Bob Gruen has photographed a pantheon of rock ’n’ roll legends while striking up friendships with many of them, including John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Joe Strummer, Joey Ramone, Deborah Harry and Alice Cooper who sang I’m Eighteen at Gruen’s celebrity-studded birthday party last October.
“I became friends with them just the natural way anyone becomes friends,” Gruen said simply. Affable and unpretentious, Gruen would likely attract friends no matter what circle he travelled in.
An exhibit of some 100 of Gruen’s photographs runs at Toronto’s Liss Gallery until July 11. The show documents rock ’n’ roll history, featuring performers ranging from Bob Dylan to Lady Gaga and bands like Led Zeppelin, The Clash, the Ramones and Kiss.
Gruen, who was raised in Great Neck, Long Island, got his first 35-mm camera for his bar mitzvah. Photography was his hobby and he took pictures of his family. “Trying to get four or five dysfunctional people together for a picture was good training for band photography,” he said.
Gruen took his first concert photos at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, where Dylan shocked his fans with a three-song electric set. Gruen, a teenage Dylan fan, had talked his way into getting a photo pass for the concert. That day, a pivotal event in rock history, Dylan announced that “folk music is rock ’n’ roll,” Gruen remembered.
He moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village during its hippie heyday. “It was my idea to turn on, tune in and drop out, and I lived with a rock ’n’ roll band,” he said. His mother, Elizabeth Gervais-Gruen, an amateur photographer who taught him how to develop pictures, was always asking him when he’d get “a real job,” Gruen added. “My idea was not to have a career at all.”
The band hired him to take pictures and, from there, the work snowballed. Besides selling his pictures to bands, he sold his photos to music magazines for $5 each. Gruen’s first big break came in 1970. A picture he took of Tina Turner in a flashing strobe light was “a real masterpiece with five images of Tina” that captured her energy, he said.
At one of Ike and Tina Turner’s shows, Gruen’s friend pushed him, pictures in hand, in front of Ike, who took him backstage. A photo Gruen took of Tina eventually made it to one of the duo’s album covers.
Gruen became Lennon and Ono’s personal photographer in 1971. He shot two iconic images of Lennon, one wearing a New York City t-shirt and the other making the peace sign in front of the Statue of Liberty. Gruen agreed to let Lennon and Ono – with whom he has a 44-year friendship – see all the photographs he took and select the shots they preferred. “I want people to like my pictures,” he said.
With his uncanny knack for being at the right place at the right time, Gruen was a regular at New York clubs when punk rock developed in the mid-’70s, and, in the late ’70s, when new wave, an offshoot of punk, was born. In their early days, he photographed the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, the Ramones and Blondie, and on the other side of the pond, the Sex Pistols and The Clash. Gruen, who lives in New York City with his artist wife, Elizabeth Gregory-Gruen, said that rock ‘n’ roll is about the freedom to express yourself.
“In my pictures, I try to capture that freedom,” he said. A lot of people can tell a photograph is his, he added, because “it has a touch of freedom in it.”
Gruen sees himself as a cultural historian, rather than a celebrity photography. “Years of drunken debauchery have turned into an artistic history of our culture,” he observed wryly. Over the years, many of his famous friends have died, among them Strummer, Joey Ramone and Lennon. Gruen was at home developing pictures the night in 1980 when Lennon was killed. “I’m getting older. If you’re the lucky one who gets older, then you lose those who don’t,” he said.
As a young man he may not have wished for a career, but Gruen got one despite himself. Now he has no plans of retiring anytime soon. He’s not carrying his camera bag every day, but he continues to work, publishing books of his pictures, holding exhibits – his 102-year old mother attended a show he had in Brazil – and photographing new acts like the Strypes, an Irish teen band.