Famous Rock Photographer Bob Gruen on Why All Those iPhones at Concerts Aren’t a Bad Thing

ASP Gruen Ramones - H 2012
Bob Gruen

ASP Gruen Ramones - H 2012

His iconic portrait of John Lennon wearing a sleeveless "New York City" T-shirt is among the 166 prints on display at Los Angeles' Annenberg Space for Photography's "Who Shot Rock & Roll" exhibit, which is open to the public June 23 through October 7, 2012.

We’ve all experienced it. After angling for a view of your favorite band, the lights go down, they take the stage and sheer spectacle ensues in front of your very eyes -- only most of the audience is watching it on a three-inch digital screen instead.

Blame it on music’s “right now” generation, where most life experiences, and certainly those that involve long-haired sweaty rockers and fist-pumping anthems, are chronicled -- often in play-by-play form -- via countless tweets and Facebook status updates.

But it wasn’t always so. For the better part of half a century, people experienced live music either from the venue floor or through the lens of music photographers like Lynn Goldsmith, Henry Diltz and Bob Gruen -- three of the more than 100 artists featured in the Annenberg Space for Photography’s newest exhibit "Who Shot Rock & Roll" (open to the public June 23 through October 7) -- the latter of whom contends that all those shaky shutterbugs with their iPhones and Androids in hand are actually a good thing... In moderation.

STORY: Rock Photographer Bob Gruen, Famous For His Shots of John Lennon, Opens L.A. Art Show

Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day was [on stage] and said, ‘Put down your iPhones. You're here now -- live your life!’ But I think it's fascinating that so many people are really enjoying photography,” Gruen tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It shows that taking pictures is a way to express yourself … And it’s not just snapshots and party pictures, there are beautiful landscapes and people are going for feeling in their pictures. I think that's a good thing. It certainly can't be stopped or changed.”

But how we got here certainly can be appreciated, especially when it comes to iconic images recognized all over the world. Like Gruen’s famous photo of John Lennon wearing a white T-shirt that simply says “New York City.”The series of frames -- nine in total -- appear in the exhibit and the story of how they came to be is told in an accompanying “Who Shot Rock & Roll” film.

Gruen acknowledges without a hint of hesitation that the Lennon portrait is his best known work, but one he’s most proud of is an image of Tina Turner where multiple exposures caused by a one-second strobe light flashing, created five different images. “It really captures the energy and excitement that Tina has,” says Gruen.

STORY: John Lennon's Tooth Fetches Over $30,000 at Auction, Goes to Dentist

Other images of Gruen’s displayed at the Century City space include a photograph of KISS, dressed in suits (one belonging to Gruen) that they used for the album cover to Dressed To Kill, Joe Strummer “in a rather passionate rock n' roll moment,” The Ramones at CBGB’s in 1979 (pictured above) and, of course, that famous contact sheet.

So does Gruen bemoan the arrival of the digital age? “Not at all,” he says. “It's just a different way of capturing an image. People used to have to paint a picture, then they invented film, where we had to do all this math and [film processing], and now it's just done easier. Plus, the cameras have gotten a lot better -- not just the digital part, the electronics in there are amazing and the pictures come out a lot better.”

Witnesses to some of the greatest performers of our collective history, as well as impactful moments of protest, inner turmoil, fan-inspired joy and creative genius in progress, rock photography, as the genre has become known, didn’t have a designation as its own art form until many years after those first images of Elvis Presley surfaced in magazines (see Alfred Wertheimer’s stunning backstage portrait of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll here). Today, it’s a true art form in that no two images are ever the same. “Everybody's got a different eye,” says Gruen of his “shoulder-to-shoulder colleagues. “And different moments.”

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin