of them resonating around the world with the many people who were concerned about them. One particular photo of Sean stands out.

Bob: Around five months or so after we lost John, I had been up late with Tina Turner at the Ritz where she was playing a big comeback show. I left there around three in the morning to go to Yoko’s place because she was just coming home with the first rough mix of of her new album, which I think might have been ‘Season Of Glass’. We listened to the album through the early morning, and as the sun came up over Central Park, Sean came in from his bedroom. He had woken up because he had heard the music and came in and crawled into bed with Yoko. I took a picture of them, cuddled together, and it became the cover of the New York Post on Mother’s Day, 1981.

Sean Lennon with Yoko Ono, months after losing his father, 1981

Robert: The album cover for ‘Season of Glass’ has that incredible image that Yoko took of John’s blood stained glasses on a window sill looking out at the skyline of New York, next to a half full or half empty glass of water. You did not take that picture, but you were very much a part of it.

Bob: That was a very awkward day. I’ve had many awkward days Robert. [laughs] Or interesting days I suppose, depending on how you look at it. Yoko called me and asked me to come over and help her take a picture, but she didn’t tell me of what. When I got up there she explained that she wanted to take a picture of the glasses that John was wearing when he was shot. They were cracked and still covered with blood and even though they are just the tiniest part of what happened that night, it was absolutely horrifying and shocking to see them. Yoko felt that they weren’t something she had to hide from the world – that the world knew about John dying and they should see the reality of what that means. I found out later, after talking to her about it, that the picture had a much greater meaning. But at the time we just wanted to get a good picture of the glasses. I helped her set up the lighting and as she was speaking to me about it I could tell that she had a very clear idea of what she wanted the picture to be, so I handed her the camera and said, “Just look through here and when you see what you want to see, push the button a bunch of times.” 

Robert: Why was the situation awkward?

Bob: While she was taking the pictures I felt awkward as a photographer without a camera. I was wondering, “Well, what do I do now?”  So I picked up my other camera and took some pictures of her taking the picture. That proved to be interesting because those photos have been published a few times and there are very few pictures that exist of Yoko actually creating her art.

Robert: What was the deeper meaning of the photograph according to Yoko?

Bob: She explained to me that when you look at the glasses and see that they are cracked and covered in blood, it becomes a major anti-gun statement in and of itself. But looking through the glasses you see Central Park, you see Central Park through the window, you see it through the water and the drinking glass, and through the camera lens as well. There are several different ways to view the same thing, and Yoko wanted to show that many different realities exist around us at the same time.

Robert: The photo was rather controversial. All these years later, do any specific reactions to it stick out for you?

Bob: There was one I’ll always remember. We showed the picture to Yoko’s assistant a few days later when we had some prints made, because we were trying to decide which print to use. When the assistant first looked at it, he casually said, “Oh, what is that?” And then it dawned on him exactly what he was looking at and I’ll never forget his shock and recoil. We knew we had done it right.

(top) The provocative cover of Yoko Ono’s ‘Season of Glass’ album
(bottom) Gruen photographing Yoko as she took the picture, in 1981

Robert: It would be difficult for me to overstate how well you know Yoko – she’s been your friend for nearly 50 years. At the moment, she appears to be benefiting from a slow but steady change in how the public perceives her and her contributions to John’s life and music.

Bob: I think one of the worst things that happened to Yoko’s career was that she met John Lennon. Not the worst thing for her life, but for her career. She was successful in the Avant-Garde art world before she met John and people respected her quite a bit. In fact, he met her at her own exhibit. In those days women artists didn’t get to exhibit often and certainly didn’t have their own solo shows. So Yoko was quite advanced as an artist when she met him. Beatles fans were not ready for Avant-Garde art. Yoko uses her voice and a vocal technique similar to the way her friend Ornette Coleman uses his saxophone. She’s not trying to sound like Barbara Streisand. She’s trying to express emotions musically in her own way, and she does that very well. The younger generation has come to appreciate what she’s doing – in England they re-mixed a lot of her early music and released them as dance records, several of which have gone to the top of the dance charts – but the B-52’s caught on to it much earlier when they recorded ‘Rock Lobster’.

Robert: I’ve always been curious about her opinion of ‘Rock Lobster’.

Bob: I know that John loved it. When he heard that song he felt like the world was finally ready for what Yoko was doing. And he was right in the sense that he made a record with Yoko shortly after that and it became the first time she received good musical reviews. After talking to the B-52’s later on, I found out that the sound wasn’t an accident. They were fans of Yoko and they purposely did it in her style because they liked what she was doing.

Robert: Yoko has openly acknowledged that she’s been aware of the slings and arrows aimed at her over the years, but is she now aware of this change in public perception?

Bob: She surely she knows that she’s been receiving more praise than abuse, because she’s always been aware of those types of things. When she first met John, she shared several loose leaf binders with him that were full of reviews of her work. John was reading through them and he was struck by how bad they were. He turned to her and said, “These are terrible!” Yoko said, “No, you don’t understand, John. Look at how deeply I affected these people. Look at how strongly they’re reacting.” Yoko’s art hits people on a very visceral level, and she seems to hit people on the same level personally. Good and bad.

Robert: An indulgent question: What kind of relationship – social or professional – have you had with Paul McCartney?

Bob: Very little. He was basically based in London, so I had very limited contact with him. I did take a funny picture of Paul and Linda at a George Harrison concert. They showed up in disguise with curly Beatle wigs and mustaches glued on. I knew Linda’s brother and he was a respectable lawyer, so when I saw him in the audience next to these hippies I was wondering what he could possibly be doing with these people. [laughs] When I got up a little closer, I thought “Oh my God, that’s Paul and Linda.” I was the only one to recognize them, and took a picture of them in their disguises. It ran in Rolling Stone.

Kiss and ‘friends’, at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, NJ, 1974

Robert: As a photographer, your unobtrusiveness is your trademark – particularly in backstage and social situations. Iggy Pop put it more succinctly when he said, “The guy doesn’t fucking talk”, intending it as a compliment. [Bob laughs] Is that a deliberate choice you make in order to be an effective photographer, or is that simply your personality? 

Bob: I think it’s an extension of who I am. I don’t like being the center of attention. I’ve been able to take good pictures of people in casual settings because they stay casual, and they stay that way because I don’t interrupt them. Or I’m part of a situation where, like I said with CBGB’s, I don’t show up as a journalist. I’m just hanging out and allowing interesting things to happen so that when they do happen, I’m there to take a picture of it.

Robert: Even though you step lightly, you still draw a lot of attention at this point because many people know who you are. Not too long ago we were both at Bebe Buell’s record release show in Manhattan, and even though her band was great and she commanded the stage, very accomplished and famous people were taking notice of you as you moved around the room. Are you aware of this while it’s happening?

Bob: I don’t really notice it. One of the first times I became aware of things like that was when Twitter was first starting out and I had been at a show at the ‘South by Southwest’ festival in Austin. We later saw that someone had tweeted “Bob Gruen is standing right behind me!”,  and someone else had tweeted “Bob Gruen is standing right in front of me!” We thought that was funny. I was caught in a Twitter sandwich that I wasn’t aware of.

Robert: If you were aware of them, or anyone else who may be watching you, would that change the way that you work?

Bob: Well, it actually did change the way I work in a big way, but not in that way. I don’t really work all that much anymore. That’s the big change. Things became awkward. In the first part of my career I was just being myself and people didn’t expect a lot from me. I could show up and take pictures of a band and while we were shooting we would build rapport through conversation and that would help the work. But towards the end of the 80’s when I started getting a reputation, and especially in the 90’s, I would have drummer’s girlfriends taking pictures of me, while I was taking pictures of the band. Younger bands would be nervous because I’m ‘The Guy’, and then would look nervous in the shots. The pictures weren’t coming out the same. Other times artists would expect me to transform them in pictures, as if my fingers have magic in them or something. That means we’re not really working together. They have to help create the picture, for me to take it. So yes, dealing with the fame part of it in that way has been a challenge. 

Gruen with (L-R) Billy Joe Armstrong, Debbie Harry, and Jesse Malin, 2013

Robert: Even though the business of taking pictures has become more difficult, the technology to help take consistently good pictures has never been better. It might be hard for people of a certain age to understand that for much of your career, you weren’t sure if you had taken a good photo or not until it was developed.

Bob: Before I went digital, people would ask me after an event if I was able to get anything good. I would just say, “I hope so!” [laughs] In the days of film you had no idea if the exposure or the settings were right, and if one little dial was moved a quarter of an inch in the wrong direction, none of your pictures would come out. You wouldn’t know what you had until you got home. I went digital around 2000 when the quality became good enough that it could be sold to magazines, and at this point I send pictures to magazines I do work for and I’m pretty sure that no one in the office has ever seen a transparency in their life. They don’t know what a slide is.

Robert: I’d imagine that the Tina time-lapse had to be your happiest surprise in the darkroom. Is there another photo we may know where you developed it and said, “Wow, this came out much better than I thought?”

Bob: The picture of Led Zeppelin standing in front of their airplane. I was at the end of a roll and only took about five or six frames. They wouldn’t particularly pose so the picture would (hinge on) how their faces came out. As I was sorting through the pictures, I could see that I didn’t have it. In one picture I was seeing a guy looking off in one direction, and in the next another guy would be looking off in the other. I didn’t think I had anything. But at the end, I did discover one shot and immediately knew, “Yeah, I got it. This looks great.” 

Led Zeppelin 1973

Robert: You’re a lifelong New Yorker, and the city has been a character in some of your most popular work dating back to the 70’s. It’s changed an incredible amount since then, and a lot of the grit that epitomized the city is now long gone. Are you ever nostalgic for the old New York?

Bob: Well, nothing ever stays the same as it was. I mean, it’s never been “This town has looked like this since 1842.” right?  I don’t necessarily agree with all of the changes though. I mean, you’re not gonna find me running up the Vessel anytime soon. It seems every time I go uptown it’s different – there’s something new or something’s gone. But I never expected everything to stay the same.  

Robert: So when you pass John Varvatos (formerly CBGB’s) or the deli that was once Max’s Kansas City, you don’t have a strong visceral reaction to those spaces? 

Bob: No, I don’t reminisce. I mean, I had a lot of fun back then, but to be in Max’s with those same people now, with everyone in our mid seventies, doesn’t sound like that much fun. [laughs] I don’t want to go back. I did it. It was fun. But you go on to do new things. 

Robert: Of all the new things you’ve gone on to do, has anything rivaled Rock ‘n Roll photography for you?

Bob: Playing with my grandchildren. It is honestly one of the most fun things I’ve ever done in my life. I am a very happy grandfather. If you told me 30 years ago that it would work out this way, I wouldn’t have believed you. I honestly didn’t know I’d live this long. 

Robert Ferraro engages in conversations with pop culture figures. Recent guests include Melissa Etheridge, Paul Stanley, Ann & Nancy Wilson of Heart, comedian Gary Gulman and model Bobbie Brown.

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