Like a lot of aging punks, Allan Tannenbaum is a bit of a curmudgeon these days. The famed nightlife photographer and longtime New Yorker spent much of the 1970s documenting the city's music scenes for the SoHo News, capturing iconic and intimate shots of the Ramones, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Blondie, Mick Jagger and so many others. He still takes photos, but says he doesn't much care for the city's energy these days. We caught up with Tannenbaum late last year to talk about the evolution of New York, the '70s, and the luckiest photo he ever took.
There's a certain mythology to the New York of the 1970s, and the 40th anniversary of the summer of 1977 gave people (like us!) an excuse to really revisit that mythology. As someone who was both part of that moment and responsible for documenting it in real time, do you feel our collective memory squares with your experience of the time? Or do you ever feel as though it's been glorified or mischaracterized by those of us who weren't there? It might be a bit glorified and idealized but that's only because how different things are today and how dull and boring it is, in a way, compared to the 70s. What was happening in the city — it was a challenge to live and you had to put up with a lot of stuff. You still do today, but it's different. Not everything was fun, I mean when I look through my pictures, which I'm doing all the time, I find that I have to take a lot of not-so-interesting pictures in order to get to the places where I could take the ones that really became iconic of the 70s. But, on the other hand, it was exciting because there was just so much going on in terms of creative energy.
I don't think you have this kind of the same energy, in terms of really creating art and music. Where's the art scene in New York today? Where's the music scene? Where are the places where people go to hear new bands? Or to hang out, or to see and be seen? I don't think it's anywhere near like it used to be in the 70s. I went to a book party last year for Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, because I have pictures in it. And at a certain point I thought, "This really validates what we did and that it had lasting impact, and that we're still enjoying that energy that we experienced at that time."
In the moment, were you at all aware of being part of something big? Was there ever a moment you thought, "Oh shit, this band is going to change everything?" Yeah, you could see that things were happening. I mean, I liked the Ramones and they were really different. There was a rock and roll revival in the mid-70s with bands like the Ramones, who I first heard in '76. '77 was a great year for music. I'm going to go get my log book so I can look in the music section and I can tell you who I photographed. Reggae invasion was great. Disco is something that changed music because people were dancing. I was not crazy about a lot of the disco music, but there were some great funky disco songs like “Funky Town” and a lot of things like that. But in terms of my favorite pop music, I'm just an old rocker and I loved what the Ramones and other bands did. For me, the best was the Clash — I mean they were top of the line. I became friends with them. There was a lot of great stuff, so yeah, you could sense that, "Oh, here it comes again." You know?
Was there anyone who was particularly difficult to shoot? I was kind of an established music photographer and could get into the gigs and quite often hang around backstage. Some things were tougher than others and that depended a lot on the venue and the crowds. Some places you could shoot and get a lot of good stuff pretty easily, and other places, other times were difficult. I have Iggy Pop at the Palladium, and it was just a question of trying to get close enough. The same with the Clash because the crowd was so wild, and it's not like you always had a pit to work in, where you'd be separate from the crowd. A lot of it was trying to shoot through people, around people, avoid having people in the audience try to get you out of their line of sight. It wasn't always easy. Some bands, like the Clash, it's hard to get a good shot of the whole band, because they were far apart on stage or they move around a lot. Generally speaking, I was able to work and managed to get a lot of good pictures. Every gig is different, and whether you have the access, it all depends.
Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie watch Godzilla in their apartment (Allan Tannenbaum)
In some photos, it’s clear that you’d managed to get particularly good access, like the Blondie apartment shot, or the memorable time you spent with John Lennon and Yoko- The Soho News was a great paper because we were just so involved with the scene, with the writers, and our personal contacts. We were just part of the scene, so we became friendly with people. I did a lot of stuff with Debbie and Chris. I actually still do stuff with them. They were just interviewed for this documentary that we're doing about me. She did the forward for my new book, and she also did a forward for my portfolio of photographs. I'm not saying we were close friends, but we were always friendly and recognized each other, and talked, and things like that.
I know you were close with John Lennon, and you’d spent an evening with them on the night before his murder, I’m wondering…I don’t really want to get into it.
Fair enough. Any particularly memorable rockstar apartments? Well certainly John and Yoko at the Dakota, that's got to be the most memorable. And certainly Patti Smith, when I photographed her in '74 for the first time, she was still in the poet category and not a rockstar yet. I've got a lovely portrait of her in her apartment. Hold on a second, let me get my log book and I will tell you who else…
Alright. This is my handwritten logging of my negatives from 40 years ago. Sometimes the analog stuff is the easiest to use.
Let's see, well, the year started off pretty good with Patti Smith New Year's Eve at the Palladium. Then the Kinks and the Ramones at CBGB's. Television at CBGB. Elephant's Memory at Max — woah. Santana at the Bottom Line. Blondie and Iggy Pop at the Palladium, that's March of '77. Talking Heads, Ramones, not sure where that is right now. The Damned, I don't remember them very much. The Grateful Dead at the Palladium. Wow, at the Palladium? I thought that was Madison Square Garden. Anyway, okay, Lou Reed at the Bottom Line. Dolly Parton at the Bottom Line, and that's where I got that great shot of her hugging Mick Jagger backstage. Led Zeppelin, the only time I ever photographed them. I was not a big fan of theirs, I kind of like some of their songs now, but I didn't like them that much back then. But I photographed them in June of '77. Talking Heads, Brian Ferry at the Bottom Line, Talking Heads opened for Brian Ferry. Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Pink Floyd, wow, I forgot about that. Let's see. Alice Cooper at Nassau Coliseum. A lot of disco stuff. Tom Petty, who I photographed in his hotel room. Rod Stewart. Ramones at CBGB, we're in October now. Devo at Max’s. And we'll end with Patti Smith, the day before New Years at CBGB Two, which was the old Anderson Theater on Second Avenue. That's a pretty good cross-section.
Country music star Dolly Parton hugs rock star Mick Jagger backstage after her Bottom Line concert. 5/14/77 (Allan Tannenbaum)
Well, the funniest story I think was Dolly Parton and Mick Jagger, because who would imagine, first of all, Dolly Parton playing at the Bottom Line. But she was, and still is, a big star in country, and a great performer. I was shooting at the Bottom Line, there were quite a few other photographers there, and toward the end of the show I saw Mick Jagger kind of edge along, very surreptitiously and head to the corner of the room where the kitchen was. After her set, the club was emptying out, and I kept my eye on Jagger and then I saw him kind of slip backstage. I used to have very good access at the Bottom Line so I was able to get backstage. When they saw me, Dolly grabbed Mick and just gave him this big hug. She had a super wide grin on her face and he had a sheepish kind of little boy grin on his face. I got two frames, two flashes, that was it. One was a classic.
That had to be one of the best moments of the year because it was a really unique and exclusive picture. The funny part was I knew there was a party afterwards at Windows on the World, which was atop the World Trade Center. Everybody was heading over to the party, and all the photographers were there, and Dolly was there and she was holding court. She was with John Belushi and she was with Andy Warhol, and there were other people there, and I was just going, "Mick, stay away from Dolly. Stay away," because then I wouldn't have my exclusive anymore. Sure enough they never got together, so that was great.
You're primarily known as a music photographer, but your blackout photo is one of the classic images from that time. Can you talk about how you got that? Right. Well, I was home in Tribeca, the same loft I'm in now. There's a view to what was the World Trade Center. I think maybe I was even having dinner when all of a sudden there was a sound, some kind of strange sound, and then a sound like a generator hum just going, "Hmmmm," like that, right? The lights flickered and went out. I looked outside and I could see that they were out everywhere. I realized that it was a massive power failure and that I needed to get to work. My first idea was just to go around with my cameras, and since I was working for the Soho News I thought I would head to Soho. I took my bicycle and stopped at Food, which was a restaurant at Prince and Mercer, where friends worked. They were hanging outside, they had a cranked up Victrola, listening to records, having a little party on the sidewalk. It really was dark in the streets, there were no lights at all.
I came across a traffic accident on Varick Street and different things, but they all had that quality of, what we call in the business, "Flash pictures at night," where everything is blown out and it's just not really capturing the feeling of everything being black — you're lighting it up with your flash. I wasn't really capturing what it felt like to be there photographically. I was a bit frustrated, so I decided to go to New Jersey and take a photo of the skyline. I took a tripod and I got my equipment and I walked over to the path station at World Trade Center, I think I took the train to Exchange Place in Jersey City and I set up near the Colgate sign. Of course, it wasn't all built up like it is now, it was pretty empty there. There wasn't any great waterfront, or promenade, or esplanade, or anything like that.
By then the sky was already getting light. I just started shooting, and it was just incredible because the city was virtually completely black, the whole thing from one end to another, and the sky was turning red. I shot both black and white and color. It was just an amazing picture. It was incredible. I did that until it was really too light to really make it a dramatic picture anymore. [You can see the photo here.]