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Bob Gruen is a legendary, fly-on-the-wall photographer of the 20th Century. His camera (and personality) took him to places that dreams are made of. As a music photographer, Bob experienced the backstage glamor, the on-stage energy and the quiet, creative times in the studio — often in Hell’s Kitchen.
Bob is featured in the new six-part docuseries — ICON: Music Through the Lens — that airs for the first time this evening (Friday July 16) on PBS. We chatted with Bob about his Hell’s Kitchen journey with his friend John Lennon.
“I lived for a while on 46th Street, just west of 9th Avenue in 1966. We had started to grow long hair and have bell-bottoms. The neighborhood kids would break a paperclip in half, shoot it at us with a rubber band. They’d call us The Beatles and stuff because we had long hair,” Bob recalls. “The neighborhood was kind of dicey. They still had the gangs here. There was a murder by a guy called the Umbrella Man down the block from us. That kind of stuff was going on.”
Although Bob moved out of Hell’s Kitchen, he continued to come back to the neighborhood to photograph musicians in iconic studios like the Power Station (on W53rd St between 9/10th Ave), Hit Factory (W54th St between 9/10th Ave) and Record Plant (W44th St between 8/9th Ave).
The music legends he photographed spanned from Elvis to Madonna, Bob Dylan to Bob Marley, Tina Turner to Debbie Harry. He has captured the music scene for over 40 years in photographs that have gained worldwide recognition.
Bob is best remembered for becoming the personal photographer of John Lennon and Yoko Ono after they made their home in New York in 1971. He was also their friend, making photos of their working life as well as private moments. In 1974 he created two iconic images of John Lennon — one where John is wearing a New York City T-shirt and the other standing in front of the Statue of Liberty making the peace sign.
“The image of John that’s most important to me is the Statue of Liberty picture for several reasons. One, because I thought of it in advance — most of my pictures are very spur of the moment,” says Bob. “I was thinking about his deportation case, as the Nixon administration wanted to throw him out of the country. The Statue of Liberty is a great symbol and I thought that we should be welcoming artists like John. So I just suggested to go. He said: ‘Yeah, great idea. Let’s do it’. That night I think we drank too much. I called him the middle of the afternoon the next day and he said it was too late. That night when I was driving home, he called and said, ‘I’ll see you in the morning — and bring your eyes’.”
Hell’s Kitchen provided many intimate moments for John, recorded through Bob’s lens. In 1980, John and Yoko were recording at The Hit Factory. “Sean and John share the same birthday, October 9th. Sean was 5 years old, John brought him to the studio to see what daddy was doing because he had been away every day for months,” remembers Bob. “It’s funny that the picture of John with his arms out looks he’s like he’s showing Sean the wonders of the recording studio. He was actually explaining to me that this was the day the studio put in the first Neve computerized mixing desk, and the volume controls for the 16 tracks could move without 16 hands and 8 people being involved.”
Bob shot musicians in many different places. He explained the difference between when he was shooting back stage and in the studio: “Dressing rooms can be pretty intimate. But I think in a recording studio, the artists are much more open because they’re working out of the public eye. They’re not performing, they’re creating.”
That creativity often meant late nights. Bob recalled getting home at 3am one morning after a night at The Record Plant, only to hear the phone ringing. Mick Jagger had arrived at the studio and the manager wanted Bob to come back. Bob returned: “Talk about a rivalry between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but they looked like old buddies who were happy to see each other. John started showing Mick some guitar chords. Then Yoko had been writing a song and that’s when they sat down at the piano and started singing her song. It was a fun night, like five in the morning, whatever.”
Bob saw and photographed John for the final time in Hell’s Kitchen on W44th Street. “The last time I saw him was standing on the sidewalk in front of The Record Plant. That was the morning of December 6th. He was killed on the night of December 8th.”
For more great photography and the stories behind the images — ICON premieres tonight on PBS and here is a trailer.
The series features irreverent interviews with acclaimed photographers in New York City and across the country, including NYC-based photographers Deb Feingold (who shot early photos of Madonna in her NY apartment), David Godlis (a street photographer known for his raw images of the NY punk scene at CBGB’s), and Lynn Goldsmith (who became a close collaborator and friend of Patti Smith’s, beginning in the 70s), among many other NY-luminaries — including Bob!