Photo by © Hanna Toresson
In a world where fame and notoriety comes and goes and technology can make skilled artisans obsolete, legendary photographer, Bob Gruen, is still on the cutting edge of capturing intriguing and relevant images of people we’re all interested in.
Yet, as he still successfully crafts sought after photographic excellence in a world of Instagrams and YouTube, it’s the iconic work of his past that still excites people.
Known for some of the most touching and historic images of the last nine years of John Lennon’s life, Gruen continues to work with Yoko Ono as her photographer and, more importantly, is still there for her as a trusted friend.
A couple of years ago, Bob and rock radio’s “Voice of Austin, Texas,” Jody Denberg, put together a book of photos Gruen had taken over the years and quotes from Jody’s work with Yoko. The tome was a gift for Yoko’s 80th birthday (yeah, way).
As is often the case with Yoko, things tied to her and her late husband tend to generate lots of buzz and demand. This book that was originally intended to be a gift of love to her friends soon lead to being published into a commercially available book entitled, “See Hear Yoko.”
It has been five years since I last interviewed Mr. Gruen (here).With the flurry of activity surrounding the release of Yoko’s book, I wasn’t sure that he would have time to sit for a phone interview with me. After graciously sending me a copy of the book to review (here), he generously made time out of his very busy schedule to talk with me about the book and what was on his plate in the near future.
Bob had this to say about the background and story behind the book.
“It was a very personal project. I’ve been friends and worked with Yoko for over forty years. She was turning eighty years old, and what do you get the woman who has everything? Jody has been interviewing Yoko for her official EPKs (Electronic Press Kits) for over twenty-five years. He came up with the idea to take quotes from her interviews and pairing them with my pictures from over the years to make a book we could give Yoko as a gift. These days, you can lay out a book in a program online, and they’ll print a nice hardcover book for you.
“As we were making it, people asked if we were going to publish it. We said, ‘No, this is a personal gift for Yoko.’ We kept all commercial ideas out of the project. All of the photos were picked out for Yoko - pleasant memories, things that we did together, things she would like to have in a photo diary. She liked it so much, when I saw her at an event a month after I gave it to her, she said we should publish it. She came over again a half hour later and said, ‘I mean it. We should publish this.’ A month later, her lawyer called and said, ‘By the way, Yoko wants me to remind you that you should publish the book’.
“It’s not always easy to find a publisher, but as things worked out, Jody knew somebody who knew somebody who knew Johnny Depp. He has his own publishing imprint called Infinitum Nihil. He’s done a couple books- a Hunter S. Thompson book and an unpublished Woody Guthrie book. He liked our book very much, so he brought it to HarperCollins. It just came out now since it takes awhile to go through the publishing process. The finished book is even nicer than the online version, which is kind of basic.
“We didn’t really change the book at all. It’s pretty much what we gave Yoko. We changed the captions a little. There was nothing in the book that was a surprise for
Yoko or me. They were all pictures we’d seen over the years, so I didn’t have to put very detailed captions for Yoko. For the public, we put the place, date, what was going on, who is in the picture, and so on. Jody and I both added a thank you note that Yoko sent as an introduction. People seem to like it a lot.
“There are a little over 200 pictures in the book. I first started working with John and Yoko in 1971. After John passed away in 1980, I continued working with Yoko for another thirty years. A lot of people aren’t aware of what Yoko’s been doing for those thirty years, but she’s been doing a lot. She’s been traveling around the world. She does art exhibits. She’s been raising Sean. The first quarter of the book or so is a lot of John and Yoko pictures, and then you see Sean as a baby with John and Yoko. Throughout the book, Sean grows up.
“After John passes, there’s a period of mourning. You can see Yoko and Sean getting closer. He was five at the time- a very exuberant kid. By the end of the book, I think he’s older than John was at the beginning of the book. It really covers a long period of time. There are a lot of quotes in the book from Yoko’s interviews that are related to what’s going on in the pictures or related to her life at the time we took the pictures. It’s really a nice project, and I’m glad we can get it out to the public.
“There were a lot of pictures in there that Yoko and I knew about, but they were never publicly published- Yoko at her art shows, pictures of her traveling, pictures at home with Sean. There may have been something here or there published in an article, but by and large, these have not been published. They were done for Yoko at the time. So it’s nice to sum it up, put it in a book, and make it public now.
“John Lennon said that Yoko Ono is the most famous unknown artist in the world. Everybody knows who she is, but nobody knows what she does. I hope this book gives a little bit of insight into what she does. There are all kinds of charity events. There’s Strawberry Fields in Central Park. There’s an event where she was speaking at the United Nations General Assembly when they performed ‘Imagine’ with about 135 countries around the world, a lot of her art shows, introducing the Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland. So it gives a lot of insight into what she’s been doing the last forty years.”
I mentioned to Bob that I saw a picture of Yoko a few months ago, and that she looks better at 82 than I do at 55.
“She pretty well. Since I’ve known her, she has a pretty healthy diet. She taught us about the macrobiotic diet early on. I don’t know if she strictly follows that, but she’s a very healthy eater. She gets good exercise. She’s just a healthy person. She’s more active, alert , and aware than a lot of people who are thirty years younger than her. She’s pretty amazing.”
I was curious if there were there any surprise emotions that he or Yoko encountered while working on this project.
“There were a lot of very fond memories. There was nothing really I forgot, but coming across them, it was really familiar… a lot of happy moments. My first trip to Japan in 1974 was with Yoko, and that’s covered in the book. There’s a beautiful picture- I think it’s on the back cover- of her coming off the plane. There’s a mass of photographers waiting for her, and she just descends like an angel to them. Remembering all these moments, it was fun. I’ve always had a lot of fun with Yoko.“
Then, being the true friend to Yoko that he is, Gruen shared this story:
“Somebody asked me the other day for something people don’t know about Yoko. I think it’s her sense of humor. Yoko’s got a great sense of humor, and it’s always fun to be with her. You couldn’t live with John Lennon without having a sense of humor. In her photos and in public, she always seems serious. She works with a lot of serious causes. A lot of her work is peace. A lot of it is to help feed children, to help hospitals, and to make the world a better place. Those are very serious things, so a lot of her photos look pretty serious. But, in person, she’s got a great sense of humor. She’s really fun to hang out with, so while going through the pictures, there were just a lot of happy memories.”
I shared that, to me, the picture she took of John’s glasses that he wore at the time of his death was one of the most moving photos I have ever seen. But the behind-the-scenes photo in the book of the staging of that photo that was also staggering in a symbolic way. I asked if she has indicated what is the most emotional photo for her from this collection?
“Well, that’s a pretty strong one. As are the pictures of the memorial – I think there was one shot outside of The Dakota or something with the crowd gathered. The day we took the picture of the glasses was a very difficult, very emotional day. Yoko is not afraid of strong emotions, so I was able to include that. It was a memory of something she did that was part of her life. She never shied away from any difficult times. Doing that picture was very difficult. We were both crying while we were doing it. When she took the glasses out, we both just started crying. It was such a real expression of what happened. To me, it’s horrifying when you see that picture. You see the blood on the glasses.
“At the time, over the winter, a number of people said, ‘How is Yoko? She must feel terrible. I can’t imagine.’ When you see that picture, you’re so horrified. You actually feel some of what she feels. Just a little bit. You don’t have to ask the question anymore. You kind of know how she feels.
“That’s the thing about Yoko’s art. It doesn’t just make you think about things. It makes you feel things. She’s very good at that. A lot of people don’t like being in touch with their feelings, particularly a strong, painful feeling like that. Yet she’s open to it, and she lives with that as we all should.
“A lot of people don’t like to live with their feelings. When they see her art and react strongly to it, they get very angry. They don’t like reacting strongly to things like that. Rather than seeing that Yoko is a really great artist that made them feel something deeply, they say, ‘She’s terrible. She made me feel bad. I don’t like her.’
‘As I said before, Yoko is the most famous unknown artist in the world. Everybody knows who she is, but nobody knows what she does. I’ve never met anybody who has
met Yoko who didn’t like her and wasn’t amazed and in awe of her. I have met a lot of people who haven’t met her, only heard about her, who think they don’t like her. That’s really kinda funny.
“When she first came out, and The Beatles were breaking up, they blamed that on her. There was also a lot of racism in England, and they just couldn’t understand why John was with this weird, crazy little artist instead of a beautiful blonde bombshell. When you meet Yoko, you’ll understand why. People ask me what kind of woman Yoko is, and I always say she’s the kind of woman that John Lennon could marry.”
“At one point, John was just getting too drunk, and Yoko couldn’t live with a complete drunk anymore. She sent him off to California, and during that time, he got so loaded. When they were together in the beginning, people would say, ‘Oh, what’s he doing with that horrible woman?’ After what they call the ‘lost weekend’ that lasted a year and a half, everyone was so happy and saying, ‘Thank God he’s back with Yoko! Isn’t that wonderful?’
“I noticed that these same people that used to say that they wished those two would break up were so happy when they were back together. It was just a symbol of togetherness, and he was obviously so much better off when he was back with her. He stopped drinking and carrying on. He cleaned up his life, Sean was born, and he stayed home to take care of Sean. It changed his life enormously.
And what does Yoko hope people take away from this book?
“She was willing to open up and share a lot of her private life- what her life is really like. There are a lot of private times with Sean, and there are times she’s working and appearing in different art openings. Some of it is very playful, and yet very thought- provoking. There’s a picture of Sean and Yoko sitting at a chess set. It’s one of her pieces called ‘Play By Trust’. It’s a chess game where all the pieces and all the squares are white, and she said that way you have to remember who’s on your side and who’s not. It’s much more like real life. It’s very difficult to play, and so is life. I think that’s the point she is making. I think it really shows a lot of who she is.
“Had I planned to make a book for the public, I probably would have included a lot more information. There are a lot of places we went and things we did that aren’t in the book, because it was just a random collection of good times for her. It wasn’t really thought out as an explanation of who Yoko is or what she does. In many ways, it was somewhat random. I have so many good pictures. It wasn’t difficult to edit because there was no pressure on me. It was just making a nice collection for Yoko, so I didn’t really have to tell a story as I would have had I been planning on making it for the public. It does tell a story, because there were so many pictures, so many places, so many different things that we did.
“At the beginning, there’s a lot of John and Yoko where you can see that they’re a team. But when he’s gone, you can see she’s in a period of mourning. She comes out of it with the help of Sean. You can see what an exuberant kid he is. There are a couple great pictures of him. Some of my favorite pictures in the book are actually the two pictures of Sean playing. You can see how that relationship starts developing. She kinda comes back to life, and she starts getting more active. Now days, she’s more busy than she’s ever been. At 82, she has not slowed down. If anything, she’s speeding up. She’s constantly traveling around the world, constantly appearing at places. She has new exhibits, retrospective exhibits of her John and Yoko period, and countless charities that she works for.”
Gruen said this about the audience’s reception of the book:
“We’ve been receiving a lot of compliments saying it’s beautiful. It’s insightful and really interesting to see these things that were so much behind-the-scenes, to see a collection of so many different things that people didn’t know Yoko was doing. Yoko likes it very much. At her birthday party this February, she had a small party of about thirty people. As a takeaway gift, she gave everybody a copy of the book. At a Beatles fan event last weekend, she gave them six copies of the book to auction for charities. She’s supporting it. We’re doing a book signing together next month, actually, at the Marc Jacobs bookstore on Bleecker Street in New York. She’s not doing any interviews, because she’s got her own projects going.
In support of his dear friends projects, Bob says of them, “In May, she’s got a big retrospective of her work opening at the Museum of Modern Art here in New York. It’s a very big deal that they’ve finally come around and accepted her. Luckily, she’s alive to appreciate it. A lot of artists don’t get that until long after they’re gone. Like I said, she’s a powerhouse- nonstop coming up with new ideas, old ideas, and a lot of charities.”
As he alluded to earlier, Bob said that Yoko is viewed by some as a controversial figure. I asked him if he thought this book will help clear up misunderstandings about her and soften her critics view of her.
“I hope so. A lot of the critics don’t know her, and a lot either haven’t even seen her art or are afraid of it. A friend of mine was someone who really didn’t like Yoko, because she had ‘broken up The Beatles’. That was her opinion. As I got friendlier and friendlier with Yoko, my friend just couldn’t understand it.
“Then Yoko had a retrospective of her art at the Japan Center here in New York. My friend went and came out saying, ‘I didn’t realize Yoko had such a sense of humor or how deep and interesting she was’. It completely changed her mind when she actually saw what Yoko did.
“All of the Beatles have said that Yoko had nothing to do with their breaking up. It was just more convenient to blame her instead of blaming The Beatles themselves. I was with John Lennon once in Central Park, and some guy yelled out, ‘Hey, John, when are you going to get The Beatles back together?’ He yelled back, ‘When are you going to go back to high school?’ There is a time and place for everything, and they had their time and place.
To help shed a John and Yoko’s relationship in a little bit different light and from a different perspective, Bob said, “Some people say that meeting John Lennon was one
of the worst things that happened to Yoko, because she was a rising star in the avant garde art world which is very respected by many people and unknown to most people. Yoko doesn’t sing like Frank Sinatra, but Ornette Coleman doesn’t play the trumpet like Herb Alpert. Ornette Coleman is friends with Yoko, and they actually did some shows together.
“When John met her, Yoko had her own one person exhibition. For a female artist, even now, to have a one person show is unusual. In the sixties, it was unheard of. Yet Yoko had her own exhibit, and that’s where John met her. She was doing fine on her own. In fact, she was doing very well. She was excelling- becoming quite well-known, understood, and appreciated in the avant garde world. Then she met John, and she all of the sudden was thrust onto this world stage in front of people who like pop music which had nothing to do with her life. They all started criticizing her without even knowing what she did.
“From my point of view, I’ve actually always liked Yoko and what John and Yoko did. I’m one of the few people, I think, who heard about Yoko before I heard about The Beatles. I remember, the summer before The Beatles came here, I was reading a story in a magazine about a Japanese woman who had a loft on Canal Street. You could pay five dollars to go into the loft, and it was full of large bags. You could actually get inside one of these large bags with somebody and, to use a hippie expression, do your thing which basically meant anything you wanted to do. Or you could go in the loft, not get in the bag, and wonder what the people in the bags were doing. I thought that was about the weirdest thing I had ever heard of called art. It struck me as really funny and weird, and I wished I was old enough to go to the city and go the exhibit. Actually, I think I was old enough, but I think by the time I was reading about it, it had already happened.
“A few years later, there was this weird little Japanese woman with John Lennon, and they were sitting inside these bags. I thought, ‘Well, there can’t be two people like that’. The things they started to do- first, it was appearing in bags and saying who they are doesn’t matter. What they are saying matters, because all they were saying is they wanted peace on earth and an end to war. Then they sent an acorn to the leaders of every country in the world, and they asked them to plant the acorns so the world could grow together in peace.
“When they were trying to plan their honeymoon, and the more they tried to think of a secret place, the more they realized the press would hound them no matter where they went. The more secret they are, the more the press would try to find them. Yoko suggested they turn it around, and they invited everybody in the world to come in and see them on their honeymoon in their marital bed, which was what the press wanted most. So they said, ‘Come on in and look’, and they put the word ‘peace’ behind them knowing that everyone who took a picture was going to print it on the front page of the newspaper. That way every newspaper in the world would say the word ‘peace’. How can you hate somebody who does that?”
I shared with Bob that I had met Ringo recently and that it was striking to me the peaceful and loving way he treated the band and how they treated each other and fans.
“Peace and working for peace is a part of everyday life, all day every day. There were bodyguards/tour managers named Patty and JC Callaghan. JC, for many years, was the head of security for the Rolling Stones and The Who. When you’re head of security for a band like the Rolling Stones and The Who, you have to deal with a lot of very macho characters, so the Callaghans were pretty tough brothers. Yoko hired them to be the tour managers for when we went to Europe around ’84 or ’85. JC would ordinarily just take kids and toss them out the door when they tried to come in the wrong way or something. In this case, he would say, ‘Peace and love, please stay outside’. It even affected the way they were dealing with these people trying to sneak in. When I saw JC saying ‘peace and love’… that was kinda unusual.”
Are there any plans for a follow up to this book?
“There aren’t any plans, no. But now that I’m getting familiar with the book and looking at it as more than just a gift for Yoko, I realize there is a much bigger story I could have told. In the future, I might be doing more. I’ve got a lot more books in me, that’s for sure.”
With regards to what he’s working on now, Gruen shared, “I have several projects. I have an exhibit coming up in Helsinki at the end of May. I have an exhibit that will be in Liverpool at the end of August. I have two books being re-issued this year. Ten years ago, I put out a book called ‘John Lennon: The New York Years,’ which is being updated and revised with some new pages and new cover. That will be reprinted for John’s 75th birthday in the fall.
“About fifteen years ago, I made a book with all my pictures of The Clash. It’s been out of print for a number of years, and that’s being reissued by Music Sales Omnibus
in London. It’s an edition of 1250, and it’s got a box flip case with a limited edition signed print in each book. That’s coming out in about a month when I finish signing all the prints. Those are the major projects right now. I’m also working on a proposal for a biography.”
Bob then graciously answered a couple of questions offered by Boomerocity readers. The first asked if he had ever been put in an embarrassing situation while on a shoot.
“Not offhand. I’m not easily embarrassed, and I kinda take things as they come.”
The second question wondered if he had ever fallen or injured yourself while shooting photographs.
“I do remember one time I got hurt. It still affects me a little bit. I was onstage with the New York Dolls in Japan, and I went to jump off the side of the stage. There was
a 5’ plastic pillow in front of the stage, and there was gravel around it. I was going to jump on that and step off, but my foot got caught. Instead of stepping off, I fell right on my knee on the gravel. But I haven’t been seriously hurt, luckily. God knows why not, because I’ve certainly been in a lot of horrific situations and total chaos in front of stages. I’ve seen other people close to me get hurt falling off chairs or getting banged around in the crowd. I haven’t broken anything, and I hope I don’t.
“I’m still in some of those chaotic situations on occasion. I don’t photograph like I used to. I don’t go to every show that I can, and I don’t photograph four shows a night. The media has changed so much that everybody is taking their own pictures. I used to take pictures at the show then go home and develop the film. You make some prints, and a couple days later you send them to magazines. A week or a month later, they would print them, and it would be news. Now everyone takes cell phone pictures and uploads them so quickly that, before the first song is over, there are pictures around the world. I don’t really try to compete with that. Luckily, I have enough old pictures that can’t be reproduced that I make a living on those.”
As we wound up our chat, Mr. Gruen updated me on the coming changes to his website, BobGruen.com.
“I launched the website in 2000, and by 2001, people were telling me I needed to revise and update it. We have finally revised and updated it, and in a couple weeks,
we’re going to launch the new website. It’s going to have a search feature which was glaringly missing all these years. I have two major sections of the website- one relates to all the files from the past, and the other is what I call 'The Photo of the Day,' which is all the current work I still do. I still do take pictures. I go out pretty regularly. I don’t do it with the intensity I used to, but I still go our four or five nights a week to take pictures. I post them in 'Photo of the Day' which has turned out to be photo of the season since I only update it every three or four months. All those photos will be searchable now. It’s not online yet, but we’ve had what is hopefully our last meeting with our webmaster and should have the final glitches touched up in a week or two.”
Glitches or not, Bob Gruen’s work is still exciting and captivating. He’s one of the few photographers that Boomerocity is intrigued by and anxiously looks forward to seeing what’s new from.
John would be as proud as Yoko is.
Note: Please do keep up with Bob Gruen’s work and activities at BobGruen.com where you can also purchase his work. You can also order and/or download “See Hear Yoko,” below.