It’s worth noting right off the bat that Bruce Springsteen in Focus 1980-2012 (Turn The Page Publishing) isn’t just a photographic achievement, although it’s certainly that. It’s also physical evidence of one photographer’s amazing tenacity and devotion to her subject. For Debra Rothenberg, her lenses have been the lifeline between her and her musical hero, and it’s a connection that comes through in every frame.
Rothenberg’s work is more than worthy of a collection, and it’s refreshing to see that In Focus doesn’t skimp; printed in hardcover on glossy stock, the photos seem to pop from the page. It’s tempting to call it a coffee table book, but the energy in these images defy classification in that staid format — this is a book you want to leave out on the bar, or better yet on top of a beat-up old amp.
One of the great pleasures of In Focus, not surprisingly, is seeing Springsteen’s changing looks and styles over the years. Rothenberg — now a N.Y. Daily News shooter — missed the scraggly biker period of the 1970s; she starts her collection with Springsteen on the River tour at age 31, bushy-haired and sideburned but clean-shaven and muscular, a look he’d hone further during his bandana-wearing Born in the USA years.
She religiously records tour after tour, from his bolo-tied Tunnel of Love outings through his “Other Band” excursion in the early ‘90s, and then into his reunion with the E Street Band. Notably (and surprisingly) absent are the Seeger Sessions, Magic and Working on a Dream tours, but Rothenberg picks up again with the start of the Wrecking Ball shows last year, offering a peek at Springsteen’s current, post-Clarence rebirth. The shots of Bruce and Jake Clemons, contrasted with the shots with Clarence earlier in the book, are both joyous and melancholy.
In each instance along the way, Rothenberg finds the dynamic essence of Springsteen’s live shows — the raucous physicality, the drive, the frenetic joy are all captured in her sweeping frames. Granted, she has a photogenic subject — a Springsteen concert would probably look compelling on a convenience store security camera. But Rothenberg clearly has a tremendous feel for the special moments that typify the Springsteen experience, no doubt honed through years of training her lens on him from deep in the crowd.
As for the prose, most people don’t buy photo books for the writing, and in this case that’s probably a good thing. Rothenberg lined up a bunch of Jersey Shore stalwarts to contribute, but their efforts seem oddly aimed at the non-fan who’d need to be told which tour was which — they steer away from analysis in favor of an “And then the Tunnel of Love tour happened” style of basic reportage.
Still, there are some standouts — Chris Rotolo, Bob Benjamin and Joe D’Urso do a fine job laying out Springsteen’s graciousness and fervor in supporting the Light of Day charity, and Holly Cara Price compellingly nails the musical tightrope Springsteen has walked in his Wrecking Ball shows: “The music takes a 180-degree turn from deep sadness to celebrating the life of the one who has left us, to dancing, to joy, to purifying catharsis,” she explains. Appropriately the photos, notably a wild, red-lit crowd-surf shot from Newark, bear out the description.
Rothenberg’s own words, meanwhile, are a little too breathless-fan for my tastes — one gets the sense that if she ever got to sit down to interview her idol it would wind up like one of Chris Farley’s “Saturday Night Live” sketches. (“Remember that time you played RIT in 1980? That was awesome!” etc.) At least a little professional insight would have been nice — I imagine that shooting a Springsteen concert, or any rock concert, presents technical challenges, but you wouldn’t know it from Rothenberg’s breezy reminiscences.
Still, her obvious love of Springsteen as a fan just as much as a photographer helps keeps In Focus grounded and relatable — Rothenberg’s pictures are the ones we all would want to take, if we had her lenses, her skills, and her tenacity. We should be grateful she was there, and that we have Bruce Springsteen in Focus to show for it.
See a slideshow of Rothenberg’s images from the book at nydailynews.com.