Photographer Celebrates 40 Years of Shooting Bruce Springsteen

For the past 40 years, photographer Frank Stefanko has been focused on Bruce Springsteen, watching him evolve as an artist and as a man. Their collaboration began with a shoot for the 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town, and continued as recently as April 2017, when Stefanko took some shots for his new book, Bruce Springsteen: Further on Up the Road.

Stefanko has limited the run of the book to 1,978 copies in honor of the year when he first worked with Springsteen. The 40-year retrospective that he completed with his publishing partner Guido Harari is filled with many never-before-seen images that were discovered while they were putting the book together. Some of the photos have been unveiled in exhibits at the Morrison Hotel Gallery in New York City and Los Angeles, and in Alba, Italy, where Harari lives.

The coffee-table book is a massive 400-page, 10-pound “monstrosity,” as Stefanko calls it. But since they first worked together, his photos have graced the covers of two Springsteen albums — Darkness on the Edge of Town and 1980’s The River — as well as his own Days of Hope and Dreams: An Intimate Portrait of Bruce Springsteen and the cover of Springsteen’s 2016 memoir Born to Run and its accompanying album Chapter and Verse. They have also filled numerous exhibits.

He was first introduced to the Boss by his college pal, Patti Smith. But the story really begins a few years earlier, when Stefanko heard a concert by Springsteen on a Philadelphia radio station. He told Smith to keep an eye out of the guy, because “he’s going to be famous one day.”

It wasn’t long before Springsteen checked out one of Smith’s shows at New York’s Bottom Line, and she told him of Stefanko’s prediction. When Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. was released in 1973, Stefanko received a copy in the mail signed by Springsteen: “To Frank, my biggest fan, Patti says.”

A few years later, after Springsteen and his former manager Mike Appel had settled their lawsuits, and Springsteen had seen the photos Stefanko shot for Smith’s Easter, he called the photographer. “His photos had a purity and street poetry to them,” Springsteen wrote of Stefanko’s photos in his 2016 memoir Born to Run. “His pictures captured the people I was writing about in my songs and showed me the part of me that was still one of them.”

It was immediately clear that they both had a sense of humor, among other things — they’re both from blue-collar Jersey families, with Italian mothers and a love for the same music and the shore, Stefanko tells Ultimate Classic Rock. It sounds a bit like a friendship ripped from Springsteen’s buddy song, “Bobby Jean” from his 1984 album Born in the U.S.A. It made their shoots more relaxed, fun, but most importantly, collaborative.

For their first session, Springsteen chose to visit Stefanko’s house in Haddonfield, N.J. He arrived “carrying a brown supermarket paper bag with a couple of T-shirts, sweatshirts,” Stefanko recalls. Springsteen went inside, met the photographer’s family and the two sat down in the living room and looked talked about what they wanted to achieve.

“It was me seeing what I want and him giving what he wants to portray,” Stefanko says of his work with the musician over the past four decades. “How many people get an opportunity to work with someone of his stature for such an extended period of time? I am extremely fortunate.”

He learned a lot about the musician in that time. “He has a tremendous work ethic. He’s non-stop, all go. He wants everything to be the best. We’d often work from early in the morning until late at night,” Stefanko says. “But it was always fun.”

Take one day in 1982, for example. The experience remains one of Stefanko’s favorite memories of working with Springsteen. They were working on photos for Nebraska at Stefanko’s house on Memorial Day weekend. “We took a ride out to the country to look for some good scenery. I told him to bring a cassette out of his car, and he brought Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Best of. The windows were down, you could smell the pine needles baking in the sun. We’re singing together. I can’t sing to save my life, but I found a way to harmonize,” he said. “Here I am driving through the Pine Barrens, Bruce is riding shotgun. We’re singing. It doesn’t get any better.”

But what’s made the greatest impression on him over the years is watching Springsteen slowly grow. “It’s 40 years of gradual aging. We were both very young in 1978,” Stefanko notes. “He didn’t have a great education, he was a street kid. What amazed me over the years was to watch him evolve. He’s more or less self-educated. He reads voraciously, he knows a lot of stuff. He’s very intelligent. He’s very worldly. He knows different cultures. He understands the needs of the common man. I’ve really just watched him mature.”

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