Bob Gruen, who snapped many of the greatest rock legends, talks to Blanca Schofield about his new show


Gruen’s shot of Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious on a plane to Brussels in 1977


The Times

We all do it — whip out our phones at gigs to document the experience, zooming in on the little blob on stage while trying to adjust the lighting to make sure the glow from everyone else’s phones doesn’t impact our shot. The arena becomes a sea of metal rectangles waving in the same direction as fans get caught between the desire to be in the present and the fear of not capturing every song just in case they want to put one of their fuzzy videos on social media.

Some performers are fed up with this glowing sea. Last week Bob Dylan announced that audiences would not be allowed to use phone cameras at his concerts — a blow for obsessive chroniclers and aspiring music photographers alike. Yet it’s not the first time the 81-year-old has resorted to these measures: his fight precedes the era of TikTok and Instagram.

“Bob Dylan has always been sensitive about having his picture taken,” the rock and punk photographer Bob Gruen says. “The first time he tried to ban photos was during the Rolling Thunder tour. They banned cameras and searched people, so I ended up putting cameras in my boots and lenses in my hood and taped film to my arm so I could sneak it into the concert. I waited until it was the encore part and everyone was jumping in the air and then I took my camera out and started taking pictures.”

Childers’s shot of Elvis in Madison Square Garden in 1972


The 76-year-old New Yorker — who became John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s personal photographer and continues to shoot stars such as Nile Rodgers — is having his work exhibited at a show in east London beside never-before-seen images by Leee Black Childers, another prolific music photographer, who died in 2014.

Aside from his lifelong love of taking pictures — his mother taught him how to use a darkroom when he was five and he started making money from photos aged 11 — Gruen insists that part of his success came from respecting musicians and using only images they liked. When I point out the irony in this given his Dylan anecdote, he smiles. “That was the only time I did that.” And for good reason too — the folk singer never forgot the misstep. “Several years later I actually ran into Bob Dylan on the street, and he told me he wanted to beat me up. It made me think about what I did. I felt bad intruding on him.”

It’s a lesson he still abides by. “You get better pictures when you have somebody’s trust, when somebody can relax and be themselves in front of you.” One of his most iconic images, a photo of Sid Vicious covered in mustard eating a hot dog while wearing a badge saying “I’m a mess”, was taken during some downtime in Dallas after the Sex Pistols had invited Gruen to travel with them. “I don’t know if he was a good bass player but he was a good actor,” he chuckles.

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He even managed to crack Johnny Rotten. “He was the most obnoxious person I ever met,” Gruen says. But things changed — Rotten “opened up a little” when Gruen photographed him. “Being obnoxious is what he does for a living, but behind that is actually a sometimes nice person.”

Childers’s shot of a young Michael Jackson playing the congas in 1966


Childers got intimate access to punk and rock icons as a producer as well as an artist. “He actually managed [Johnny Thunders’] Heartbreakers and was part of helping David Bowie create his Ziggy Stardust persona,” the show’s curator Stephen Colegrave says.

A famous photo in the exhibition of Bowie on the Trans-Siberian Express was taken when Childers was Bowie’s road manager. He had to organise a trip through the Soviet Union because the singer refused to fly back from a concert in Japan. Along the way, Bowie did impromptu concerts in the section where the female guards stayed — it was the warmest part of the train — and they “fell desperately in love with him”, Colegrave says. “You can imagine this slight madness,” he adds. “And it’s an amazing photo, with the natural light coming through the window and [Bowie’s] teeth before they got done.”

Colegrave worked on many projects with Childers in the 2000s, during which time he got a glimpse into the piles of shoeboxes filled with undeveloped photos he kept in his Brooklyn apartment. After he died the boxes went to Childers’s brother Henry in Texas until Colegrave, with the help of the punk musician Smutty Smiff, convinced Henry in February this year to let them develop the images.

“I found pictures I never knew he took — pictures of Elvis, one of Michael Jackson when he was young, all sorts of amazing pictures I hadn’t seen before,” Colegrave says, before pointing out an image of the Sex Pistols performing in Leeds — one of the few concerts on their 1976 Anarchy tour that wasn’t shut down by local councils.


A dark-haired Debbie Harry on stage in New York shot by Gruen in 1974


Alongside these works, Colegrave decided to display pieces by younger artists who have been invited to “mash up” the exhibited photos to create new art. “It’s all very punk,” he explains, “if you think about the way we used to cut letters out of magazines and newspapers. I wanted to bring this to a younger generation.”

They may be able to mash up these existing photos, but can the younger generation take their own behind-the-scenes snaps at a time when famous musicians are hidden behind a wall of agents, managers and publicists? “Anybody can meet musicians and become friends with them. And if they become popular, you can have some popular pictures. I didn’t start with top-name acts. Even back then you couldn’t get near top acts like Frank Sinatra,” Gruen says.

“If you come to my house you’ll see 22 filing cabinets filled with thousands of bands you’ve never heard of. And the fact that a couple of them popped out and made it was just kind of luck. If you take pictures of hundreds of bands, one or two of them will become famous.”

'Legendary Moments'
 is running July 29 to August 19 at D’Stassi Art, London N1;