Orange Alert

Skip to main content
Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

Iconic Moments: Eric Meola's photographic odyssey

"Born to Run" photographer tells stories with images

Aug. 1, 2011, by Rob Enslin

Every picture tells a story, as the song goes. Perhaps nobody understands this more than Eric Meola ’68 (left), the Syracuse-born photographer who shot the iconic cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run album. The image, featuring the smiling, scraggly guitarist, leaning on the shoulders of his husky saxophonist, Clarence Clemons, is at once intimate and joyous, two friends on the cusp of unimaginable success. Clemons’s death this past June—36 years almost to the date of the shoot—has propelled the cover to near mythological proportions, proof that great art endures. “I’m not the kind of photographer who likes to be known for one image, but I suppose there are worse things,” jokes Meola, speaking by phone from his studio in Sagaponack, a village on eastern Long Island, New York. “Born to Run showed something that had never been on an album cover before: a deep relationship between two musicians. The image was symbolic, and has gotten stronger over the years.”

While Born to Run catapulted Springsteen to international stardom, transforming him from a struggling bar-act to a musical folk hero, the album kicked Meola’s career into overdrive. Never mind the fact that three years earlier, Meola announced his arrival with "Coca Kid," a now-classic photo he took in Haiti while on assignment for Time magazine. But in 1975, Meola and Springsteen were still relatively unknown. Like Springsteen, Meola was armed with a clear artistic vision, and the ensuing collaboration produced one of the great album covers of all time. “You have to follow your instincts,” says Meola, whose fourth book, Streets of Fire: Bruce Springsteen, 1976-79, comes out in 2012. “Even if you are the world’s greatest photographer, in terms of lighting and shooting, you’re not really doing anything unless you are in the moment. You have to bring your own way of looking at life to the camera.”

Meola wasn’t always into photography. He loved magic, and soaked up any book he could find. But growing up in his home in the Eastwood neighborhood of Syracuse, Meola was under pressure from his parents to study medicine. When one of his father’s patients—an engineer whose hobby was photography—introduced Meola to his darkroom, the teenager was smitten. “As soon as I saw that first print come up in the developer, I knew it was what I wanted to do,” Meola recalls. “It was like magic.”

Meola’s “eureka moment” was followed by stints as a soda jerk, affording him money to buy a camera and build a modest darkroom. When it came time for college, he enrolled at Syracuse University, where he took courses in color theory and color printing, while earning a degree in English. Arguably, it was Meola’s humanities training—cultivating his desire to tell stories with images—that led him to New York in his junior year for a meeting with the legendary Pete Turner, a pioneer of color photography. “Although I was self-taught as a photographer, I realized the best way to jump-start my career was to work for someone I admired,” Meola says. “I didn’t want to be someone who studied theory all the time, but never gained any practical experience.”

After college, Meola spent the next year and a half apprenticing under Turner. He attributes much of his early success to being young and impressionable and willing to work “all sorts of weird hours,” he says. “It was hectic. We’d often do an editorial in the morning, an ad in the afternoon, and an album cover in the evening. I gained tremendous experience and confidence working with Pete, and learned how to deal with almost every type of client.” Turner also imparted to Meola the finer points of photography, schooling him on angles, composition, and lighting techniques. “Pete would never just deliver the job,” Meola says. “He would always look at it with his own eye and exhaust the subject with different angles and lighting. He loved to experiment.”

It’s no surprise then that Turner, whose signature colors graced more than 80 album covers, helped Meola score his first big assignment by introducing him to John Durniak, the photo editor at Time magazine. Durniak hired Meola to photograph operatic sensation Beverly Sills. In those days, Time shot eight to nine prospective covers a week, so Meola was ecstatic when one of his images—a now-iconic one of Sills as Elizabeth I from Donizetti’s opera Roberto Devereux—was given the royal treatment. “It was my big break,” Meola says proudly, underscoring the fact that he was only 25 at the time. Lightning struck again a month later, when Time featured another Meola creation on the cover: a still from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Jesus Christ Superstar.
Meola is quick to credit Turner and John Durniak, also a former picture editor at The New York Times, for opening doors for him. Meola says he also benefited from “adventurous art directors” who looked past specific subjects in his portfolio and saw potential for their visions. Case in point: Meola landed the Porsche-Audi account without a single car shot to his credit. “That kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore,” he says. “Nowadays, ad agencies want to bet on a known quantity. I was an unknown quantity because my work was highly personal and experimental.” In 1972, Time sent Meola to Haiti, which the jet-set had dubbed as the “new Acapulco.” In Port-au-Prince, Meola became captivated by a large red billboard with yellow lettering that screamed, “Drink Coca-Cola”—in French, of course. “The sign was pock-marked and starting to show signs of decay, so I set up my camera across the street and photographed people walking by,” he remembers. “About an hour later, this little kid came by. Between his white shorts and long, swinging arms, the concept just came together.”

"Coca Kid" (right) drew on Meola’s inherent knowledge of graphic design and saturated color, as well as his ability to see the “potential for something” in any given moment. The juxtaposition of an ambulatory child against a dilapidated billboard was not without symbolism—an indictment of the ubiquitous presence of multinational corporations. Meola visited a similar theme a few years later with "Promised Land," depicting an oversized Cadillac Eldorado wedged in the door of a storage garage. “It’s a statement about America’s excess,” says Meola of the red-white-and-blue image, which is part of the permanent collection of the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. Whereas "Coca Kid" was spontaneously created, "Promised Land" was carefully orchestrated for two days in the hot California sun. “'Promised Land' is one of those images that people identify with right away,” he says. “It’s startling."

Whether shooting editorial photographs for Time, Life, and Esquire or producing commercial work for American Express, AT&T, Jeep, and BMW, Meola relies on the art of storytelling. “I remind students to follow their instincts,” he says. “Whether you’re being paid tons of money to shoot a sports car or are taking time off to photograph some unknown singer from New Jersey, you have to capture what’s in your mind’s eye. People want to see what you see.”

Thus, it was on stage and on the cover of Born to Run that Springsteen and Clemons were a perfect match—the latter often serving as foil to the singer’s antics. The story is legend about how “C” sat in on a Springsteen gig in Asbury Park, New Jersey, in 1971, and never left. At the time, Meola was just another scrappy young photographer on the Lower East Side—one who occasionally caught Springsteen’s high-octane act at nearby Max’s Kansas City. Meola was so blown away by the band’s sound that he began following them throughout the Northeast. After one fateful show in 1974, Meola vowed to himself that he would shoot Springsteen’s next album cover.

Fantasy became reality when, one day in 1975, Meola turned up early for a Springsteen show in New Jersey. After taking a seat in the nearly empty auditorium, who should come over and strike up a conversation with him but “The Boss” himself. “The net result was I went to Asbury Park and started photographing him,” Meola says. “Of course, Bruce was still largely unknown then, but I was in the right place at the right time.” A few months later, Meola received an intriguing call from Springsteen’s manager, who explained that his client was in the studio wrapping up Born to Run, and needed some album photos. Meola could hardly contain himself, although he soon discovered that getting Springsteen in front of the camera was easier said than done. The musician had a habit of standing up Meola or canceling appointments altogether, so he could remain in the studio. Meola issued an ultimatum: either Springsteen makes the next appointment, or he finds himself a new photographer.

On the afternoon of June 20, Springsteen and Clemons arrived at Meola’s New York flat with nothing more than a few props—a radio, a guitar, some sneakers, a couple hats. Meola abandoned his saturated colors in favor of stark black and white. His goal was to create something innocent and street smart. “I felt that color, in this case, was distracting,” Meola says. “I really had to convince Bruce to shoot in black and white, and to keep everything simple.” The two-hour session took place in Meola’s studio and on a nearby fire escape, and yielded more than 700 images. “I knew I had something good,” he says proudly. “I could taste blood on my tongue.”

John Berg, a retired creative director and vice president of Columbia/CBS Records, recalls the album with pride. “Originally, Bruce wanted to do what we called an ‘author’s shot’—you know, something serious,” Berg says, during a phone interview. “I saw some of the charm and humor of Bruce, particularly with Clarence, in Eric’s photos. The [cover] image that we decided on was a storytelling picture: there’s this white guy and a black guy, and they’re making music.”

In Runaway Dream: ‘Born to Run’ and Bruce Springsteen’s American Vision (Bloosmbury Press, 2009), author Louis P. Masur goes into exacting detail about the album’s evolution. It is the cover image of Springsteen “leaning on someone,” he writes, which rivets our attention. “To flip the album over is to see Clarence Clemons blowing his saxophone … playing, leaning, even bumping,” he continues. “These men are happy, and rock ‘n’ roll binds them together on a journey.” The “journey,” however, came at a price. Berg remembers the label’s reluctance to producing a gatefold cover. “If Columbia paid 50 cents for a typical cover, a gatefold was going to cost us a dollar,” he explains. “I lobbied for a front-and-back photo because I saw the potential in it. Eric gave us some wonderful shots to work with.”

Longtime Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis, also an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is considered an authority on Born to Run. Like Masur, he interprets the cover as a message of racial egalitarianism. “The image gets at the theatricality of Springsteen and Clemons,” DeCurtis says. “Their cross-cultural and interracial relationship suggested new possibilities, as well as the transcendence of other issues in our culture. The physicality of their interaction on the cover—that they could make art out of life—showed tremendous potential.”

Springsteen has talked openly about his friendship with Clemons, claiming that Meola’s photography “says it all.” At Clemons’s funeral, Springsteen eulogized: “Something happened when we stood side by side—some energy, some unspoken story. Clarence doesn’t leave the E Street Band when he dies. He leaves when we die.”

By the mid-Nineties, Meola had reached the pinnacle of success. But the rigors of organizing shoots, appeasing clients, and coping with deadlines—and new technologies—were wearing thin on him. Pushing 50, he decided it was time to shift gears or to get out of the way.

Following an outdoor shoot for Johnnie Walker Scotch, in which he endured a month of torrential rainfall in California, Meola went on a four-day sojourn to Burma. “I had come to the point where I was making a lot of money and was getting lots of assignments, but they were almost too much,” he says. “I began looking at everything and asking myself, ‘Is this really what I want to be doing?” The answer revealed itself in the Burmese capital of Rangoon, where Meola was granted permission to photograph a ceremony for a boy becoming a monk. “As they started shaving his head, I knelt down, braced myself against the wall, and took a picture,” Meola says. “That photo changed my career and changed me spiritually.” From then on, photography became less of a job for Meola and more of a form of healing and self-expression.  

In Burma, Meola shot more than 5,000 images, from which he selected about 70 to show representatives at Eastman Kodak. Looking for journeymen to showcase their new technologies, the photographic behemoth partnered with Meola on the book project The Last Places on Earth (Graphis, 2004), an abstract look at disappearing tribes and cultures, including those in Burma, New Guinea, Africa, India, and Antarctica.  It was followed by a companion book to a British art exhibition titled 'Born to Run': The Unseen Photos (Insight Editions, 2006), and then the critically acclaimed India: In Word and Image (Welcome Books, 2008). “Whenever I can get away from commercial assignments, I work on books,” Meola says. “Everything I shoot now is digital, so instead of rolls of film, I lug around cameras, laptops, and all sorts of cords and backup drives. The technology has evolved so quickly.”

Of all the honors he has garnered throughout his 40-year career, Meola is perhaps most proud of the Advertising Photographer of the Year award he received from the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP). For ASMP, it was only natural to include his work in its archives. Other museums and collections that lay claim to Meola are the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.; the International Center of Photography in New York; and the Museum of Modern Art in Munich. Syracuse Post-Standard columnist Sean Kirst believes hometown recognition for Meola is long overdue. “If I had my way, I'd take the side of some forgotten downtown building and put up a towering version of the cover image from Born to Run, and then provide some interpretative information at ground level on the making of that photo,” writes Kirst, who has profiled Meola several times. “It was an image that absolutely captured a cultural gateway moment in America, and Syracuse ought to be celebrating the man who saw it first.”  

DeCurtis and others would probably agree. “Some images work for their time or work to sell a record,” DeCurtis says. “But Eric Meola’s photography works because it has an intensity that deepens with time. The Born to Run image probably means more now than it ever has.”

Meola takes the praise in stride. “Photography, as an art form, is a lot more respectable today than it was 20 or 30 years ago, and I like to think I had something to do with that,” he says. “My goal is to find the uniqueness of each moment."

Eric Meola: Photograph © Joanna McCarthy

"Boy walking by Coca-Cola sign in Port-au-Prince, Haiti" (1972): © Eric Meola