Bob Gruen’s Journey to MoMA

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Most people who love music are familiar with the iconic photograph of John Lennon standing on a New York City rooftop — arms folded in circle-sunglasses, donning a bold-lettered New York City t-shirt. Legendary rock photographer Bob Gruen is responsible for creating that image. As of yesterday, the public can see it up close at the Museum of Modern Art exhibit “Looking at Music: Side 2,” exploring the creative exchange between musicians and artists in New York during the 1970s and 1980s. Bob was asked to create an enormous collage installation (spanning 7.5’ by 22.5’) of his magazine spreads, covers, and posters titled “A Rock and Roll Teenager’s Bedroom Wall”. Next to the installation sits a video made by Bob of bands playing at Max’s Kansas City. The exhibit also displays music videos, drawings, audio recordings, and influential publications from Bob’s groundbreaking peers at the time: Patti Smith, Nan Goldin, Kim Gordon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Robert Mapplethorpe among them.

I asked Bob if he’d ever thought any of his images would end up in MoMA. “All I keep thinking is, ‘Wow, I’m in MoMA!’ I’m in the same place where Picasso paintings are hung. It’s such an honor and dream to have my work here. Never thought it would even be a remote possibility.”

Bob was kind enough to walk me through his work, telling personal anecdotes along the way about driving The Clash around the city in his old car, dinners with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and the time Lisa Robinson (now of Vanity Fair) asked him to fly out to shoot Led Zeppelin for Rock Scene magazine; Bob pointed to the image and said, “That photo of them in front of their airplane — only a few shots were even taken. It ended up capturing all the decadence in the 1970s.”

Clearly, Bob isn’t “just” a photo journalist; he lived and continues to live the same lifestyle as the people he shoots. “I’m friends with them and we get along. So really when I’m shooting, it’s very natural. Recently I spent time with Green Day while they were in New York City. I ended up taking them up to the “Top of the Rock” to shoot where I had taken The Clash to shoot years prior. It was more fun than anything else. Everyone joked around and just had a good time, which it’s really what it’s all about.”

Looking at Music: Side 2″ will be on display at MoMA until November 30 in The Yoshiko and Akio Morita Gallery on the second floor.