British Journal of Photography
Barbara Pyle made it her "self-imposed mission" to document the little known New Jersey band in the months before they became one of the biggest rock bands in the world.
Forty years ago, in the months leading up to the release of Bruce Springsteen’s seminal Born to Run, photojournalist Barbara Pyle documented a band of young men on tour across America, unaware they were about to be catapulted from left-field obscurity to the forefront of American rock music.
Pyle photographed Springsteen and The E Street Band in their native New Jersey habitat of Asbury Park to the Cajun splendour of New Orleans – where the band were touring the new material. She photographed them in her own family home in rural Oklahoma, and gives a broad mix of studio portraits, performance shots and travelogue images.
“I first saw Bruce and the E Street Band by accident,” Pyle says. “I was blown away by their music. For the next year, I drove to as many of their gigs as I could reach. They jokingly started calling me their ‘official unofficial photographer’. I was just expected to be there, and I almost always was – on my self-imposed mission to document this little known New Jersey band.
“I had the remarkable good fortune to spend most of the last Born to Run months in the studio with Bruce and the band,” Pyle says. “I became sort of a living ‘good luck’ charm and was asked to be there many nights. I knew I was witnessing history in the making.”
This collection has the feeling of musical nomadism that often comes with rockumentaries, with many of the images taking place in roadside cafes, dressing rooms and rehearsal spaces.
Pyle often caught Springsteen and his musicians are off-guard, the smiles giving way to tired, hungover expressions, or even stressed-out scowls. A degree of this may come from the peril that accompanied the album’s recording sessions.
Says Pyle of Springsteen: “Columbia Records had really turned up the heat on him to deliver a commercial success”. She claims that the record company planned to drop Springsteen if the sales did not match the critical reception of the music.
It’s difficult to separate the sell-out stadium superstar of today from the starving artist in these photographs. Springsteen’s commercial success now seems so unavoidable – indistinct from the size of the band itself. The production of the album is so huge, one can only imagine it being played in arena-sized venues.
Which is why – perhaps – the school locker rooms and pokey apartments of Pyle’s photographs seem so alien. The image one nurtures of The Boss is this ubiquitous guitar-wielding super-alpha; screaming at an audience of tens of thousands – demanding to play longer. The scruffy 70s hipster here looks like that guy’s sidekick.
Yet its the performance shots that remains the most compelling. They suggest the stage is where the band are most at ease with each other; a safe place where the musicians can express themselves with an exuberance shunned in the rehearsal space, under a musical auteur whose career is under threat.
Away from these, portraits of charismatic guitarist Steve van Zandt (or ‘Silvio’ to Sopranos fans) stick out, along with those of the late great saxophonist Clarence Clemons. The photos display the wit and flexibility required over months of touring in often uncomfortable, pressurised locations.
Bands break up for many reasons, and I suspect these larger-than-life characters would attribute their sociability to the longevity of the E Street Band’s success as much as their musical focus. Pyle does well to identify these strains in the images.