Last night Just Backdated was at the opening of Rock Seen, an exhibition of work by the American rock photographer Bob Gruen. It’s a big exhibition, a full-on retrospective in three large rooms, perhaps the biggest Bob has ever hosted, and he has exhibited many times, both in London and his home town of New York.
Bob isn’t a stylist like Annie Leibowicz or Mick Rock, who like to pose their subjects in cleverly-lit studios with nice back-drops, all made-up and coiffured, and neither is he a live specialist like Neal Preston, with his breath-taking pictures of Led Zeppelin and Springsteen, or Ross Halfin who seems to be one of the band, on lead camera, in his stage shots of his thrash and hard rock pals. Which isn’t to say that Bob can’t take evocative portraits or exciting live shots when he puts his mind to it; after all, these are necessary disciplines that all rock photographers must master. No, Bob has a third and pretty much unique string to his bow. Like Henri Cartier-Bresson, his specialist skill is capturing the fleeting moment; the moment when David Bowie laughs at someone’s joke, when Debbie Harry listens attentively to something Joey Ramone is telling her, or when John turns to look at Yoko with love in his eyes. Bob’s skill is always being in the right place at the right time, his lens trained on what’s happening – “What’s happening man,” was always his favourite opening to a conversation – while he remains unobtrusive, laid back, in the shadows but always there. His subjects might not even have known he was taking a picture of them, not until they see the photograph later in a magazine and think to themselves, “Yes, that’s me. Perfect! Thanks Bob.”
So the highlights of this exhibition are not formal portraits or guitarists on stage looking anguished as they reach for the note that weeps. The highlights are the candid shots and the details they reveal, a group of rock friends around a table in a restaurant or a club, or walking in the street, or backstage, looking natural, as if they are unobserved – and in many ways this shows them as they really are, not how their publicist wants their image to be, or even as they might themselves prefer to be seen when they put on their rock star uniform. It is, without doubt, the best collection of rock photographs in this style you are ever likely to see.
Bob Gruen and I go back a long way. He was my photographer of choice during my stint as Melody Maker’s American editor during the mid-seventies, just as he was John Lennon’s photographer of choice during his New York years. His best known shot of John is the one he took in front of the Statute if Liberty, a shot that took on a deeper significance when the US authorities attempted to deport him. It takes pride of place on a wall devoted to John.
Aside from his work with Lennon, Bob is probably best known for his shots of the downtown New York scene, the bands of CBGBs, The Ramones and Blondie, and, of course, his great friends The New York Dolls. It was Bob who introduced me to Debbie Harry, long before she became famous, which resulted in Melody Maker being the first UK paper ever to publish a photograph of her. But he was also at home with the stadium fillers too, the Stones and Led Zep, and it was Bob who took the shot of Keith Moon in a top hat with the price on it, the Mad Hatter shot, that closes the final plate section in Dear Boy. He was and remains on good terms with every succeeding generation of rockers, switching with ease from Lennon to The Clash and Sex Pistols whose infamous final tour of the US in January of 1978 he joined and chronicled, and many of his candid, off stage, shots from that tour feature in the current exhibition.
I remember in November of 1975 Bob and I chased Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review tour through New England, buying tickets from touts in Providence and Springfield. Photographers weren’t allowed in but this didn’t faze Bob. He dressed in loose dungarees and when we parked outside the hall he stripped down to his boxers, dismantled his cameras and taped the parts around his body. Once inside he went to the gents and reversed the process. I never saw him during the concerts. He’d leg it towards the front, darting in and out of security, getting great shots. He also discovered where the road crew hung out and through them found out where the following night’s ‘unadvertised’ show was going to be. I couldn’t have covered that tour without him.
In May of 1976 we flew to Detroit to catch up with Wings, the band then led by John’s former team mate. We rented a car at the airport and headed off towards the arena where Wings were performing, Bob at the wheel, but got stuck in some heavy traffic on a freeway and for a while it looked like we might miss the start of the gig. “Fuck this,” said Bob, switching lanes and reversing up an on ramp against the flow, “we’ll get there faster through the streets, man.” I was shitting myself but Bob was cool, always is. So are his pictures.
Rock Seen is at the Huntingdon Gallery, 28 Redchurch Street, London E2, until October 27.