This was a typical night for Bobby Grossman in 1976: grab a leather bomber jacket, swipe a Konica point-and-shoot camera from the dresser and hop a taxi to CBGB to take pictures of his closest buddies. His buddies happened to be the Talking Heads, the Sex Pistols,the Ramones, Iggy Pop and dozens of other punk and new wave upstarts.
Grossman never considered himself much of a photographer, with his shoot-from-the-hip, grainy portraits of the New York underground scene in the ’70s and ’80s, when booze-filled bohemians packed dingy Bowery nightclubs such as CBGB, the Mudd Club and Hurrah to hear not-quite mainstream acts experiment with no wave and foster the punk-rock revolution.
“I never really had an agenda going out to CBGB and Mudd. I was living day-to-day, having fun with punk rockers and art elites,” says Grossman, now 57 and living in Boynton Beach. “It just turned out I was documenting history, filled with drugs and alcohol. But to me, it was a period of time with friends and acquaintances. With the no-wave movement, people picked up a musical instrument without formal training and just played. I picked up a camera and just shot.”
Grossman says he doesn’t quite know what possessed him to train his lens on the avant-garde, anti-”Disco Duck” punk scene, then very much in its infancy. But his massive collection of black-and-white candid portraits are now part of a photo exhibit opening this week at Vertu Fine Art, a gallery in Boca Raton.
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The exhibit, “Low Fidelity: The Photographs of Bobby Grossman 1975-1983,” represents nearly a decade of Grossman’s music-club jaunts, at night enraptured by the sweaty, bohemian allure of CBGB’s regular frequenters in Joey Ramone, David Byrne, Patti Smith and Blondie’s Debbie Harry.
“Me, Debbie [Harry] and her boyfriend, Chris Stein, would always go to CBGB pretty routinely, and people got smashed and stoned, and it was always just a heady-as-hell experience,” Grossman says. “There was always something happening, and often always happening at the same time.”
Each of his photographs – some blurry and granular and candid, and some spontaneously staged – has a story, immortalizing an era of musical renaissance, he says, though it was never deliberate. Shots whirl viewers inside CBGB to witness a scrawny Joey Ramone in torn jeans, face buried under a black mop of hair, shouting into the microphone; David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz and Jerry Harrison chumming it up at a recording studio in 1977; the Clash’s Mick Jones looking bewildered as Grossman’s close friend Glenn O’Brien thrusts a snakelike microphone into his face on the set of Manhattan public access show “TV Party”; and even self-portraits, such as the image in which Iggy Pop playfully strangles Grossman.
The Manhattan native says he was introduced to the city’s “underbelly,” of sorts, while at Rhode Island School of Design, where he met Byrne and his clashing noise rock band the Artistics. “David wasn’t so high on the art-school curriculum. He was just kind of a creative thug, slinging hash on campus and doing his party band,” Grossman recalls. “So whenever they went to CBGB to play ‘Psycho Killer’ and ‘1-2-3 Red Light,’ I would come and see them. I fell into the scene that way.”
Grossman originally majored in mixed-media illustrations, even pitching his portfolio to Rolling Stone and New York magazine, but found himself caring less about deadlines than embedding himself in the trenches of the emerging punk scene, which quite often overlapped with New York’s art and literary circles. Slumming with Byrne was a gateway to meeting, at breakneck pace, the likes of David Bowie, grooving to early album cuts of “Coney Island Baby” in Lou Reed’s flat and being buzzed into Andy Warhol’s Factory.
Grossman says his “Cornflakes Series,” which is also on display, depicts musicians such as Harry, Tomata du Plenty of the Screamers and Byrne eating a bowl of the namesake cereal, and was partly inspired by Warhol’s tomato soup cans and his own admiration for the pop aesthetic.
For nearly a decade, Grossman captured the nightlife of the underground, but it was an Iggy Pop concert at the Peppermint Lounge that turned him off photography almost completely. “When you’re out there every night for eight years, and friends are either dying or moving or both, I had to stop. New wave and no wave got too, uh, mainstream,” he says with a laugh. “When the color shot I took of Iggy and Bowie at the Peppermint Lounge shows up on MTV News, and Kurt Loder is talking about it, that’s when you know it’s time to get out. So I got out.”
Low Fidelity: The Photographs of Bobby Grossman 1975-1983
When: Through March 15
Where: Vertu Fine Art Gallery, 5250 Town Center Circle, Suite 128, Boca Raton
Cost: Free of charge
Contact: 561-368-4680 or VertuFineArt.com
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