Hands in pocket, he leans against dawn pink cabbage rose wallpaper. Defiant. Brooding. With mussed hair and a penetrating gaze, Bruce Springsteen is only 29 and doesn’t know what lies ahead. The arresting image forms the cover of Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town,”and was one of the components that helped make that 1978 record a classic.
On Monday, Springsteen turns 70 — a milestone for anyone, but especially for someone burned into our collective consciousness as a restless young man eager to transcend his working class background. Decades into his storied career, Springsteen’s eyes still penetrate with intensity and determination.
And throughout those decades, Springsteen has continued a collaboration with photographer Frank Stefanko, who photographed the “Darkness on the Edge of Town” cover and who is the man behind a number of iconic Boss images, including the cover of “The River” and the book cover of Springsteen’s memoir, “Born to Run.”
“One day the phone rang and it was Bruce and he said, ‘Hey Frankie let’s get together and do some photos.’ And that was the beginning of what’s now over a 40-year relationship, off and on over the decades,” Stefanko, now 73, says.
The referral had come from Springsteen’s friend and collaborator Patti Smith, whom Stefanko had been photographing since the early 1970s. (The two first met as students at Rowan University, called Glasboro State back then.)
In 1978, Springsteen traveled down to Stefanko’s home in Haddonfield, a small town in south New Jersey to meet the photographer. The two chatted before the shoot began and bonded over their commonalities.
“We both came from New Jersey middle class, working-class families, and we had Italian mothers and non-Italian fathers, and we liked the Jersey Shore, we liked the same music,” Stefanko recalls. “There was a lot of similarities.”
Springsteen wrote about Stefanko and the Haddonfield shoot in his memoir:
"One winter afternoon I drove south to Haddonfield, New Jersey, and met Frank Stefanko. Frank had photographed Patti at the beginning of her career. He worked a day job at a local meatpacking plant and continued to practice his craft in his spare time. Frank was a rough-edged but easygoing kind of guy."
"My recollection is he borrowed a camera for the day, called a teenage kid from next door to come over and hold up his one light and started shooting. I stood against some flowery wallpaper in Frank and his wife's bedroom, looked straight into the camera, gave him my best 'troubled young man,' and he did the rest."
The results of the shoot are now a part of rock and roll mythology.
“You start to think – as the artist becomes more popular and becomes almost legendary – that what’s happened over the years is that all the photographs I’ve done over the period of time... [have] taken on a life of [their] own,” Stefanko says. “It starts to become eternal. It starts to become iconic in many ways.”
Stefanko shot Springsteen again throughout the years, as recently as 2017, for Stefanko’s book, “Bruce Springsteen: Further Up The Road.”Though his aesthetic, clothes and appearance have changed from angst-y young musician, to rockabilly cowboy, to stately veteran, the shoots always operated the same way.
"When I started shooting, I basically was shooting, again, the young man that was standing in front of me... The subjects were more mature but yet it's the same guy standing in front of me," Stefanko says.
From Stefanko's perspective, he was simply taking whatever the musician wanted to give. But for Springsteen, the photographer was cutting away a facade and illustrating his authentic self.
“Frank’s photographs were stark. His talent was he managed to strip away your celebrity, your artifice, and get to the raw you. His photos had a purity and a street poetry to them. They were lovely and true, but they weren’t slick,” Springsteen wrote in his memoir.
"Frank looked for your true grit and he naturally intuited the conflicts I was struggling to come to terms with. His pictures captured the people I was writing about in my songs and showed me the part of me that was still one of them."
The photographer and his subject bonded throughout years of collaboration.
Stefanko remembers a picturesque day when he and Springsteen drove through the Pine Barrens in New Jersey, listening to a cassette tape of Creedence Clearwater Revival.
“We were playing “Lodi,” driving through the New Jersey Pine Barrens with the window down on a hot Memorial Day weekend, and we were both singing, and I can’t sing to save my life, but somehow singing with Bruce Springsteen was easy... it was one of the best days of my life...” Stefanko says. “Just didn’t get any better than that. There were some beautiful times we had out on some of these photo sessions.”
Today, Stefanko is still shooting and promoting his work. His photography is featured at the Morrison Hotel Gallery in New York, as well as other galleries and museum shows. He’s also published books on Springsteen and Smith.
And after seven decades of life and four decades of collaboration, Stefanko has nothing but admiration for his friend, the Boss.
“There is so much more room to go and so much more room to grow and I’m proud of him,” Stefanko says. “I love what he’s become... Everything that you would expect from a hero, then you can apply that to Mr. Bruce Springsteen.”