New Jersey Photographer Captures Bruce Springsteen In Focus

Just in time for Christmas, photographer Debra Rothenberg's new coffee table book captures 32 years of the musical icon in pictures.
Debra Rothenberg
Bruce Springsteen

Debra Rothenberg's improbable career photographing Bruce Springsteen almost never happened.

She was only in high school when she acquired a pair of tickets to the ultimate rock and roll extravaganza -- Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey.

It was 1978, the year of the Boss’ return to the stage after a lengthy hiatus in between Born to Run and the release of Darkness and the Edge of Town, and it became the stuff of Springsteenian legend.

CONCERT REVIEW:  Bruce Springsteen, Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart Stand Up for Heroes

Rothenberg couldn’t wait to go, but her dreams were soon dashed.

“My parents said, 'You're too young; you are not going,'” she tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I thought about sneaking out, but I figured I would get caught. It was very painful that I didn’t get to go.”

Two years later, Rothenberg was a "college kid" in Rochester, New York, when she learned that Springsteen would be playing a show in December for The River Tour. Determined not to get shut out, Rothenberg waited all night in line for tickets. But as she got to the front of the line, the show was declared sold out.

“I cried. People in the store went crazy, screaming and throwing books on the floor,” she said. “I was given an 8x10 promo photo. I guess that was my consolation prize."

Defeated, she returned to campus, only to discover the $8.50 tickets were being sold for $50. The Jersey girl managed to talk the price down, got the tickets, and on Dec. 2, 1980 she found herself at her first Springsteen concert. She also managed to bring something else to the show -- her camera.

It snowed that night. She and her friends got caught in a snow bank on the ride home. But Rothenberg had no worries.

STORY: Rutgers University Offers Course on the Theology of Bruce Springsteen

“I said, 'I don’t care, I just shot Bruce,'” she says. “I went back to campus and used an enlarger on the picture. It went all the way up to the ceiling. I thought it was the best photo I was ever going to take. Six months later,  I was in the 14th row with Bruce looking straight at my camera all night.”

So began a 32-year career shooting Springsteen shows everywhere -- in arenas, clubs, and special appearances at the shore, national and international arenas. Rothenberg’s photos (267 of them) are featured in her new coffee table book, Bruce Springsteen IN FOCUS (1980-2012). The book, released Oct. 1 by Turn the Page Publishing, is the ultimate look at a man who Rothenberg says is “always grinning” whenever he is captured in his happy place-the stage.

“He’s always smiling,” she says. “He’s having the time of his life up there. Even now, on the Wrecking Ball Tour, he’s 64 going on 30. He has all that energy and he’s all over the place. His voice is sounding stronger than ever.”

The book is divided up into different sections of the Freehold, New Jersey native’s career and tours, starting with the 1980-81 River Tour through the recent Wrecking Ball Tour. Also included in the book: the 2003 Hope Concert at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, the Today show appearances in 2002, the 2007 Light of Day shows in Asbury Park, and the  2007 Springsteen tribute show at Carnegie Hall. Each section features forwards written by Springsteen luminaries and journalists. She even included a mother-daughter team -- Kathy and Kelly Smith of Rochester, New York--who each shared a dance with the man--34 years apart. Ironically, the women submitted their story to the fan film, Springsteen and I, but it wasn’t picked.

“I would venture to guess there is not a mother/daughter duo anywhere in rock and roll history that can both say they danced with a musical icon on stage at different times in their life,” she said.

Rothenberg said the basic idea behind the book was to offer something different than yet another Springsteen biography.

STORY:  Bruce Springsteen Surprises South American Audiences With Classic, Political Songs

“There was a long time that there were no books out on him, but the last year there has been so many books,” she said. “Other publishers wanted to take my pictures for their own books, and I really didn’t want [to give them for use in other books]."

Instead, Rothenberg’s book is a pictorial journey of Springsteen in his natural habitat, with shots Asbury Park (the cover was shot outside The Wonder Bar in 1988) and treasured stories and quotes from musicians Garland Jeffries, Bobby Bandiera, RichieLa Bamba” Rosenberg, and Bruce Hornsby included. There are also pictures of Springsteen guesting with other rockers -- Jon Bon Jovi fans take note -- as well.

Rothenberg graduated from college in 1984, but by the following summer, she and her camera captured Springsteen at the Meadowlands for the Born in the USA tour in August. A  picture of a smiling Bruce in a backwards baseball cap is among her favorite shots in the book.

One year later, she landed the ultimate job as a staff reporter for the Ocean County Observer in New Jersey. The then 25-year old had “total freedom” to shoot bands at the area Jersey Shore clubs, including The Stone Pony in Asbury Park. It was 1986.

“I basically lived at the Stone Pony,” she said. “I was there six nights a week. Any band that played there I shot them. I went to college for photography, but I got my photo education in that club.”

STORY: 'Springsteen and I': Top Five Moments

In Summer of 1987, otherwise known as the "Summer of Bruce," the blossoming photographer found herself in the national spotlight.

Marshall Crenshaw was in the Stone Pony, and “everyone in the club knew Bruce was there but me.” By the end of the night, Crenshaw invited the Boss to play, and Rothenberg got the shots.

“I called up Rolling Stone and asked them if they wanted the pictures,” she said. “They said no.”

Undaunted, she sent the film anyway, and the magazine used them. A few months later, Crenshaw and Springsteen teamed up again -- and this time the magazine called up Rothenberg to ask if she was there. Of course she was, and so began her ascension on the rock scene.

In 1999, Rothenberg moved to New York  City on a whim, eventually shooting concerts for The Daily News. She amassed thousands of pictures from The Rising Tour, including the rehearsal shows on the beach at Asbury Park. Rothenberg camped out for a week, and got amazing shots inside and outside of the venue.

“The shows were closed to public, but he put speakers on the beach so the public could hear,” she says. “The band came out on the ledge and greeted the fans on the beach. I have a bunch of those pictures too It was very magical and  typical for what he does -- giving back to his fans and wanting to be close to them.”

Last month, Rothenberg returned home to the club that made all of her rock and roll dreams come true: The Stone Pony. The occasion was for the launch of her new book, and the scene outside left her flabbergasted. Wrapped around the club was a line of people, just like she remembered. Only they weren’t waiting for Bruce this time.

“I thought of all of the hours I spent waiting in that line and waiting to see bands on the stage and now these people are her for me?” she says.

At that moment, she did the only thing that came naturally to her. She went outside and took a picture.

Rothenberg is currently on an East Coast book tour, with stops at the Rock Expo in Oaks, Pa,, Nov. 29,  in her hometown of Fair Lawn at The Dutch House Restaurant, Nov. 30, Belmar Public Library, Dec. 7, Barnes and Noble, Rittenhouse Square, Dec. 11, University of Pennsylvania Bookstore, Dec. 12, and a Gallery Photo Exhibit and Cocktail Reception at the Where the Music Lives Library in Asbury Park, Jan. 11 and Jan. 18.

More information is available at her Facebook page.

Twitter: @MicheleAmabile