Bruce Springsteen is probably not the first artist that springs to mind when you think of musicians exploring issues of identity.
His working-class aesthetic—blue jeans, flannel shirts, denim jackets—and gravelly vocals about cars, mills, and hard-luck turns have defined Springsteen as a blue-collar hero since his third album, Born to Run. And arguably the three-record cycle of Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, and Nebraska, which bridge Born to Run and Born in the USA, are Bruce at his most Bruce.
And yet, in the waning years of the 1970s, as his public persona codified into The Boss, Springsteen faced an interior existential crisis.
In an introduction to a collection of photographer Frank Stefanko’s work, Springsteen wrote, “In the aftermath of Born to Run, [Stefanko] latched on to the very conflicts and ideas I was struggling to come to terms with: Who am I? Where do I go now?”
From 1974 to 1984, Springsteen used his music to work through these questions. He explored what it meant to be adulated, tossed aside, in love, alone, young, old, a man, and an American by living vicariously through characters created for tracks like “Badlands,” “Prove It All Night,” “Out on the Street,” and “Hungry Heart.”
The songs were so potent, so raw, so relatable that they brought more listeners into the fold and, perversely, amplified the fame that caused so much angst in the first place.
During this period, Springsteen tapped a handful of photographers to capture his shows, shoot album covers, and document his life offstage. The images find the Boss at his most vital—and vulnerable—performing his heart out for adoring fans, goofing off with his E Street Band-mates, and navigating the increasingly alien existence of a nascent superstar, oftentimes alone.
Those photographs are an indispensable record of a crucial moment in Springsteen’s career, and many of them are on view in “The River Collection,” an exhibition at the Morrison Hotel Gallery in New York running through Feb. 11. (The show opens in March at the gallery’s West Hollywood location.)
The images represent the work of six photographers—Stefanko, David Gahr, Neal Preston, Jim Marchese, Lynn Goldsmith, and Joel Bernstein—and were selected by Springsteen’s team for the show and inclusion in The River box set, which was released late last year.
“I liked dropping back into the world of Bruce in that period. It reminded me of how solitary he was, mostly,” Bernstein says. “It reminded me of how focused he was, and how intent on not losing his way.”
Bernstein worked with Springsteen in 1979 and 1980, shooting portraits, documentary photos, and two Oakland dates on The River tour. He lived with Bruce for about a week in the musician’s empty New Jersey mansion as he worked on The Ties That Bind, which grew into The River.
One standout from the set finds a skinny Springsteen in performance, mid-strum, rocking a full post-Dylan look of denim shirt, black jeans, and long sideburns. Colorful stage lights dot the dark background, while a bright spotlight flares out, bathing Springsteen in a rock-god aura.
In one striking image, Bernstein captures Springsteen at the crossroads, caught between his folk roots and the arena-sized “pumped Bruce” he’s about to become.
Other images, though, are so intimate you feel guilty even looking at them. The most poignant of these finds Springsteen sitting at his writing table, clad in a white button-down shirt and pants, hands nervously tapping his thighs, the room cluttered with cassettes, decks, paper, and two dictionaries.
Springsteen looks confident, but somehow unsure: Of our presence here? Of the music on those tapes? Of his future? His present?
“Sometimes you see somebody at a moment and you have to get it,” Bernstein says. But, he admits, “This is not a place where anybody should be. It’s too close. It’s too revealing.”
Revelation is a common thread in the show. Take Stefanko’s iconic portraits from 1978, for example, which ended up on the covers of Darkness and The River.
Springsteen is stripped of “celebrity refuse,” as he put it, and all the musician is left with is himself: a scrawny, shaggy guy with an imperfect face. He’s staring at you, through you, beyond you, revealing someone at once familiar and foreign questioning himself and forcing you to do the same.
“When you’re looking at that shot,” Stefanko says about The River cover, “and those eyes are looking right smack at you, to me, that’s what it represents, the sharp eyes of truth. There’s no lie there. This is straight up.”
Goldsmith reveals Springsteen in similar ways to Bernstein and Stefanko, capturing his confident stage persona during the Darkness tour in 1978, the hustling troubadour working out a tune backstage (where tapes make another appearance), the awkward proto-star standing on the sidewalk (and carrying a boom box for some reason), and the too-cool Jersey boy dubiously considering at a sign proclaiming “Easy St.”
What sets Goldsmith apart, though, is that she takes a macro view to find the truth in the Boss.
Using more than 2,000 Springsteen photos she shot between 1972 and 1980, Goldsmith assembled what she calls a rock mosaic as “a way for me to put together my thoughts and feelings in one place,” she says. “I pick what I consider to be a master shot, or a kind of iconic image of who that artist is,” cuts that up using a grid system, then uses all the images to shape a large-scale collage of that original photo. “I think about the years of that person. How they changed, what they were like with their family, the ups and downs of the relationship.”
In Springsteen’s case, Goldsmith forms an image of Bruce performing, eyes closed, mouth in an ecstatic mid-howl, his body and guitar torqued.
For Goldsmith, it’s the artist in his natural element. “Bruce’s real connection to feeling good comes from the performance,” she says. “He’s not stepping on the stage, necessarily, because he’s being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s part of his being.”
The stage, ultimately, is where Springsteen found himself. As he came out of the Darkness/River/Nebraska period, he unleashed Born in the USA on the world and nothing would be the same.
He fully embraced the rock god persona, began playing sold-out arenas all over the world (which is still the case), and shed the self-doubt that characterized his late-’70s output. He continued writing songs of crushing familiarity, singing as if he had experienced our hardships and triumphs.
His shows became religious experiences, the ultimate encounter with our superstar doppelganger. But walking among normal people as if he weren’t an international celebrity? Those days were gone forever.
The Morrison Hotel show preserves what came before, presenting an encounter with a bygone Springsteen and a unique opportunity—for both fans and the photographers—to reconsider a seminal and transformative era.
“Stuff you had looked at previously and thought was mediocre, you go back and revisit it and all of a sudden you see new stuff in there, new life,” Stefanko says. “And you say, ‘Hey, this wasn’t so bad. Actually this is pretty good! Why didn’t I see this before?’”