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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

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.

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