See Bruce Springsteen as the Everyman Superstar

“This is all about the streets and the stage and behind the scenes”

The late lensman David Gahr captured this mirror reflection of Bruce Springsteen in a hotel room in the mid-1970s. Tapped by Columbia Records designer John Berg to shoot cover art for Springsteen’s second album, “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle,” Gahr befriended the rising star and photographed him on and offstage.© Estate of David Gahr/courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery
On August 14, 1975, David Gahr shot Springsteen with sax sidekick Clarence Clemons during the singer’s breakout series of concerts at New York’s Bottom Line club. Heavily attended by the rock press, the shows kicked the Springsteen hype engine into overdrive; he landed on the covers of Time and Newsweek, while “Born to Run” hit the charts with a bullet.© Estate of David Gahr/courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery
Frank Stefanko caught a moment of levity with the E Street Band in 1978 in Camden, NJ, after the group’s longest-running lineup coalesced. From left: Clarence Clemons, Roy Bittan, Max Weinberg, Steven Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen, Danny Federici, and Garry Tallent. Plus a smiling parking meter at right, reflecting the mood.© Frank Stefanko/courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery
For a 1978 photo session with Frank Stefanko in Haddonfield, NJ, Springsteen pulled up in his 1960 Corvette. Stefanko had shot the stark images on “Darkness on the Edge of Town” at the photographer’s home, and on this day the pair created the cover shot for “The River.” “He was writing songs about ordinary working people, and he wanted his portraits to reflect that,” Stefanko says. (Although Springsteen never really had a day job—and most workers couldn’t afford a vintage Corvette.)© Frank Stefanko/courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery
Lynn Goldsmith caught this backstage scene during Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” tour, with “his trusted guitar and a suitcase full of cassette tapes.” He used moments like this to warm up his voice and refine his stage monologues.© Lynn Goldsmith/courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery
This mosaic of images by Lynn Goldsmith morphs into a giant photo of Springsteen in concert in a large-scale centerpiece in the Morrison Hotel Gallery show. For the components, Goldsmith used thousands of contact-sheet images she made of Bruce in the 1970s.© Lynn Goldsmith/courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery
Pat Harbron shot a stage series at a 1978 Springsteen concert at in Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, Canada. “They just go together as a chronology of one night,” he says of his set in the Morrison Hotel Gallery show. “This really capsulizes his whole act.”© Pat Harbron/courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery
Springsteen interacts with fans in this Pat Harbron concert shot. “I have photographed hundreds of concerts and it’s difficult to recall some individually,” he says, “but Bruce Springsteen’s concert at Maple leaf Gardens in November 1978 during the ‘Darkness On The Edge of Town’ tour was unforgettable.”© Pat Harbron/courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery
A rare color image in the show, by Joel Bernstein, depicts Springsteen in front of his childhood home in Freehold, NJ, in 1979. The backdrop for many melancholy recollections draws a wry smile from the singer here.© Joel Bernstein/courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery
Joel Bernstein shot Springsteen in 1979 on the promenade of Asbury Park, NJ, as the amusement park “rises bold and stark” in the background. It’s where his career began—and it now seemed far behind him.© Joel Bernstein/courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery
Rock lensman Neal Preston caught this onstage shot of Springsteen during the performer’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” tour.© Neal Preston/courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery
In this Neal Preston shot, Bruce lets the crowd take a chorus line.© Neal Preston/courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery
Photographer Jim Marchese joined Springsteen’s 1981 tour for “The River” in Europe, where local eateries were not always attuned to Bruce’s taste buds. “When we got to a new town,” Marchese recalls, “the joke was that there was a $5 tip for whomever in the crew spotted ‘the arches’ first.” That is, McDonald’s, where Bruce orders a meal.© Jim Marchese/courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery
Jim Marchese shot Springsteen listening to the E Street Band at a soundcheck in Brussels, Belgium. The star had a habit of checking out the hall from various angles to see how the sound mix was working. Here he takes in “Hungry Heart.”© Jim Marchese/courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery
Jim Marchese’s “In Flight” image was captured in Stockholm during “The River” tour in 1981. “Ending the sets was always spectacular,” Marchese says, “and always in the air.”© Jim Marchese/courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery

A few years ago on a snowy day, Peter Blachley spotted a hooded face peering into the SoHo storefront of the Morrison Hotel Gallery, which he co-founded in 2001. He recognized the pedestrian as Bruce Springsteen and invited him inside. “He was incredibly down-to-earth,” says Blachley, who has befriended many a famous rocker as a gallery owner, former record executive, and musician himself. “Bruce really is a regular guy.”

That everyman persona is something Springsteen has always carried—and cultivated. "He was writing songs about ordinary working people, and he wanted his portraits to reflect that," says Frank Stefanko, who shot the solemn cover image on "The River," Springsteen's sprawling double-album released in 1980. In tandem with that record's 35th anniversary, Morrison Hotel Gallery has staged a group exhibition, "Bruce Springsteen: The River Collection," that features work from seven noted rock photographers: Frank Stefanko, Lynn Goldsmith, Neal Preston, Joel Bernstein, Jim Marchese, Pat Harbron and David Gahr. The show will be on view in New York through February 9, before traveling to the gallery's Los Angeles location in March.

“A lot of these pictures have not been seen before,” says Aaron Zych, who co-curated the exhibition with Blachley. “Others are iconic shots of Bruce in the late 1970s and early ‘80s.”

This imagery pre-dates 1984, when Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” album sold mega-millions and rocketed him to Beatlesque heights of global fame—while its title and flag-backdropped cover shot by Annie Leibovitz engulfed him in a wave of nationalistic jingoism. All of which took even the star by surprise. “This work [in the show] is before Annie Leibovitz, before the huge stadium shows and all that monster fame,” Blachley says.

The bulk of of these photos were made in the two-year stretch when “The River” was recorded, although a few date back to Springsteen’s 1973 album “The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle.” Eric Meola’s studio shots for “Born to Run” are notably absent, but according to Blachley that was intentional—the idea was to give a more intimate glimpse of the singer. “This is all about the streets and the stage and behind the scenes,” he explains.

Beneath his oft-scruffy appearance lay a perfectionist artist: Springsteen shaped his own public image. "He's a control freak, just like me," Lynn Goldsmith recently told the Wall Street Journal. Goldsmith, who dated Springsteen in the 1970s, contributes some of the show's most revealing portraits, which she calls collaborative. "It's all manufactured. It's not just off-the-cuff, 'Oh, he's quiet now!' photos," she added. "I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I think he's taking full responsibility for his image."

The exhibition traces Bruce’s transformation from a beaming, tanned and skinny kid on the boardwalk to a somber artist who looks like he’s shouldering the weight of the world. Fame-wise, Springsteen may have been in a sweet spot—”Born to Run” sprung him loose nationwide and his fan base exploded—but privately he was dealing with the demands of stardom, a protracted legal battle with his former manager and the isolation and melancholia that increasingly began to creep into his songs.

In many ways “The River” reflected the duality of Springsteen: ebullient party-boy rock tunes contrasted with pensive, character-driven balladry. The exhibition likewise shows a dichotomy between the intensely serious private artist and his jubilant onstage presence. It’s the story of a socially awkward guy who has said he spent his childhood “on the outside, looking in”—and then found a way to reverse that equation.

"Bruce Springsteen: The River Collection" is on view at New York City’s Morrison Hotel Gallery through February 9.

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