Bruce Springsteen Photographer on 40 Years With the Singer - Rolling Stone
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Bruce Springsteen Photographer Looks Back on 40 Years of Shooting the Singer

Frank Stefanko discusses some of the now-legendary images collected in his new book ‘Further Up the Road’

Bruce Springsteen Photographer Looks Back on 40 Years of Working With the Boss

Frank Stefanko, who has been photographing Bruce Springsteen for four decades, looks back on his many collaborations with the singer-songwriter.

Frank Stefanko

“Hey, Frankie, let’s get together and make some photos and have some fun!” Those are the words that veteran photographer Frank Stefanko has heard for nearly 40 years whenever he gets a phone call out of the blue from Bruce Springsteen. Not surprisingly, it’s a request that Stefanko hasn’t been inclined to refuse. “You can’t turn him down, you know,” he tells Rolling Stone. “And who would want to? It’s always been a blast to do that.”

To fans of Springsteen, Stefanko’s work is iconic: His striking portraits of the singer-songwriter adorn the covers of 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town and 1980’s The River, perfectly complementing those classic albums’ stark working-class tone. Now marking his near-four-decade association with the rocker, Stefanko is releasing a lavish limited-edition photo book titled Further Up the Road (published by Wall of Sound Editions), featuring many previously unseen images of Springsteen. The new collection not only contains session photos from the Darkness and Nebraska periods, circa 1978 to 1982, but also candid and live images of Springsteen taken during the past 13 years. Completing the collection are photos Stefanko took of Springsteen at the musician’s Colts Neck, New Jersey, farm this past April, specifically for this new book.

Stefanko was introduced to Springsteen through Patti Smith, a college friend of the photographer’s. He recalls when Springsteen first came over to his home in Haddonfield, New Jersey, before they started formally working together. “We came from blue collar working-class families,” Stefanko says of their similar backgrounds. “Each of our mothers were Italian, and our fathers were not Italian. We loved everything about Jersey; we loved the same music. So there was a great comfort level there. He could’ve been my brother.”

“His photos had a purity and street poetry to them,” Springsteen wrote of Stefanko’s photographic style 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. We had other cover options but they didn’t have the hungriness of Frank’s pictures.” Of their working relationship during those photo sessions, Stefanko describes it as a collaboration. “It wasn’t me telling him exactly what to do, or him telling me exactly what to do. It was pretty much a 50-50 mix in that working arrangement.”

To mark the publication of Further Up the Road (whose print run is limited to 1,978 copies, which corresponds to the year Stefanko and Springsteen first worked together), Stefanko’s photographs from the book will be exhibited starting Thursday at the Morrison Hotel Gallery in Los Angeles, followed by shows in New York and Italy. “It’s Bruce’s life,” Stefanko says of Further Up the Road, “as I’ve seen it by working with him. I’ve had the rare privilege of vicariously taking this journey with him for about a 40-year period. That to me is awesome. I hope the people who look at this book will take the journey with me, and appreciate the intimacy as how I see Bruce Springsteen.”

Exclusively to Rolling Stone, Stefanko describes the following images from Further Up the Road

Frank Stefanko

“Corvette Winter,” Haddonfield, New Jersey, 1978

It was in 1978 during the Darkness sessions, the first day he came to my house in an old white ’58 Chevy pickup truck. But the second day when he came back on a Sunday, he came with this 1960 Corvette, and parked it out in front of my house. So we worked inside the house for a while and then we decided to go into the streets of Haddonfield to do some locations shots, to see what we could come up with. As we were coming outside the house, I saw his car and I said, “Why don’t you just go lean on the hood of your car for a second?” I took one singular shot and it was “Corvette Winter.”

The amazing thing about it is, that was the biggest-selling photograph of all my photographs of Bruce Springsteen. I often wondered, “What’s so good about this shot?” One day I was just staring at it and it came to me. I was looking at him leaning on the car, I was looking at the porch on the house across the street where I lived, and it just finally hit me. People might have bought it because it’s Bruce, people might have bought it because there was an automobile in it and they might have been car enthusiasts. But no, it was “Thunder Road” incarnate. It was the definitive “Thunder Road.”

The fact that he used “Corvette Winter” [for] his biography – of the zillions of photographs of him that are out there, many of them that are really good – that he chose that to represent his entire life on that cover of that book blew me away, even more than the cover of Darkness.

Frank Stefanko

‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ photo session, 1978

I saw that shirt in a store and it reminded me of Bob Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ album cover. So I bought it. I had to have it. I put it on and wore it a few times, but I couldn’t channel the same vibe as Dylan. When Bruce came over for the shoot, I said, “Do you want to wear this shirt?” He was up for anything [laughs]. So we took some shots with the crazy paisley shirt. I said [in the book’s caption], “I don’t know whatever happened to that damn shirt.” And that was a good thing. It was absolutely too much. Bruce was good with that. He’d do anything!

Frank Stefanko

“The Indian King,” Haddonfield, New Jersey, 1978

It was freezing cold, it was February. He wore this flannel shirt and this little leather jacket. And I’m bundled up in a big coat. We were going out in the streets. [The Indian King Tavern] was an old Revolutionary War tavern. I just liked the geometry of it, so I asked him to sit there. He’s sitting there Indian-styled. So that particular shot was titled “The Indian King.”

Frank Stefanko

‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ contact sheet, 1978

Guess what? We don’t know where the negatives are for that. In those days, Columbia Records needed something in a hurry, and I actually sent the negatives up because I couldn’t print them in the time they needed it. I got some of them back but there were some that [sighs] … we don’t know if they’re at the vault of Sony in Tokyo or if they are any other vault. 

We tried a lot of looks. In those days, we had the luxury of time – he would come down and spend all day and all night [shooting photos]. His work ethic was unbelievable – still unbelievable. He wanted everything to be right. I was willing to do that. 

Frank Stefanko

Shellow’s Luncheonette, East Camden, New Jersey, 1978

A great old place that no longer exists. Bill [Shellow, the owner of Shellow’s] had this really cool luncheonette with pine walls, formica and chrome booths and counters, and an old telephone booth and pinball machine. I thought it would be a really throwback motif for some shots. We did some things in the booth. [Bruce] was playing pinball and the band was huddled around him. I said, “Why don’t you go sit in the phone booth and do what you would do in a phone booth?” I did a series around this phone booth. 

Frank Stefanko

With the E Street Band at Shellow’s Luncheonette

I was going for that [gang camaraderie]. You don’t get seven people in a booth like that; it’s just not done. And Bruce is smiling. It was part of the ambiance of that quaint old luncheonette. 

Frank Stefanko

“The Smiling Parking Meter,” East Camden, New Jersey, 1978

That was outside of Shellow’s Luncheonette. I lined them up against this white wall, and everybody was just cracking up at that time. Bruce was telling some jokes, Steven Van Zandt was rolling his eyes, and every time Steven was rolling his eyes, Bruce would crack up. It was a spontaneous and contagious laugh fest that was going on. We couldn’t keep straight. I just said, “Alright, let’s just shoot it.” And everybody was laughing. But when I printed the picture, I realized there was a parking meter in the lower right quadrant of the photograph. And when I started looking at the parking meter, it looked like it had a smile on its face. So it was called “The Smiling Parking Meter,” that shot.  

Frank Stefanko

Live at the Spectrum, Philadelphia, 1978

It’s called “Leap of Faith.” I had seen several concerts … and I kind of knew Bruce’s choreography on what was going to happen. At the end of a song, many times he would just jump up in the air, come down on the downbeat, and boom! That would be the end. So I knew he was jumping and I caught him in mid-air, with Clarence drenched in white light just blaring out that gorgeous saxophone of his. I loved that shot.  

Frank Stefanko

‘The River’ Cover Shoot

The Darkness sessions actually went at least four days – three days in Haddonfield and one day in NYC. I literally shot hundreds and hundreds of photographs. Two years later, Bruce was out in California working on The River. He called me up, and he had a complete duplicate set of contact sheets from all the Darkness sessions. He was looking through them. For two weeks we had these marathon sessions where he would call me up from California 2 a.m., Eastern Time, and just said, “Pull out sheet 28, look at negative number four. Can we make that a little darker on the right side?” And I’d go into the darkroom all night and then FedEx everything to him. For two weeks we were going back and forth over shots until he finally settled on [a] close-up portrait shot, with the same plaid shirt that was in “Corvette Winter,” and that was the cover of The River

Frank Stefanko

Circa ‘Nebraska,’ Monmouth County, New Jersey, 1982

We did several different location shots for Nebraska. He came to Haddonfield [and] we took a drive to the New Jersey Pine Barrens one day. This particular shot was taken at a carriage house that he rented at the Navesink River in Monmouth County, where he actually recorded Nebraska. That was the bedroom where his TEAC 4-track deck was used to record Nebraska, that Gibson guitar was the same guitar that he used on the album. What I loved about it was this was a rented house, he’s sitting on a bed with the paint-by-numbers Gainsborough hanging on the wall, and this inexpensive-looking table lamp. This evokes to me what maybe a roadside motel out on Route 66 somewhere. It was pure rockabilly to me. 

Frank Stefanko

Portrait, Colts Neck, New Jersey, 2017

Here we’re talking almost 40 years. We did this whole series up at Colts Neck just last April and I asked him for that session to finish the book. He knew it was going to be for the book. He was on tour, and then he was in Australia, and then he was at the White House. We finally pinned him down and we’re getting on deadline. He said, “Can you come up Monday?” I said, “I know you’re busy as hell, just give me an hour or so, and I’ll get everything I need.” He was gracious. We did some inside stuff and outside stuff, and stuff with his guitars. Some of the shots I got very close and we did these portraits. It shows the fact that he’s not a child anymore. But my God, the character in that face is magnificent. I was really happy with this 2017 shooting session up at Colts Neck.

In This Article: Bruce Springsteen

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