Bob Gruen, the famed rock photographer known for his iconic shot of John Lennon in a sleeveless "New York City" t-shirt, is enjoying the release of a new 288-page book of his work, plus the opening of a photo exhibit tonight, Dec. 1, at Los Angeles' Fahey/Klein Gallery.
"The book is my first hard-cover collection of all my work. I've done about a dozen other books but they’ve all been about a certain group: several of John Lennon, The Clash, Sex Pistols. I've never really seen this many photos of mine in one place," says the NYC-based Gruen, who has been photographing the music scene for 40 years. Even though his extensive archive reaches back that far, Gruen says putting the book together took just six months. "I'm very organized. I've lived in the same place since 1970. If I put something in a file in 1974, it's still there. I don't have cartons in my grandmother's garage."
The book, Rock Scene (Abrams, $45) is a mix of well-known shots -- Led Zeppelin standing in front of an airplane, Debbie Harry (who wrote the introduction) in a tiger dress -- and never before seen snaps. "There's a live Queen shot on stage that's a double page photo we hadn't used before. A Jeff Beck I've always liked a lot that we never got to use that I took in 1975. A Blondie one of Debbie Harry at Coney Island. There's a very well-known picture of Kiss for the Dressed to Kill album cover where Kiss is wearing suits. We just recently found a color version that’s being published for the first time," says Gruen.
His approach, he says, has been to always "try to capture the feeling of what's going on and not just the facts. Rock 'n' roll gives you the freedom to express yourself loudly."
Among everyone he's shot, Gruen calls Tina Turner the most exciting person he's seen perform on stage. "Head and shoulders above everyone else. Nobody comes close to Tina. She has an energy and friendliness and communication with the audience that just puts her in a class by herself. She would always start off her concerts by saying 'Hi, everybody' until the whole audience yelled back 'Hi Tina.' The show didn't start until they started communicating."
Who were the bad boys he photographed? "There's a lot of raunchy people in this book for instance the New York Dolls. They dressed rather eclectically let's say and at one point somebody asked David Johansen if the band was bisexual. He said, 'We're trisexual. We'll try anything.' And that was kind of a surprise but it was true. They were the most macho gang of guys I've ever hung out with. They were certainly not dressing up as transvestites but as beautiful men looking for a kiss."
Gruen, whose photos are in the collection of London's National Portrait Gallery, got his start in 1965, shooting concert photos at the Newport Folk Festival, a kid who talked his way into getting a photo pass. He later found himself squarely in the midst of the burgeoning rock scene at the clubs CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, where The Ramones and Blondie got their start; did an album cover for Ika and Tina Turner and went on tour with them; and during the '70s became the personal photographer of Lennon and Yoko Ono, snapping the first images of their son Sean.
He’s also known for his shots of the Pistols goofing around with drinking straws and Sid Vicious with a hot dog with mustard and ketchup smeared on his face. Recently he's been photographing the likes of Green Day. But the person he photographed the treasured the most is Lennon. "He was very intelligent and very funny. I would always learn something and get a good laugh at the time."
A reception for the artist takes place Dec. 1 from 7-9 PM at Fahey/Klein Gallery, 148 N. La Brea Avenue. The show runs until January 14, 2012.
Led Zeppelin, 1973
Tina Turner, 1970