“The Photography of Bruce Springsteen” is a revealing back-to-analog history lesson, a time capsule of a way of working that has all but vanished. The new exhibit at Soho’s Morrison Hotel Gallery, on view through February 9, includes a collection of work from Frank Stefanko, Lynn Goldsmith, Neal Preston, Joel Bernstein, David Gahr, Jim Marchese, and Patrick Harbron. It’s a strong, emotional retrospective that collects the work of the very best photographers shooting Springsteen from 1972 to 1984, a period that covers the rise of his star from Asbury Park through his Born in the U.S.A. days. It’s also the first time these photographers have exhibited together, and it showcases pictures both familiar and never before seen.
“When I really started to go through and curate this, I realized how many photographs people have not seen from all of these major photographers that had a lot to do with Bruce’s life,” says the gallery’s co-founder and owner, Peter Blachley. “The idea for the show is that we want you to get a sense of the journalistic work that was done around this time.”
While the photographs in the exhibit draw from a wide swath of time, the installation’s genesis derives from the late-2015 release of Springsteen’s The Ties That Bind: The River Collection, a deluxe box set offering a deep dive into the songs and live experience of the River era (1979–’81). The work of Bernstein, Marchese, and Gahr in particular highlights this epoch. Bernstein and Gahr were in the studio during the recording of The River, and both captured unguarded moments in the control room, providing what can now be seen as a striking photographic accompaniment to the stories Springsteen recently told about the difficulties of the arduous year-long recording process.
Bernstein befriended Springsteen, who invited the photographer to stay at his house when Bernstein returned to New York in 1979 to shoot the “No Nukes” concerts. It was during that stay that Bernstein captured a beautiful shot of Springsteen working at home, at an old wooden table holding two dictionaries, piles of cassette tapes, and stacks of records. “I really don’t remember the moment,” Bernstein says. “But what it looks like to me is, I’m looking in and he’s playing music, and it’s like, I’ve got to get this shot, and I do [only] one and get the shot, because it’s too intimate.”
Marchese’s images draw from the road, specifically the first time Springsteen toured Europe. “I got a call from the tour manager asking me, ‘Could you be in Germany tomorrow?’ ” he recalls. Throughout what would prove a pivotal trip for Springsteen and the band, Marchese captured not just dynamic moments during the concerts but also memorable offstage scenes, like Springsteen standing in line at a McDonald’s in Denmark; a very Seventies rock star shot of Bruce getting off the plane (“I kept missing this shot,” Marchese notes in the catalog for the exhibit, “which was in my head the first few cities. I finally asked everyone to let me off the plane first”); and, most strikingly, multiple images of the artist soundchecking in an empty arena, including one in which he’s sitting pensively in the deserted stands.
Two of the larger photographs in the exhibit come from Stefanko, whose work graced the covers of both Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River — of course it makes sense that a large print of the latter gets pride of place. “The album cover itself was shot in 1978 during the Darkness shooting sessions,” Stefanko tells the Voice, explaining that Springsteen was working on the concept while mixing the record in California. “We had this two-week-long marathon session where he would call me at two o’clock in the morning — Eastern time, because he was in California — saying, ‘Can you make this shot, but darken the right side a bit?’ The next morning I would FedEx everything to California, and then he’d call me again…and ultimately he chose this shot. I subtitled it The Sharp Eyes of Truth…he’s looking right at you. There’s no bullshit. This is real.”
Another focal point comes from Goldsmith, who created a brand-new “rock mosaic” for the show. A thirty-by-forty-inch photomontage mounted in Plexiglas, the mosaic is constructed from more than 2,000 images taken between 1972 and 1980. “The point of the rock mosaic is to show the kind of work that goes into being an artist,” Goldsmith says. “It’s one of my new ones that I created specifically to honor this time period and, really, what goes into making Springsteen the artist that I believe his fans have such a deep love and respect for.” By stepping up close to the piece, you can begin to appreciate the challenges faced by photographers working in the pre-digital days, the rolls and rolls of film they would go through — a far cry from the present era.
As Harbron, who is showcasing a set of six images from a Springsteen show in Toronto in 1978, explains: “You couldn’t look at the back of your camera, because there was nothing to see. We all shot on film. We didn’t know — but we knew. We’d go back after the show to the darkroom…put the film in the soup, wait for it to develop…take it off the reel and look at the negative: ‘Ah ha! I knew it!'”
“The Photography of Bruce Springsteen” is on view at the Morrison Hotel Gallery through February 9. For visiting information, click here.