Greatest album photography: Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen
October 8, 2020
The photographer: Eric Meola
Born in the USA in 1946, Eric Meola began his career in 1969 as studio assistant, before setting up his studio in 1971. His image ‘Coca Kid’, shot in 1972 in Haiti, was in LIFE’s 1997 ‘100 Magnificent Images’. His prints are held in private and museum collections, including the US National Portrait Gallery. His first book was published in 2004 and his latest book, Fierce Beauty, features his images of storms. See his website for more.
The cover of Bruce Springsteen’s 1975 album Born To Run came about due to a postcard. In 1974 photographer Eric Meola had seen Springsteen perform at a club in Manhattan and reveals, ‘I had an immediate visceral reaction to his music. In early 1975 I mailed him a postcard with my phone number, asking if we could get together to shoot. Imagine my surprise when he called!’ Meola did his first shoot with Springsteen in Long Branch, New Jersey, and built up a relationship with the musician and his then manager, Mike Appel, that led to the Born To Run studio shoot.
Meola explains, ‘I planned out the lighting and setup several days in advance. For about two weeks he [Springsteen] didn’t show and Mike [Appel] called up to explain they were working 24/7 in the studio. Finally, in desperation, I called Mike and said something like “it’s now or never,” and a couple of days later Bruce and Clarence [Clemons] showed up.’
The shoot took place on 20 June 1975 in Meola’s studio at 134 Fifth Avenue, New York City. He recalls, ‘We also shot a number of rolls out on the street around the corner under a fire escape. [The record company] Columbia wasn’t involved. Until I delivered the prints, I don’t think they had any idea I was photographing for the cover. Bruce and I discussed the clothing and that I wanted to shoot in black & white, but it was very loose and I had a lot of control. I deliberately chose a white background, which I knew would work well for promotion and putting type on the cover.’
Two cameras, one lens
Meola continues, ‘I used two Nikon F2 cameras with a 105mm Nikkor lens. I don’t remember if they were motorized, but I shot nearly 700 images in just two hours.’ One of the key props on the shoot was a four-inch box – it was deployed because of the height differential between 5’9” Springsteen and his 6’4” saxophonist, the late Clarence Clemons, who was known as ‘The Big Man’. Springsteen was standing on that box in the cover image.
Eric Meola was keen to ensure the images wouldn’t look like studio shots. He explains, ‘…so I shot tightly cropped and went for images that showed Bruce and Clarence in the poses they were doing on stage at the time. I wanted to capture the energy of a live performance. The way we pulled it off was to change their clothes and their poses extremely fast – either I got the shots or I didn’t, then we moved on.’
He continues, ‘I processed the film the night of the shoot, which was a Friday, and I made lots of prints of the ones I liked the most over that weekend. On Monday I called John Berg, the art director at Columbia, and brought him a box of dozens
of prints, including the one that was eventually used on the album cover, along with contact sheets. A few days later he called me to come in and I saw the cover laid out for the first time. I was stunned when I saw what he had chosen and the way he had laid it out – it was pure genius.’
Despite his initial pleasure at seeing the Born To Run cover Meola reveals, ‘I knew it was a powerful image – it struck you right away. The problem was I’d shot the cover in June and the album wouldn’t come out for two months. The waiting was very painful. Every day I was convinced the phone would ring and I would hear that a different shot had replaced mine. The first reviews of the album, and many since, have mentioned the cover shot and how it defined that time and Bruce’s music on the album. Bruce himself said, “When you saw the cover, you said: ‘I want that one’.
Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run
Musicians: Bruce Springsteen, Roy Bittan, Clarence Clemons, Danny Federici, Garry Tallent, Max Weinberg, Steven Van Zandt, Ernest Carter, David Sancious, Suki Lahav, Wayne Andre, Mike Appel, Michael Brecker, Randy Brecker, Richard Davis, David Sanborn
Released: 25 August 1975 (Columbia)
Best chart performance: No. 1 US Record World chart, No. 3 US Billboard charts Sales: Approx. 7 million worldwide
Fascinating fact: The album Born To Run had eight songs and took 14 months to record… the title track, which is only four minutes and 31 seconds long, took six months on its own to record.
Our expert panel on Born to Run
The genius of this gatefold sleeve starts with the power of the guitar, moves through Bruce’s wardrobe and lands to rest on the broad shoulders of Clarence Clemons. It’s an homage to friendship, trust and the pleasure of finding out what’s on the other side.
A great cover – beautiful, simple composition, gorgeous black & white, terrific but unobtrusive graphics and that wonderful all-knowing smile on Bruce! The visual relationship with saxophonist Clarence Clemons says so much and is a marvellous bonus. Eric Meola did a wonderful job. It’s a joy to behold.
It’s an odd, but interesting, crop because it makes the viewer wonder who the other person is, particularly because of the way Bruce is looking at them so affectionately. I’d have liked Clarence Clemons on the front, as he’s kind of erased by the gatefold, but I guess that decision was by the record company.
Greatest album photography: Nevermind by Nirvana