“Corvette Winter” by photographer Frank Stefanko is by far my favorite image of New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. I love the story of how the two gritty Jersey boys– Bruce and Frank came together…
Bruce Springsteen sits on his 1960 Corvette in Haddonfield, NJ for the epic photo “CORVETTE WINTER” shot by (c) Frank Stefanko
“Frank Stefanko and Bruce Springsteen met in the cold winter of 1978 in the unlikeliest of places: a small town in South Jersey. They were young, hungry and had something to prove. Stefanko was a working man, sweating it out by day in a meat-packing plant in Pennsauken, NJ. But, his true passion was photography…
Springsteen was a rock star, but one who hadn’t released an album in three years, an eternity in rock ‘n’ roll time. Following the release of Born to Run in 1975, The Boss became mired in litigation with his former manager, which prevented him from recording new material.
With the lawsuits finally settled, Springsteen was ready to release the material he’d been writing as the litigation had dragged on. This was a make-or-break album for The Boss. But first, he needed an album cover.
That’s how Springsteen ended up in Haddonfield, and how Stefanko ended up shooting the covers for Springsteen’s next two albums, Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River.
The collaboration between Springsteen and Stefanko probably wouldn’t have happened without the help of another Jersey-born rocker, Patti Smith. Smith and Stefanko had attended Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) together, but both left before graduating.
They stayed in touch after Smith moved to New York. Smith had heard Stefanko raving about a singer named Bruce Springsteen, whose music he loved.’I was a fan when I first heard’ Greetings from Asbury Park N.J., Springsteen’s 1973 debut album, Stefanko recalled during a recent interview at his home in Palmyra, Burlington County.
For the interview, Stefanko, a bear of a man with friendly eyes and a true passion for his art, was taking a break from cooking Sunday meatballs and homemade gravy. He recalled being knocked out by the gritty poetry of Springsteen’s early songs, which seemed a million miles away from the treacly AM radio pop that ruled the airwaves at the time.
‘Wow, this guy could be me, he could be my brother,’ Stefanko, 65, remembers thinking. ‘There was this connection. I was excited again, I was happy to listen to music.’
So, when Smith ran into Springsteen at a party in New York around the time Greetings was released, she told him, “You’re going to be a big star someday. My friend Frank from New Jersey says so.”A few weeks later, Smith sent Stefanko an autographed copy of the album, signed by Springsteen, with the inscription, ‘To Frank, my biggest fan, Patti says.’
About four years after that, Smith and Springsteen were in the same recording studio in New York, when The Boss saw some pictures of Smith taken by Stefanko. He asked Smith if Stefanko would be interested in photographing him.
Stefanko could hardly wait to work with Springsteen, who by then had appeared simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek following the release of Born to Run. But, three months went by, and Stefanko heard nothing. He figured the shoot would never happen.
Then one night, his phone rang. “Hey Frank, let’s get together and do some photos,” the gravelly voice on the other end said.
On the day of the shoot, Springsteen pulled up to Stefanko’s home on Colonial Avenue in a beat-up Chevy pickup with stumps in the truck bed to provide weight for traction on the icy roads.
Stefanko had asked Springsteen to bring several changes of clothes for the shoot. The Boss arrived with a paper shopping bag crammed with jeans, T-shirts and plaid and denim shirts.
They set to work, shooting inside Stefanko’s house, and on the streets of Haddonfield. In one shot from the session, Springsteen leans against a barber pole in front of the late Frank Montemurro’s on Kings Highway.
In another, taken during a subsequent session, Springsteen sits on the hood of his 1960 Corvette, which was parked in front of Stefanko’s house. ‘He loved that car,’ Stefanko recalled.
Despite the presence of a big rock star in a small town, Stefanko and Springsteen roamed the borough’s streets largely unnoticed. ‘People would look and say, ‘Nah, it couldn’t be,’ Stefanko recalled.
A week after his first visit, Springsteen returned to Haddonfied with the entire E Street Band, whom Stefanko photographed in his living room, and at Shellow’s Luncheonette in East Camden.
The photos Springsteen ultimately settled on for the Darkness album were taken in Stefanko’s bedroom. The front cover photo depicts Springsteen in a black leather jacket and white V-neck T-shirt, looking like a greaser who’s been knocked down, but not out. On the back cover, Springsteen is jacketless and appears to be fidgeting as he stares into the lens.
What stands out as much as Springsteen in the photos, though, is the garish, flowered wallpaper behind him.’Somebody later called it the most famous wallpaper in the world,’ Stefanko writes in Days of Hopes and Dreams. The house is still there, but the wallpaper’s long gone.
In the late spring of 1978, Springsteen came barreling back with the release of Darkness, whose tough anthems had a heavier tone than the songs on Born to Run.
The cover of The River, a double album released in 1980, is another shot from the sessions with Stefanko in Haddonfield: A simple close up of a steely eyed, stubble-chinned Springsteen. The album contained ‘Hungry Heart,’ Springsteen’s first Top 10 hit, which he had initially written for the Ramones.
‘Frank had a way of stripping away any celebrity refuse you may have picked up along the way and finding you in you … The pictures’ lack of grandeur, their directness, their toughness, were what I wanted for my music at that time,’ Springsteen writes in the introduction to Days of Hopes and Dreams. ‘He showed me the people I was writing about in my songs. He showed the part of me that was still one of them.’
In the summer of 1982, Springsteen returned to Haddonfield to shoot photos for his upcoming acoustic album, Nebraska. Although the photos ultimately weren’t used on the album, the session did provide Stefanko with one of his favorite memories: Driving into the Pine Barrens with Springsteen in the passenger seat, both of them singing along to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Lodi” as it blared from the car’s cassette player.
Just two years later, Springsteen would release Born in the U.S.A., the album that would propel him to superstardom.
Stefanko went back to his life, raising his family in South Jersey, and working as a food broker in Philadelphia. But, he still pursues his passion, focusing mainly these days on landscape photography. He also hopes to release a book of his urban photography, shot on the streets of New York City in the 1970s.
In 2006, Stefanko released Patti Smith: American Artist, a collection of photographs he’d taken of the singer over the years.
Springsteen and Stefanko still keep in touch, and the photographer calls Springsteen each year on The Boss’ birthday. ‘How many people get to work with a person they idolize?’ he asked. ‘It was a very rare opportunity. I was privileged.’
Some of the thousands of photos Stefanko shot of The Boss from 1978 to 1982 are collected in the book Days of Hopes and Dreams: An Intimate Portrait of Bruce Springsteen. (The title is a play on Springsteen’s 2001 song, “Land of Hopes and Dreams.”)