This month’s “West Village Original” is rock-and-roll photographer Bob Gruen. He has worked closely with major attractions such as John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Tina Turner, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, and Kiss. A Greenwich Village resident since 1965, he settled into the newly created Westbeth complex in 1970 and still lives there with his wife, Elizabeth.
It took a couple of failed attempts at college to get photographer Bob Gruen to move to New York. It was at the third school he tried, in Baltimore, where his sociology professor told him one day that he should be living in Greenwich Village. “So I moved to Sullivan Street in June of 1965,” he recalls. “I showed up at my friend’s apartment with my cartons. It turned out that the Feast of St. Anthony was going on right outside our door so for the first ten days I was here we didn’t cook anything. We just ran down to the street and got our food.”
Growing up on Long Island, it seems as if there never was a time when Gruen couldn’t remember being around a camera or the darkroom. “My mother and father were both attorneys,” he says. “But my mom photographed as a hobby and taught herself how to develop and print as well. When I was very little she started to take me in the darkroom with her. I used to count the seconds while we were developing the prints. When I was eight years old I got my first camera, a Brownie, and I got my first 35mm camera for my bar mitzvah.”Before Gruen started photographing rock bands, there wasn’t a field called “Rock-and-Roll Photography.” “I’m one of the people who invented it”, Gruen says. “I was alive when rock–and-roll started, I liked the music, and I liked photography so it all came together. After I moved to the Village I ended up living with a rock-and-roll band and taking pictures of them. When they finally got a record deal, their company used my photos for the album. After that, it kind of snowballed. Every time I met someone, they liked my photos and hired me to do another job.”
One of his most famous associations was with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. “In 1972 I was asked to take pictures for an interview in After Dark magazine,” he recalls. “The story was actually about Elephant’s Memory, a downtown band who were backing up John Lennon in the recording studio. I took the pictures with the band and then I suggested that John and Yoko join them for some as well. John and Yoko liked those pictures when they saw them and invited me to spend more time with them. Since I lived in Westbeth and they were on Bank Street at that time, it was very convenient for us to see each other and that’s how our friendship started.”
How different was the far west Village in the early 70s? “When I first moved into this part of the Village it was deserted,” Gruen laughs. “It seemed like miles from anywhere that people were. You had to go up to Eighth Avenue to get a taxi. There was even a little pony farm at Washington and Tenth Streets! Within the next few years they took down a lot of the older buildings here and built those low-rise brick buildings along Washington Street.” As for the waterfront, in those days it was all dilapidated old piers. “The pier here on Bank Street in the summertime was like a beach,” he recalls. “There could be a thousand or 1,500 sunbathers on a weekend afternoon, with people selling ice cream and beer. Over the years the piers kept catching on fire so the city cut off access to them. Much later they ended up finally taking them down.”
He knew things were changing, though, when about ten years ago he was able to get a cab on Washington Street. “I thought, ‘Wow, the neighborhood is picking up!’ That’s because the Meat Packing district started developing as a destination. The biggest changes that I’ve seen are the increase in the rents and the increase in the population. A lot of that is due to the Hudson River Park. It’s a lot better than I expected it to be and it made it possible for other people to want to live here.”
When asked if he still enjoys living in the West Village, Gruen quickly responds. “Oh, yeah, very much,” he says. “It’s a very special feeling. The fact that’s it a little crooked compared to the rest of New York is part of it. It actually feels like a village. At the same time there’s a lot of creative people here and they tend to have a live and let live attitude. I read an article recently in the New York Times that said the people in the West Village are the most satisfied in the city. Well, I’m one of them.”
Photo of Bob Gruen by H. Toresson