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Bob Gruen's Rock Photography

Seen it All

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John Lennon, 1974
  • John Lennon, 1974

There are some artists who are said to define rock 'n' roll—John Lennon, the Rolling Stones, the Ramones, and others. And then there's Bob Gruen, an artist whose work has defined the artists themselves. In addition to his images of the above, Gruen, over the course of his nearly 50 years in the business, has created hundreds of the 20th-century music world's most iconic photographs. There's Lennon proudly sporting his "New York City" T-shirt against the Manhattan skyline; the Clash tearing it up on tour; a tornado-like Tina Turner on a nightclub stage; a blitzed-out David Bowie and New York Doll David Johansen in the back room of Max's Kansas City. Gruen's work has been inescapable, especially if you grew up with your nose in rock mags back in the 1970s or '80s. One of those publications was Rock Scene (1972-82), a nationally distributed goldmine of gossip and riveting photos that covered uptown hitmakers like Led Zeppelin and Elton John alongside down-on-the-streets undergrounders like Suicide and Television and gave many suburban and Middle America kids their first glimpses of punk rock. Now, on the heels of his recent exhibition at New York's POP! International Gallery, Gruen has come out with Rock Seen (Harry N. Abrams), a lush coffee-table tome of his most striking pictures for the fabled magazine.

Born to a Long Island lawyer couple, Gruen caught photo fever from his mother, an amateur shutterbug who taught him how to shoot and develop film in her home dark room. He got his first camera, a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye, at age eight, discovered Man Ray, Weegee, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, and moved to Greenwich Village, where he shared apartments with folk rock musicians. His first rock concert featured future subjects the Rolling Stones in 1965 ("a new, chaotic experience—I loved the excitement!"), the same year as his first "professional" job: Bob Dylan's infamous "electric" appearance at the Newport Folk Festival. "Nobody had hired me, but I stole some film and talked the promoters into giving me a photo pass—mainly because I couldn't afford a ticket," Gruen recalls. "[Dylan's set] didn't strike me as 'historic' at the time. By then I was used to electric guitars and, besides, I was too busy shooting!" With such famous album covers as the New York Dolls' self-titled debut (1973, Mercury Records) and Kiss's Dressed to Kill (1975, Casablanca Records) and his rude shots of the Sex Pistols' frenzied 1978 US tour to his credit, Gruen has been a part-time Phoenicia-area resident since 1989. "I started coming up in 1960 and '61 to ski at Hunter Mountain," he explains. "New York's different now and so am I," he muses. "Nothing stays the same, but change is good. I still love New York, but nowadays you couldn't pay me to stay there on a weekend." What does Gruen see as the essence of his work? "Rock 'n' roll is about the freedom to express yourself, very loudly and with passion," he says. "It's been inspiring to me, and I hope I've been able to pass some of that inspiration on to others."

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