Thu, April 17, 2014

He Shot Rock 'n' Roll

Famed rock photographer Bob Gruen recounts a life among musicians in a free lecture at the BMA.

Kiss (1974) (click for larger version)

September 01, 2011

In association with the current exhibit Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History, 1955 to the Present, the Birmingham Museum of Art presents a lecture by photographer Bob Gruen on Thursday, September 8. It goes without saying that half the fun of lectures by photographers who document the rock world is in the stories behind the shots. Gruen has plenty of tales—invariably recalled with great detail—of his adventures in New York and England during the furious emergence of punk and new wave during the 1970s and 80s. It helps that he may the most famous rock photographer in the world right now.

Gruen began seriously shooting recording artists in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival. An uncanny knack for being in the right place at a crucial moment ("I've always been lucky that way," he says) led to all kinds of opportunities, and one photo session usually led to another, bigger opportunity. By 1973 Gruen was John Lennon and Yoko Ono's personal photographer.

He was shooting bands on a regular basis at the now legendary venues in New York, capturing the scenes at Max's Kansas City and CBGB's, and even earlier at "The Kitchen" at the Mercer Arts Center, where Gruen took an interest in a flamboyant outfit called The New York Dolls.

Stiv Bators of The Dead Boys (1978) (click for larger version)

That period is part of a well-known music history now, but in 1976 it was a brand new idea to haunt the smoky clubs until the wee hours for shots of The Ramones, Blondie, The Talking Heads, Television, and The Dead Boys—often but not always in the service of scene 'zines CREEM and Rock Scene. At the same time, Gruen was making real money at the stadium shows, getting shots of Led Zeppelin, The Who, Mick Jagger, or a band that turned out to be Gruen's cash cow, The Bay City Rollers.

It was no small thing to be shooting covers for CREEM magazine when KISS, Iggy Pop, The Sex Pistols, and The Clash were just becoming the talk of the towns. It was also no small amount of luck to have huckster Malcolm McLaren doing advance work in England by telling Billy Idol, Joe Strummer, or any punk rocker who would listen that the photographer "was friends with John Lennon," and could get them on the cover of CREEM or Rock Scene. By the time Gruen was in London, a kind of red carpet had been laid out for him in a rebellious realm where red carpets were held in low regard.

That kind of rock-and-roll history inevitably led to iconic images: Led Zeppelin posing before their private jumbo jet; Tina Turner swirling in a blur of strobe lights; Sid Vicious shirtless and covered in blood while lamely attempting to play that low-slung bass guitar; John Lennon wearing that sleeveless New York City T-shirt.

Joe Strummer (1981) (click for larger version)

The Birmingham Museum of Art presents The Annual John Morton Lecture in Photography, featuring Bob Gruen. Thursday Sept. 8, 2011, 6 p.m. Admission is free. 2000 8th Avenue North (205) 254-2565 or

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