Photographing Bruce Springsteen

May 31, 2014
"My life was breathing, photography and Bruce Springsteen... nothing else mattered,” says Debra L Rothenberg of her youth. As she flicks through a copy of her new book, Bruce Springsteen in Focus 1980-2012, she must feel a little proud at how she made these interests come together. Within its 200 pages are 276 photos, not only providing a nostalgic look at one of the greatest American musicians and singer-songwriters of all time (with 20 Grammy Awards, two Golden Globes, an Academy Award, and inductions into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame), but this is Debra’s story – an account of her life as a fan, running alongside her own developing career as a photographer. It just happens to be that Springsteen became an important focus, and the subject on which she honed her skills. These days, Rothenberg is as decorated in her own field as Springsteen is in his. She has first place awards from the National Press Photographers’ Association in the US, a listing in Who’s Who, and since 1999 has worked as the concert photographer for the New York Daily News. Her clients have included TV networks and music labels, such magazines as People, Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly, with her work exhibited worldwide. Visit her website and you can see who she has captured on camera – arranged into categories like ‘Men who Rock’, ‘Women who Rock’, ‘Celebrities’ and ‘Sports’, and with his own separate heading at the top, ‘Bruce Springsteen’. [caption id="attachment_2160" align="aligncenter" width="956"]bruce1 Image: © Debra L Rothenberg/[/caption] It always comes back to Bruce. If there was no Springsteen, then there may have been no career in photography for Rothenberg. She recalls how she bought her first SLR camera at age 15, back in 1978, and was to discover his music barely a year later. “When I was 16, I had to attend summer school in order to graduate, as I’d missed three months due to illness,” she recalls. “My teacher was just out of college and played the music of a guy named Bruce Springsteen every day during the six-hour class. I didn’t like the music at first and asked, ‘Do we have to listen to him again?’ The teacher, who was also a photographer, brought in photos of Bruce and told me more about him. Within two weeks, I found myself asking, ‘Can we listen to Bruce today?’” Rothenberg smiles at the memory. Although despite both coming from New Jersey, it wasn’t until she later moved away that made her value her home state all the more. “I loved his words and music,” she explains. “I felt that he was singing to me. Darkness on the Edge of Town had just been released, and to this day I still think it is the best album of all time.” These are perhaps the lesser-known years of Springsteen’s career, when he still performed with the E Street Band and was more likely to have a hit if his lyrics were sung by another artist – Patti Smith and The Pointer Sisters among them. In 1980, with the release of his 20-track double album The River, he had started to deliver a clearer pop-rock sound, earning his first Top 10 single, Hungry Heart. [caption id="attachment_2162" align="aligncenter" width="955"]bruce4 Image: © Debra L Rothenberg/[/caption] “The first time I saw him in concert was December 2, 1980,” Rothenberg adds, “I was a college freshman at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. I took a friend, and we laughed, danced, sang every song and lost our voices. Nobody cared back then if you took a camera inside, and I got my first pictures of Bruce from the crowd. I processed them, and he was on stage about the size of a penny – but I was just happy I got to see him.” The concert had been part of The River tour, with these earliest images in the book showing Springsteen at age 31, all bushy hair and sideburns. As much as she became hooked on his music years earlier, Rothenberg was now to become addicted to photographing her idol. Beginning with these fans-eye shots of the early 1980s, the book continues with the Born in the USA tour of 1984-85 – promoting the album of the same name, and Springsteen’s biggest commercial success – right up to the Wrecking Ball Tour of 2012. By becoming a professional photographer, initially as staff on a newspaper back in New Jersey, and with her contacts and access improving, the concert images likewise become better and more energetic. “My first published photo of Bruce was in the September 1981 issue of New Jersey Monthly,” she says. “But it was many years before I got another paid job for a concert. On the newspaper, I did everything from sports to features, and I didn’t start to get hired to shoot concerts until later.” [caption id="attachment_2161" align="aligncenter" width="956"]bruce2 Image: © Debra L Rothenberg/[/caption] Rothenberg says she would go to as many concerts initially as her finances allowed, but like any true fan would also wait to hear of sightings and secret gigs, with Springsteen often showing up at The Stone Pony – a small, intimate venue for local bands in New Jersey – where he would perform concerts for his home crowd. His appearances here were based on rumour, and sometimes would not occur until the early hours, but when he did show up Debra would always be there. “Those days were magical,” Rothenberg admits. “To be one of several hundred people in a small club, and have Bruce on the stage just a foot or two in front of you, it was spectacular. And the energy was the same as if he was performing for tens of thousands. I love the shots from The Stone Pony in my book.” Surprisingly, with a career that has now seen her photograph the likes of Paul McCartney, Clint Eastwood, Janet Jackson and Angelina Jolie to name but a few, the topic of Springsteen still sees Rothenberg revert back to the nervous young fan she has always been at heart, and she reveals that even with the images she has taken – including some that were chosen for the official tour T-shirts in 1999-2000, and one for a cover in the Tracks CD boxset – she has never formally met him. [caption id="attachment_2164" align="aligncenter" width="956"]bruce5 Image: © Debra L Rothenberg/[/caption] There are many memorable images in Rothenberg’s book, with concerts, secret gigs, personal appearances and more candid moments all captured within its pages. The fact that she has interspersed it with anecdotes and stories from fellow fans makes it a true celebration of Springsteen’s work and what it means to them. As she reflects on the newest image, shown in the first few pages – of Springsteen being carried over the crowd, at a concert once again in Rochester, New York, this time in 2012 to bring the story full circle – she wonders what the man himself might make of it. “I saw the book as my tribute to his talent, performing energy, and the happiness he gives to his audiences,” she says. “I hope he will see it as a wonderful walk down Memory Lane.” Rothenberg is unable to address the rumour regarding Springsteen and photography – that he hates any shots where he is smiling. “I’ve heard that too,” she says, “but in 90 per cent of my photos, he does that. On stage, he smiles all the time. And he is smiling in my cover image, outside the Wonder Bar in Asbury Park, New Jersey, in 1988 before he filmed the One Step Up video. Then in one of my favourite shots from 1985, with a baseball cap on backwards, he is smiling there too.” Details: Bruce Springsteen in Focus 1980-2012: Photographs by Debra L Rothenberg is available from, price £37.50. For more visit