InteReview: Debra Rothenberg’s 30 years of Bruce (we’re hoping for 30 more)

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How it’s (New York) New Jersey: The Boss made New Jersey cool long before The Sopranos. Bless you, Bruce. And for New York: the book Bruce in Focus Coverchronicles events around New York City.
How it’s Irish: Bruce is very popular in Ireland and sold out his tour there last summer. I saw him in Kilkenny, and when I told the people near me that I was from New Jersey, boy, did my stock ever rise.

My brother Matthew Orel, a  Bruce Springsteen scholar, reviewed this book for us and chatted with photojournalist Debra Rothenberg. He finds lots of common ground with Rothenberg, loves the photographs, and loves that the book is accurate! “We get to experience these moments vicariously, through Rothenberg’s lens,” he writes.

The first thing I noticed, when launching in to the introduction for Debra Rothenberg’s book Bruce Springsteen in Focus 1980-2012
was the instant potential for a good old game of Jewish geography.  Rothenberg and I were born less than 10 weeks apart and grew up a few miles from each other in suburban Northern New Jersey. Her school friends were my camp friends. Her college acquaintances were my relatives. We each saw out first major concerts at the Garden States Arts Center in the mid-70s, were turned on to Bruce Springsteen’s music by a mentor who preached the Springsteen gospel and knew not to let up, and saw Southside Johnny at the very same shows near our homes before finally seeing Bruce perform for the first time during “The River” tour.

Rothenberg combined her love for Bruce Springsteen with her dream to become a great photographer, and over the course of three decades has chronicled both his career and her own. Rothenberg notes,

“this is my journey, of having a dream to be a professional photographer. Being told, ‘you stink, you’re never going to make it,’ and I really did stink, but I didn’t quit. It was a long process to get where I’m at. There was nothing else I wanted to do; quitting was not an option.”

Her approach surely resonates with comments that Bruce and members of the E Street Band have made about their own careers, and it will resonate with fans around the world as well (In Focus has been in amazon.com‘s top 10 sellers for photojournalism since its release in September)Let’s be clear, though: there are no pictures in this book that stink.

Let’s be clear, though: there are no pictures in this book that stink.

Photographing Springsteen has changed somewhat over the years, Rothenberg says.

“Most times in the ’80s it was easy to just walk in with a camera. Many times, it was around my neck. Sometimes, it was in a bag looking like a turkey sub and one time I did have to put it in… [a personal hygiene box].”

Today, cell phones are more prevalent:

“Being short, I find they are in my way a lot… People are paying A LOT of money to go to a concert and they don’t want to see it through someone’s electronic device.”

From "The River," ©Debra Rothernberg

From “The River,” ©Debra Rothernberg

Subscribers to the Springsteen fanzine Backstreets will recognize many of these images from front or back covers of that magazine (when I wrote my first Backstreets article in 2007, one of her photos graced the cover).

They will also recognize the names of the writers who wrote personal recollections for each of the book’s chapters. The effect is not unlike when new issues of the magazine would arrive: pick it up out of the mailbox, devour it end to end, and put it down only after having completely consumed it. Some passages particularly resonated with me. For example, Chris Rotolo, as a photojournalist:

“it was well worth it when you attained that perfect angle, where the amber fluorescence of the house lighting catches a collection of dust particle wafting through the ether, casting an angelic glow about the featured artists’s celebrated profile.”

Wow. Having shot several shows for Backstreets as a charming neanderthal myself, I can testify to that experience. In Focus captures it, many times.

To me, the book is at its best when capturing events that eluded most of us who moved away from New Jersey: appearances at Asbury Park’s Stone Pony, a tribute concert at Carnegie Hall, the scene on the beach when Springsteen made an appearance for The Today Show. As fans, we get to experience these moments vicariously through Rothenberg’s lens. We get to see the joy that Springsteen brought to his performances, including several pictures in which he was obviously having fun with the camera. Rothenberg also treats us to pictures that help set the scene: the stage, the people in the audience, the other artists with whom Bruce shared a stage. “My style,” she says,

“is to incorporate the energy of the performer. If they’re smiling, I want to capture that. Bruce has got that big grin, he’s having such a great time!”

In Focus is also notable in that, unlike so many other books about Springsteen, it is accurate. It doesn’t go overboard on the details, but when it lists a song or a date or a place, it is correct. Ms. Rothenberg told me,

“I didn’t want another book telling the history of Bruce, where he was born, etc. I wanted it to be more like a tribute and stories from the journals and notes I kept.”

I suspect the book’s most notable error was confusing West Orange for South Orange in the introduction, and I’m going to guess that even the

Albany 1999, ©Debra Rothenberg

Albany 1999, ©Debra Rothenberg

readers from West Orange won’t care. Careful readers will also notice that three tours from the past three decades — including two acoustic tours — are not included in the book.

“When I got to the 20 year mark (of shooting Bruce), I thought I was done but then a few magazines would call me to shoot him so then I said I will go to 25. It kept going.”


In Focus is available from amazon.com and other retailers. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of In Focus will be donated to: Alzheimer’s AssociationParkinson’s Research, and Breast Cancer Research.

Bruce in Toronto, singing “Dancing in the Dark”:

Bruce in Kilkenny, with Glen Hansard:

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