Over the last 45 years, Bruce Springsteen has become a bastion of homegrown rock and roll. Bruce Springsteen: A Photographic Journey—a traveling photo exhibition curated by the Grammy Museum currently housed at Morven Museum and Garden—aims to give fans a closer look into the life of the musician known for classic anthems like “Born to Run” and sweeping epics like “Jungleland.”
The exhibit tracks Springsteen’s career, from the 24-year-old grinning on the back cover of Greetings from Asbury Park to the introspective Nebraska photo sessions of the early 1980s and beyond. But only one photographer has been there since the very beginning: his sister, Pamela Springsteen. Pamela, along with photographers Danny Clinch, Ed Gallucci, Eric Meola, Barry Schneier and Frank Stefanko, will take part in a panel discussion with Grammy Museum executive director Bob Santelli at McCosh Lecture Hall on the Princeton University campus March 5 at 3 p.m.
The Lawrence Gazette interviewed Pamela about her career, photographing her brother, and more.
When did you first pick up a camera, and what attracted you to photography in the first place?
I got my first camera for my 21st birthday. I actually was dating a photographer who was shooting a Stevie Nicks concert. I just thought wow, that looks like fun. That’s my first recollection. I developed this passion for it over the next few years. I started assisting and interning for other photographers and eventually shooting my own stuff.
Who were some of those photographers?
Glen Wexler was really influential. He hired me even though I didn’t know anything. I was a real beginner. I saw some of his work that impressed me, so I called him up looking for a job as an assistant. I asked if he would consider taking me on. He met with me, and I didn’t know how to do anything he asked. So, he said, “Let me think about it.” He never got back to me. I called him up, and he said, “Let’s give it a shot. I can’t pay you much.” I said, “That’s fine.” I worked basically for free for a while, but I didn’t care. Eventually, I ended up staying with him for awhile and becoming a real assistant and learning the nuts and bolts and the techinical aspect of photography. I didn’t go to school for this. I’m pretty much self-taught, so he was a real influence.
He always believed in himself and his ideas, and I think that’s crucial—to stay true to yourself. It’s sometimes hard to do when you’re working as a photographer and working for other people. He was really good about that, and I think that’s probably the most important lesson that I learned form him. Follow your instincts.
Were you ever interested in another career? I know you’ve done some acting.
I did some acting. That came along when I was 19 years old. I had never really thought of being an actress. Nobody I knew was one. I met this casting director, just out of high school, who asked me if I wanted to try out for a role. That’s what got me to Los Angeles. I took acting classes for awhile. I was pretty serious about it. I worked here and there. I’m glad for the experience. I think it really helps me with my photography and understanding what it’s like to be on the other side of the camera, and that’s invaluable.
Have you ever thought about getting into filmmaking or cinematography?
Not so much cinematography, and not even really filmmaking. I can’t say I haven’t thought about it. I thought about maybe doing documentaries. That might be something down the line. I did direct a few music videos awhile ago. One was for an artist named Kim Richey, a great country singer. I shot her album cover, and her record company asked me to do her music video.
I love the shot of Bruce writing by the window. Was that a candid? What do you remember about taking it?
It was the very first time I ever photographed Bruce. I don’t really think I was a working photographer yet at that point. I had started taking a lot of pictures and loving photography. I had sent him some stuff that I had taken of my dad. He said, “Do you want to take some shots of me?” So we spent the afternoon wandering around his house, taking some shots and doing some candid stuff. That was from a series that we did in the room where he writes. He was sitting at his desk playing the guitar, writing songs. I don’t know if he was actually writing songs in the moment. It was somewhat candid.
Tell me a little bit about your Troubadour of the Highway exhibit photos. They were part of the first exhibition devoted to photographs of and related to Bruce. What was the goal for those images?
That was probably my favorite all-time project I’ve ever done. Bruce called me up. That’s how it always worked with us. He’ll say, “Do you want to go take some pictures?” I’ll grab camera, we’ll go for a drive and take pictures. It’s so great to work that way. I always wished that I could work with everybody like that. You get such great stuff.
That project, [Bruce Springsteen’s 1995 album The Ghost of Tom Joad] was coming out. He and I went out to the desert to take some photos. We were walking along the highway as it was getting dark. Because it was getting dark, I was shooting fast. We were losing light. We have this series of images of him walking down the highway. They put it together for a 20-30 second commercial for the album, like a flipbook. They were still images, but they moved because they were in sequence. Someone at record company thought it would be a good idea to do a music video with all stills based on the commercial. They called me up and asked if I would shoot a bunch of photos and do some work for a video. I spent about three weeks just driving around Southern California, through the Mojave desert.
The photos all came together in the Troubadour of the Highway exhibit. It was very exciting, but I had also just given birth, I think the same month that the exhibit opened. I was very honored to be part of that. It was put together wonderfully by Colleen Sheehy. When I finally got a chance to go out there and see it, I was really proud of it. The way that they put all those images in one room. I think they used 48 of them, all on the walls of this one room. It was so exciting to see them like that.
How is shooting Bruce different from shooting other musicians? Do you think he feels a little looser or more at ease when you’re shooting him? Do you feel more at ease shooting him?
I love the fact that something that I do and something that he does can kind of come together like that. That part of it is pretty neat. He’s interested in photography, too, and he’s good at it. I love sharing that with him. It’s very laid back. I wish all my shoots were like that. I think it just lends itself to being able to be more creative instead of some of the other pressures that come with other jobs. It’s purely just to go out and have a good time and see what comes of it. If something comes of it, great.
Bruce has such a big, commanding, exciting stage presence, but most of the photos in the exhibition capture his quieter, sometimes introspective offstage moments. How is shooting him in concert different from posed photo shoots?
That is really more of a specialty. Some people are really, really good at it. It’s hard. He played [at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena] last tour, and I did shoot a few nights. It’s pretty fun to shoot the shows. Especially if you do them night after night, a few nights in a row, you know where the moments are. My experience is that I need to know the show so that I can shoot the show. Not that you know what’s coming next all the time, but in certain moments, you know this is happening, and you want to be ready. When he’s taking the stage or coming off the stage, being in those key spots. It’s exciting. There’s definitely a different excitement about shooting the live shows than there is just shooting the portraits.
Do you have a favorite photo in the exhibition, either yours or another photographer’s?
They’re so good, all of the photographers. I can’t say that I have a favorite. They’re all so different, and they have all captured certain moments in Bruce’s time and career. It’s all so amazing. I definitely don’t have a favorite. It’s really fun to see them all together.
I do have a story about [photographer Frank Stefanko]. When I was just starting to shoot, I had just turned 21 and was living in New York City. Bruce called me up and said, “Come on down, I’ll take you to my friend’s house. He’s a photographer.” We drove down to Frank’s house and Frank showed me his darkroom and some pictures that he had been taking of Bruce. That was really my first experience of being in a darkroom. It made an impression on me.
What about the panel discussion are you looking forward to?
It’s nice to have the camaraderie with the other photographers. It’s just a really nice experience being together.