Gary James' Interview With
Photographer / Photojournalist
Debra L. Rothenberg
Debra Rothenberg is a Photographer / Photojournalist. Her favorite subject matter? "The Boss." Mr. Bruce Springsteen. In fact, there's a new book out filled with pictures she's taken of Bruce. It's called Bruce Springsteen: In Focus 1980 - 2012.
Q - Debra, do you have what many people would call a glamorous job or a dream job?
A - Most people would definitely call it a glamour job because they see the final product. I love what I do. I've never, ever really considered it a job. I still feel like it's a hobby because I absolutely love what I do. Honestly, there's nothing that makes me happier than just walking around taking pictures. It's part of me. It's an extension. But what people don't realize is what goes into it. Sometimes the waiting period, carrying heavy equipment, being short. I'm short. The people stand up in front of you and you go, "Oh, my God! There goes my site line." That's the main thing. People at the last minute standing in front of where I'm at. So, is it a glamour job? I think people think it is. It's definitely not a glamour job. I'm fortunate. I love what I do. People think actors, it's such a glamour job. They don't realize what goes into being an actor, being a musician, anything creative really. People who have a 9-to-5 job go home and that job could be done. Our minds are always going. I realized recently I don't sleep much at all. I'm lucky if I sleep four hours a night. Most of the other creative people I know are always up online. What are you doing up? I don't sleep. This is when I do my best work. With photography, now that it's the digital age, what people also don't realize, when we are done with a shoot, we still have work to do. Then we have to go home. I had a shoot last night. It was a four hour shoot. Everyone went home from the shoot and they had the rest of the night. I got home and I'm sitting in front of the computer for hours getting these pictures out so when the client comes in to work the next day they have them on their computer.
Q - Do you call yourself a Celebrity Photographer?
A - I'm from the old school, a Photojournalist. I like to document events, and that could be anything from a celebrity to news. The old photojournalism to me is never going to fade away. Even though I don't do hard news on a daily basis, I think you always know a photojournalist at heart when something tragic happens. Everybody's running away. We are running to it, such as 9-11. Everybody was running away from Ground Zero. I was running toward.
Q - You got caught up when the buildings were coming down?
A - Yeah. I have the building exploding and the metal flying in mid-air.
Q - When you were starting out, did you have an expensive camera?
A - My very first camera was a 110. People that are too young; I gave a lecture at a college a couple of weeks ago in California and I mentioned the 110 camera. (Laughs) They had no idea what I was talking about. I was trying to describe to them what a 110 camera was. I had a 126 (camera) and then I went up to a 35mm. But when I first started, I never had expensive cameras. Even my first three newspaper jobs, I didn't have expensive cameras. I couldn't afford it. Back then everyone was using the Nighttime B-3, which I think back in the '80s might have been $1000. I couldn't afford it. So I was using an SM or an SM 2, which was about $250.
Q - Do the pictures you take belong to you or the newspaper or magazines you are taking them for?
A - When I was on staff shooting, the people owned them. Fortunately that never happened with Bruce. I was never sent as a staffer because somebody else always wanted to shoot him. (Laughs) and they took the credential. Since I've been a free lancer, I own everything. I haven't been a staff photographer since 1988.
Q - You were born where?
A - North Jersey.
Q - You moved to New York somewhere along the way?
A - I grew up in North Jersey in a town called Fairlawn, in Bergen County. I lived there for 18 years and then I went off to college in Rochester, New York.
Q - Where did you first see Bruce Springsteen?
A - Rochester War Memorial, December 2nd, 1980.
Q - Prior to that day, you'd never seen him before?
A - The way I heard of Bruce was, I was 16. I had a really bad case of Mono. I missed a 3 1/2 months of school. So I had to go to summer school if I wanted to graduate on time with my class. I knew summer school was going to be six weeks, six hours a day. I had three choices: Math, Science, which was not a choice for me, and Printing. I thought Printing is something creative, hands-on. So, I chose Printing and the first day of class the teacher was fresh out of college, very young. His name was John Heyn. He was 22. We walked in and there's music playing on the stereo and my musical preferences back then were Barry Manilow, Barry Manilow and Barry Manilow. (Laughs). I look back on it and I don't understand why I didn't like any other music. I grew up in a musical household. I had three older brothers who are always listening to music. They thought they were The Beatles and it was Barry Manilow I liked. So, we're listening to this music and I hated it. I remember saying, "Do we have to listen to this crap? Who is this guy?" The teacher yelled at me, "Rothenbery, by the end of the summer you're going to have every album he ever has and a deposit down on his next concert." I said it's never going to happen. Second day, the same thing. Third day, the same thing. I'm yelling at the teacher. He's like, "He's from the Jersey Shore." I said, "Oh, I'm supposed to like him because he's from New Jersey. I don't like this guy." Second week we walk into class and there's someone else playing. I said, "Who is this?" He said, "Southside John And The Asberry Jukes." I said, "Well, he's good, but can we listen to Bruce?" He looked at me and he smiled. He was a photographer himself. He started bringing in pictures of the Jersey Shore, pictures of Bruce in concert. I was hooked. Six months later I got my driver's license and I told my mother before I took the test, "If I pass the test I'm cutting school and I'm going down to Asberry." She nodded. I don't think she thought I was going to pass the test. I got my driver's license in February '79, picked up a friend from school and we drove down to Asberry Park, which is like an hour and a half. "Jungle Land" is playing on the cassette where he is singing, "Barefoot girls sitting on the hood of a Dodge." My car was a 1974 Dodge Dart that I was driving down. Stopped in Asberry and I felt my life completely changed in that I wanted to live here. I want to be down by the shore. For the next, I don't know how many years, I would say photography, Bruce Springsteen and breathing were my life. I guess you could say breathing first 'cause you have to do that to survive, but it was Bruce Springsteen, photography and breathing and that was the only thing that mattered.
Q - When you took that first photo of Springsteen, did you know then that you're going to be a photographer for the rest of your life?
A - I knew I wanted to be a photographer, but I honestly didn't think it was ever going to happen and I don't think anyone else did either. There were a lot of teachers I had in college, one in particular who pretty much on a monthly basis told me how bad I was. He would say, "You suck. You're never going to make it. Find a new career." I was always so upset. I didn't think it was going to happen, but my feeling was I have no choice. There was nothing else I wanted to do. There was nothing else I could do. So, I thought if I'm working for a small paper the rest of my life, that'll be it. I'll be happy taking pictures. Whatever was going to be in photography, I was going to do something in photography.
Q - You were fortunate where you lived. If you had lived in Cheyenne, Wyoming, your story would have been a little different.
A - Well, I never would have discovered Bruce. That's for sure. My job took me out of New Jersey. I wanted to be in New Jersey, but I went where the jobs were. I talk to a lot of young students today. Some of 'em will say "I only want to be in this state. I wouldn't move to some small area." People are always Googling there's no jobs in photography. I say, back in 1984 they told me the same thing. Everyone said you're never going to get a job in a newspaper. There were jobs. The newspaper business today, as you know, is horrible. There are still some jobs. How long the people are going to have their jobs for, we don't know. But there are jobs out there if people want to move to small towns. I moved to small towns where there was nothing to do. Nothing. My first job, I was only there for a little more than a year and a half, but I would say the first year I was there I didn't have any friends in the town or at the paper. Then what happened was a whole new group of people came in and we all started hanging out whenever we could. My second job in Pennsylvania, I was only friends with one person in town who happened to write at the paper also. Socially, we weren't able to see each other much because we were always working, but at least there was somebody I could talk to in town or see occasionally. I was willing to go wherever the job was.
Q - So, you would go to work and when you were through, go home, get something to eat, go to sleep and start all over again the next day.
A - The way it used to work out was, my shift was 2 - 10. I would go home at 10 or around or whenever. Without fail the phone would ring in the middle of the night. There was an accident. There was a fire. Three or four times a week, if my shift was five days, at least three times in the middle of the week, I would get a call for a fire or an accident and I'd have to rush out. That's the thing with small papers. With larger papers, you don't get called in when you're not on shift unless it's a tragedy like 9/11 where they need everybody. If you are working 2 - 10 and there's an accident in the middle of the night, either they don't cover it... Well, a large paper, The Daily News for instance, they have somebody on throughout the night. Somebody's always going to cover whatever happens. The small papers where you are talking 15, 20, 30,000 circulation, there may only be staffers. So you have to cover everything whenever.
Q - How many times have you met Bruce Springsteen?
A - Well, I've never formally met him. I always chose not to. I always prefer to photograph the people I'm shooting. There was one time at The Stone Pony, I remember it was 1989 I think, where I was taking pictures. I had the camera dangling around my neck. Bruce comes over and he looks at me and he looks at the camera and he looks back at me and smiles and he looks at the camera and he looks up at me and smiles and he looks down at the camera again and he looks at me and he throws his arm out and goes, "Debbie!" So, I pick up the camera. I had two cameras at this point. I'm shooting from left-hand, right hand. One in color, one in black and white. He nods his head. "Thank you," and goes to the opposite side of the stage. All the people around me start jumping up and down, grabbing me, saying, "You know him? You know him? How does he know you?" I said, "I never met him. The only thing I can think of is he saw my pictures in the newspaper. He reads photo credits and there were no other women taking pictures and he put two and two together." But at that point I was never formally introduced.
Q - You still have not been formally introduced to Bruce Springsteen?
A - Not formally. I've been around him and it could have happened. I always chose not to. I never asked for an autograph. I never asked for my picture with him. I would always leave. Everyone else would. I would always step back and let them do that. Everybody else had their pictures taken with him and ask for an autograph. I just want to take a picture.
Q - John Lennon used to say it's a mistake to meet your idol. They always seem to let you down.
A - Yeah. There's about a handful of musicians and actors and actresses that I have photographs (of) and I have met that I do have a nice relationship with. I have their phone number. I have their e-mails. Am I going to bother them with it? No. But if I'm having a photo exhibit, I'll invite them. I'll send them the announcement about the book, especially knowing that they like Bruce. "Here is my book!" Some of 'em have asked me to autograph the book. I think he's (John Lennon) right. There have been a couple and I'm not going to mention names and I just adored them creatively and I've met them and maybe it was an off day or maybe that's how they really are, but now, I can never watch their movies again or listen to their music again. I think he has a good point.
Q - Now that you've put out this book on Springsteen, could you do a follow-up with even more photos?
A - I could if I wanted to.
Q - You have got that many photos of Springsteen?
A - Yeah. I have got quite a few.
Q - You could probably put out a photo book on other celebrities, couldn't you?
A - Well, I've never shot anybody for as many years as him. One of the things we were playing with is doing a celebrity book of all the celebrities I've shot. I go back and forth with it. Part of me thinks, "Who cares about that?!" And then people go, "Are you kidding? People love celebrities!" I might have to consider it.