Allan Tannenbaum sits atop a photographic archive the size of the Matterhorn (see https://www.sohoblues.com/), a reflection of his extraordinarily varied career. The New Jersey native made his name as the staff photographer for the SoHo Weekly News, creating a visual record of his Village community while training his eye on all things NYC, which included the punk scenes at the Mudd Club and CBGB, Lou Reed, Warhol, Haring, Scharf, Wendy O. Williams, Debbie Harry. When that paper folded, Tannenbaum went international, covering the Intifada, events in South Africa, Rwanda, Portugal and, back in his own neighborhood, the most important story of all: 9/11. Gregory Daurer took the measure of Allan Tannenbaum’s entire career in this wide-ranging conversation for PKM.
In 1973, a 28-year-old photographer and filmmaker living in New York City, Allan Tannenbaum, was hanging out at Kenn’s Broome Street Bar, when he came cross a local publication called the SoHo Weekly News. The paper had begun covering the arts and cultural scene taking place in the then-pre-gentrified neighborhood of SoHo, as well as other vital aspects of city life.
As soon as Tannenbaum learned the SoHo Weekly News was looking for a photographer, he met with Michael Goldstein, the founder. Goldstein looked over Tannenbaum’s portfolio, lingering over a shot Tannenbaum had taken of Jimi Hendrix in 1968. As it turns out, Goldstein had once been Hendrix’s publicist. “Yeah, you know how to take pictures,” Goldstein acknowledged, offering Tannenbaum his first assignment. Tannenbaum parlayed that assignment into a nearly decade-long run at the paper before it folded – wisely negotiating, early on, full-ownership of his negatives.
You can find photo galleries, related to various topics, on his website SoHo Blues – the breadth of which invites multiple viewings, explorations. There are shots of the Rolling Stones. Mayors. Presidents. A Latino motorcycle club, the Chingalings, in the South Bronx. Sex workers – and Hare Krishnas – in Times Square. Artists galore, including Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and Kenny Scharf. Songwriter-musicians like Lou Reed, Bob Marley and Tom Petty (Tannenbaum’s photo of Petty appears on the cover of the recent compilation Best of Everything). Abbie Hoffman. Jackie O. Political protests tied to the Vietnam War, the anti-nuclear movement, the AIDS crisis. The Lounge Lizards. The Plasmatics (Tannenbaum’s explosive image of Wendy O. Williams appears on the back of their “Butcher Baby” 45). Seventies’ urban decay across several boroughs. Young actresses like Susan Sarandon and Sigourney Weaver, and then-models Iman, Grace Jones, Brooke Shields, and Jerry Hall. There’s Devo – which appropriated Tannenbaum’s photo of the band for the cover of their record Duty Now for the Future. And disparate nightlife scenes at venues such as CBGB, Studio 54, and the Mudd Club.
While employed by the SoHo Weekly News (later shortened to simply the SoHo News), Tannenbaum worked alongside his mentor Jaakov Kohn, a former East Village Other editor, who walked on crutches as a result of having been injured by a tank while participating in the Israeli War for Independence. There was Peter Occhiogrosso, then a music editor, and later an author, who’s worked with Tannenbaum on the photographer’s Grit and Glamour book project. And Annie Flanders (later, the founder of Details magazine), who influentially drew a distinction between fashion and style – which, to her, meant that someone might possess the latter without wearing the most fashionable clothes, while another person could be dressed in the latest fashions yet be absolutely devoid of style. Tannenbaum shot stylish people on both runways and the streets.
After the SoHo News folded, Tannenbaum transitioned into international photojournalism. In South Africa, he photographed Nelson Mandela when he was finally released from prison. During “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, Tannenbaum shot photos of armed troops positioned among citizenry on the streets. He witnessed oil well fires in Kuwait, set by Iraqi troops. He documented Rwandan refugees in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. And Tannenbaum garnered a prestigious award for his photo work during the Intifada in 1988, which pitted Palestinians and Israelis against each other in the Occupied Territories.
When a plane hijacked by terrorists crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, mere blocks away from his loft in Tribeca, Tannenbaum immediately hit the streets. Enveloped in a cloud of toxic dust which “nearly suffocated” him after the South Tower collapsed, he continued to photograph the traumatic and horrifying scenes of the day. And, years later, Tannenbaum would continue to document the plight of Ground Zero first responders, suffering from a myriad of long-term health issues, as they fought for medical compensation from Congress.
Tannenbaum is still photographing, now placing work with Polaris Images, as well as marketing his older images – which have appeared in museums, galleries, and multiple newspapers and magazines. (When the New York Times has needed a photo of, for example, the Mudd Club, the Downtown music and arts scene, or of David Bowie when he passed away, Tannenbaum images have been selected.) He also rides his beloved British motorcycle – a rebuilt Norton Commando – up in the Catskills. Tannenbaum has been known to play guitar onstage with musician friends. And he’s exploring new cultural vistas over in Portugal.
PKM first reached Tannenbaum by phone in late August 2021, prior to the 20th anniversary commemoration of 9/11.
PKM: You were born in Passaic, New Jersey?
Allan Tannenbaum: January 4, 1945. It was actually during WWII. I went to kindergarten through 9th at the same school: PS 1. Then, I went to Passaic High School and graduated in 1962.
PKM: How would you describe the town and your family in the ’50 and early ’60s?
Allan Tannenbaum: Passaic was a fading industrial town. Like a lot places in the North, it had textile mills like Botany. It had an electrical cable factory, Okonite. Two railroads went through Passaic: the Erie and also the Lackawanna; those would eventually merge, but there were two railroads. And it’s close to New York. From the hilly areas, you could see New York City. And we always used to come into New York.
I grew up in a working-class area of the town and a block away from some of these warehouses and the railroad loading areas, which were a lot of fun to play at. My friends and I used to like to play war. So, it was a lot of fun running around these fields and industrial areas just a block from my house. Then, eventually, my father made some more money, so we moved to Passaic Park, which was more of an upscale part of Passaic.
PKM: And what did your father do?
Allan Tannenbaum: He was in sales.
PKM: What was your impression of New York City as a child? Were you full of wonder, as well as being a little overwhelmed and fearful?
Allan Tannenbaum: [Laughs.] No, I loved it as a kid. It was very exciting to come into New York. Not only could you drive in – you could go through the Lincoln Tunnel from Passaic – but the most fun was when we would take the ferry. There used to be car ferries running between New Jersey and Manhattan, and New Jersey and Brooklyn. And you’d see the city getting closer and closer as you crossed the river, and then they’d put the reverse engines on, slow it down as the ferry came into the terminal. And then you’d drive off the ferry boat and there you were in the city.
And then we would do different things in the city. Like the Hayden Planetarium – I adored that. The Museum of Natural History. We went to the circus at Madison Square Garden. Sporting events. One of my favorite places was the Gilbert Hall of Science which was at about 25th Street and Fifth Avenue. And Gilbert was a company that made American Flyer electric trains and erector sets. And, of course, I had an erector set and I had an American Flyer train. And you would go in there and they would have these big train layouts. I loved coming into the city as a kid. It was very exciting.
PKM: And how would you describe the New York you photographed from the early ’70s into the early ’80s?
Allan Tannenbaum: That, also, was a very exciting time. I went to Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I started out as an engineering student but wound up as an art student after taking a year off, when I went to California. That was in 1964. A friend of mine and I drove in a 1940 Studebaker from New Jersey to California. And we took Route 66, because of, of course, the romance of Route 66, the song – “Get your kicks on Route 66,” the TV show, Route 66. So, we drove that in a really antique car. It was amazing. And I went back to finish my junior and senior year at Rutgers – and went to California when I graduated. And so, I had been involved with the kind of burgeoning of the hippie scene there. I went to graduate school in film at San Francisco State in ’67-’68. I didn’t really care for New York very much. I mean it was just kind of [laughs] dirty and not as exciting as California, which was a lot cleaner and fresher and there was a lot of exciting things going on: you know, free concerts in Golden Gate Park or going body surfing in Los Angeles, things like that. So, I preferred California. But when I was in my third semester in graduate school at San Francisco State, I was feeling depressed, and I said I don’t want to be there anymore. And I quit school and I came back east and got a job in New York.
PKM: But it was in San Francisco that you first started photographing – you first picked up the camera and you were doing some film work, as well.
Allan Tannenbaum: Right. About ’64, ’65 is when I got interested in photography and I bought my first 35mm camera and I taught myself how to develop film and make prints and all of that. I didn’t have much of a direction, but I was taking pictures and [pursuing photography] when I got back to Rutgers as an art student. And, also, I got involved with some student filmmakers at Rutgers and so got involved with those projects, as well. Started shooting 16mm. So, by the time I was ready to go to graduate school, I had some photography and film experience. And this was the direction I wanted to go. But when I came back to New York, I wasn’t sure what direction to go into. I knew I wanted to work in photography more so than film – although I loved film. Photography, you can work independently. In film, you really need a lot of people and a lot of money to do anything. So, I chose the direction of being a photographer.
PKM: Let’s go back to San Francisco. Was it one of the earliest concerts you ever photographed, at which you took photos of Jimi Hendrix?
Allan Tannenbaum: Right. I’ve been a rock ‘n’ roll fan ever since I was a kid and first heard Etta James, Elvis Presley, Dion and the Belmonts. So, I’ve always been a rock ‘n’ roll fan – and still am. And Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels was one of my favorites from the ’60s; one of the best rock shows I’ve ever seen was Mitch Ryder at a roadhouse in South Amboy, New Jersey in 1965.
So, the music scene in San Francisco was incredible! They had these ballrooms, you know, former ballrooms like the Avalon, the Fillmore. And then there was a big venue, which was a part-time ice skating rink, called Winterland. And I used to go to these places: You pay three bucks and see three or four of the top music acts that were around at that time. So, I loved it.
I went to see Jimi Hendrix [at Winterland in 1968]. I decided to bring my camera with a roll of color film. And I got so excited watching him – I mean, I was a big Hendrix fan – that I actually jumped on the side of the stage and I took about eight or ten frames until someone said, “Who are you?!” And I said, “I’m with the record company.” And they said, “No, you’re not! Get off the stage!” And then the guy said, “I can take you backstage, after,” and I said, “Sure!” So, I went backstage and I was hanging around in the presence of Jimi Hendrix. So, that was amazing. This was the first rock concert I ever photographed and I got some pictures that have actually been used [within the 2011 boxed set Winterland, including on the cover of the booklet inside].
PKM: I’ve heard you say you had a 50mm lens when you were taking those photos. You must have been right on top of Hendrix when you got onstage to get the photos as close as you did! Or you did some cropping?
Allan Tannenbaum: No, nothing’s cropped. Those are all frames from the 50mm. Yeah, I was pretty close. I guess that’s how I was noticed by a stagehand. [Laughs.]
PKM: And you were also influenced by the film Blow-Up, as well? [Also spelled out as Blow Up on some movie posters.]
Allan Tannenbaum: Yeah, I used to love foreign films. I still do. But, back then, they were special. The films of Jean-Luc Godard. Francois Truffaut. Michelangelo Antonioni; I’d seen films like Red Desert. Actually, I was working part-time as a manager in an art cinema in San Francisco, so I would see all kinds of films, all the time. But, also, when I was a student at Rutgers. The films of Ingmar Bergman. So, all of these films really impressed me.
But Antonioni came out with his first English language film, Blow-Up, in 1966, and it was about a photographer. I think it was based on the life of London photographer David Bailey. But, I was just captivated by that film and I saw it three times. [Laughs.] And I said, “Oh, that’s what I want!” Of course, I didn’t know how to go about getting it. I call it the film that ruined my life, tongue in cheek. Definitely, it was a huge influence. And you know the scenes where the character Thomas (David Hemmings) was shooting Veruschka with a Hasseblad camera? “Wow, maybe if I have a Hasselblad camera like that, I could be like that!” [Laughs.] I asked for a Hasselblad for my college graduation, and my grandmother and my father gave me a Hasselblad 500c, which I still own and occasionally still use.
PKM: But around that time you did your short film No Satisfaction with your own star in Frizzy Mary. Who was she?
Allan Tannenbaum: Right, Frizzy Mary! That was my magnum opus that I did in my first semester as a grad student at SF State. She was just someone I met on the scene. I don’t know if I met her on Haight Street or what. But she certainly had a look, and I wanted to use her as a model. And I used her in the film. She was never my girlfriend. She actually hung out with the band Blue Cheer. I think she was the girlfriend of one of the guys in Blue Cheer. They had a flat on Ashbury Street. I did see Blue Cheer at Winterland and they were so loud – the only band to ever drive me outside of a venue was Blue Cheer! Actually, they were pretty good; I have the CD and I listen [to it] – sometimes their songs come up on shuffle play.
Frizzy, she really had a good look. So, I did this film No Satisfaction. When I proposed the idea, the instructor said, “What is your film about?” And I said, “It’s about horniness.”
PKM: Well, you succeeded in getting that across.
Allan Tannenbaum: Right. Funny, because there was a review of all the student films made, in the auditorium at SF State, at the end of the semester. And the other students could comment on your film. They would write their comments on a piece of paper and all these pieces of paper would get passed on to you. And my favorite one was, “Lousy art, lousy beaver.”
PKM: “Lousy beaver”?! Wow! Huh…
Allan Tannenbaum: The beaver looked okay to me, but that’s what someone thought. Interestingly, I remember going over to Frizzy Mary’s apartment and they were sitting around a table, putting mescaline in capsules. Her and the other guys. But they were actually heroin addicts, they were junkies. I never got involved in that kind of scene.
A couple of years later I was living in New Jersey. Before I started at the SoHo News, I was teaching at Rutgers. There was a documentary on TV about recovering addicts – and there was Frizzy Mary talking about her addiction and recovery.
PKM: You’ve been compared more than once to Weegee. What do you think of that comparison?
Allan Tannenbaum: Oh, I like that a lot, actually! [Laughs.] I mean Weegee was mainly focused on New York at night and crime. Big crime reporter. That’s something I did very little of. But, certainly, in terms of being involved the gritty side of New York, New York’s underbelly, the nightlife, there is certain legitimate comparisons with Weegee. And I love and admire his work. What’s interesting about what I did at the SoHo News – what you see these days [of my work] is the rock stars, the nightlife, Studio 54, backstage at The Bottom Line – but I had to do a lot of very pedestrian work. And if you look at the issues, you can see what I’m talking about. There were community meetings, and other portraits. Photos of shops that would advertise with us. So, I have a very big archive, but I had to do a lot of work which was not that interesting compared to hanging out at night. It was still good. It was interesting, as part of the community. I did it gladly. But it wasn’t like I was solely a rock photographer or solely a celebrity photographer or nightlife photographer. I had to do everything. So, it was great training actually, because a good photojournalist will be able to handle everything from a protest to a fashion show.
PKM: Let’s talk about that nightlife scene a little bit. What’s one of your fondest memories of CBGB and the punk scene?
Allan Tannenbaum: I think the Ramones certainly were one of my favorites that I saw there. I still enjoy listening to the Ramones. I got a classic shot there, which is one of my best sellers in terms of print sales. I enjoy their music a lot. Still get a kick out of listening to it. There was some other exciting bands there. The Plasmatics: They’re kind of a cult icon of sex and violence. Wendy O. Williams chain-sawing a guitar onstage, and also firing a shotgun into the air, with electrical tape across her nipples. That was definitely a fun shoot.
I loved seeing Nico performing with John Cale. That was special. I’ve loved Nico since the ’60s when I first saw The Velvet Underground. I was just enthralled by her Teutonic beauty. She was performing with Cale. She was playing harmonium, and there was Lutz Ulosch on guitar. So, that was a special show. I never saw Blondie there, which was kind of strange. But I guess that just emphasizes the point that I wasn’t solely a rock and roll photographer.
PKM: Where and when did you see The Velvet Underground?!
Allan Tannenbaum: It was 1965. I was a college student [at Rutgers]. One night I [took a date to the] the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque, which used to be on 41st Street, just off Times Square, to see a program of Andy Warhol films. A lot of Andy Warhol’s films from that era were very tedious, like Empire, for example – a shot of the Empire State Building. So, we’re watching these films, this girlfriend of mine and I, and this band starts to set-up onstage. And then they start playing, and it’s The Velvet Underground and Nico! So, that was very special. It might have been 10 or 20 years ago already, but I ran into Lou Reed uptown and I mentioned that story to him. He could be a kind of curmudgeonly guy, but he seemed pleased to hear that story.
PKM: Did you ever see Patti Smith Group at CBGB?
Allan Tannenbaum: Oh, yeah! Patti before she was [fronting] the Patti Smith Group and she was just performing with Lenny Kaye. By the way, I’ve known Lenny since I was in college. I’ve known Lenny since about 1966. We both had bands at Rutgers. I had a band called Ellis Dee and the Pleasure Dome and his band’s name was much shorter: it was called The Zoo. But Lenny was just the professional. His band was really great. And they used to play these dances and they had go-go girls in cages with them and everything. So, Lenny and I have been friends since then. We still are. When I think back about the first time I went to shoot Patti, which was maybe January of 1974, we showed up during an intermission and Lenny was the one who got us in to shoot and interview Patti. But I photographed Patti when she was still more of a poet than a rock star. And that was at CBGB. Actually, I think it was even before it was called CBGB: It used to be called Hilly’s on the Bowery.
PKM: What did I miss by never having gone to the Mudd Club?
Allan Tannenbaum: Oh, you missed the coolest place in New York City, that’s all. [Laughs.] I loved the Mudd Club. It was my favorite place. It was such an unusual place, and physically it was not really that big. It was the ground floor of a loft building. There was a bar and a stage, which could be folded up to make a dance floor. There was no place to sit, for one thing. But they eventually opened a so-called “VIP Room” on the second floor, which had booths and chairs and places where you could sit. But it was a great mix of people. That’s what made the Mudd Club: a lot of downtown types – everybody from rock and roll musicians to artists to fashion people. It was just an amazing amalgam of all the hip types of the era. And the events, also. The bands: They had a lot of interesting music happening there – from Sam & Dave to Judas Priest. And fashion shows. Very eclectic fashion shows. Other events, performance art events – like Soul Night or Rock Suicide Night, which featured a tableau of Janis Joplin overdosed in her room on the floor with needles in her arms. I mean it was just wild. And the impresario Steve Mass was a brilliant guy. He put this place together. He used to work with Anya Phillips. So, those were pretty wild days. So, that’s what you missed: you missed the coolest place in New York.
PKM: Well, that’s good to know. [Both laugh.]
Allan Tannenbaum: I recommend the book called The Mudd Club by my friend Richard Boch, who used to be the doorman. Of course, I have a lot of photos in that and I have a lot of my stories in that, as well.
PKM: Tell me about the first time you saw the cover of Devo’s album Duty Now for the Future.
Allan Tannenbaum: Yeah, well that was a big surprise, because I didn’t know that they had taken my photo from the cover of the SoHo News and pasted it into some artwork for the cover of their new album. It was exactly the same size on the album as it was on the front page of the SoHo News, but they put things like bar codes and different design elements in to make the album cover. So, when I saw that, I got in touch with the record company and said, “Hey, you can’t do that!” So, they wound up paying me for that. And, interestingly enough, this last year, just by doing my random searches online, I found that they had used the album cover [laughs] on merchandise like T-shirts and pillows and stuff like that. So, I bought a T-shirt and I went to the company that was doing that and they wound up paying me for that use. So, I love Devo, I love Mark Mothersbaugh. But they play fast and loose with photo usage.
PKM: The cover that you were referring to – with Devo on the front of the SoHo Weekly News – there’s also an article about Nancy Spungen‘s death in that same issue.
Allan Tannenbaum: Yeah, I photographed that scene, as well, which was pretty horrific.
PKM: The attendants taking out the body bag with her in it, right?
Allan Tannenbaum: Right. That was the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner – otherwise known as the City Morgue – moving her body in a body bag from the Chelsea Hotel: a photo I call, “Nancy Spungen checks out of the Chelsea.” But I had actually seen her body in the room when I got there. I went up to the floor where their apartment was, and there was a police officer outside. He said, “No, you can’t take any pictures. But do you want to see the body?” I said, “Sure!” [Laughs.] He said, “Alright, but no pictures.” This would never happen today: you would never get anywhere near the place. But he opened the door and the room really smelled – it wasn’t the decomposition of the body, it was just the way they lived. The garbage or whatever it was stank unbelievably. And I looked down the hallway and I could see into the bathroom at the end of the hall, her body. She was wearing a bra and panties and covered in blood. And it was gruesome. I’d never seen a murder victim – if there was a murder: nobody knows for sure if there was an intentional murder – somebody killed like that. Then, I left the room, waited for them to come get the body.
PKM: There’s a great photo of The Specials you took. How do you make your subjects feel comfortable? Those folks looked really at ease in front of your camera.
Allan Tannenbaum: Yeah, that’s a good question. You know, Annie Leibovitz just did some kind of a course; I don’t know if it was an online course, some kind of workshop she did. And I saw the commercial for this course. And she said, “Well, a lot of people think it’s the job of the photographer to put the subject at ease. I don’t think so.” Well, if anybody knows anything about Annie Leibovitz, she doesn’t know how to put people at ease, anyway. And I think she’s wrong: I think it is the job of the photographer to make their subjects feel comfortable. So, by that, I mean maybe if you want to get some edgy photograph of people when they’re in a bad mood, her approach is better. But I think the idea is to let a person’s personality come through. I don’t want to impose anything on anybody or make them feel uncomfortable. I want them to relax, so that they can actually have fun and enjoy the session.
And, as the photographer for the SoHo News, I was not an outsider to these scenes: The SoHo was kind of an integral part of the music and the art world and the hip scene of New York. So, being part of the scene meant, you know, that your subject – if you’re doing rock musicians or artists – they could accept you as somebody they’re happy to work with. Also, being knowledgeable in the case of a musician – knowledgeable about their music – and have things to talk about. You know, find common ground and just talk about things, and then get into a situation [where] things they just kind of flow naturally and as they’re following [what you’re saying,] you’re pushing the shutter button. So, I think that’s how it works.
PKM: Do you remember what you talked about with John Lennon to make him feel comfortable when you were photographing him?
Allan Tannenbaum: First of all, John would be interested in a person or show interest. And that was something that Brian Epstein taught all of the Beatles. So, they were not pretentious people, and they could relate very directly to other people. I met John in 1975 with Jaakov Kohn when we went to photograph the “Salute to [Sir] Lew Grade” at the Hilton Hotel – and that was actually John’s last public performance. And I met him then, and got to talk with him a little bit, and got him to pose for me, and photographed the band performing. So, when I met him in 1980 at [Yoko’s office] Studio One at the Dakota, I reminded him that I met him. He goes, “Oh yes, I remember you.” And I don’t know if he remembered me or not, but he was nice enough to say that he did. And then specific conversation…I don’t remember too much. But I know that we were comfortable talking and that led to a lot of other things, the fact that he felt comfortable talking with me.
PKM: Yeah, obviously he and Yoko felt comfortable with you, in the sense that they allowed you to photograph them nude.
Allan Tannenbaum: Well, yeah. That’s true. That’s right. In 1980, when I became aware that John and Yoko were coming out with a new album after five years of John being in seclusion, living as a house husband, I approached Peter Occhiogrosso, the music editor, and said we should try to do something about this. And he agreed. And I knew that they were going to talk to the New York Times, Newsweek, Playboy, to other national publications.
And I found out how to get in touch with Yoko. Peter had the idea of approaching her [about doing a story on] Yoko only. And Yoko liked that idea, so the first thing that happened was to set up a shoot for the cover of the SoHo News at my studio in Tribeca. So Yoko came down – I remember the date being November 20, 1980. She was wearing a leather jacket, sunglasses, and a cap. And I took a few shots and said, “Yoko, it’s for the cover of the paper, and for us to be engaging, it would be great if you could take off your jacket and your sunglasses.” And, reluctantly, she did that. Things loosened up. And then she made the coy little pose of pretending to unzip her jeans and I snapped that. And that was the cover of the SoHo News and our cover line was “Yoko Only.” But after I [shot her in my studio], I said, “We have the cover and it looks great, but we need to do some pictures for the inside of the paper. Can I meet you tomorrow?” And she said, “Yes, come up to the Dakota.”
We did some shots outside of the Dakota and [then] I’m in her office, which was on the ground floor.
I said, “Can we do some pictures with John and Sean?” And she said, “Not with Sean, but I’ll call John.” So, she called John and he came down from their 7th floor apartment. That’s when he said he remembered me. And we did a walk around Central Park. And I got a lot of great shots of them together and, eventually, a kind of classic shot in front of the Dakota as we were walking back. And then we did some more inside her office. And while I’m still there, John is signing copies of Double Fantasy and he’s reading the SoHo News. And I hear them talking about a video they were going to shoot for Double Fantasy. So, before I left, I said, “Yoko, I think it would be a good idea if you had me there as a still photographer, while you shoot this video.” And she said, “We’ll see.” So five days later, I got a call from one of her assistants, “We’re up in Central Park, meet us here. We’re shooting.”
So, I went right up to the park and I met them there. It was a brilliant, sunny, fall day. And Yoko had a kind of fur bomber jacket. John was wearing a very cool silver jacket. And they were into really good food, [so we] took a break over at the Cafe La Fortuna on 71st – their favorite hangout. We had coffee together there. Afterwards, Yoko said, “John feels comfortable with you. So, you come with us to the studio.” And I rode with them in a limousine down to SoHo to a gallery, the Sperone Westwater gallery, which had been converted to a film set for the day. And they had these HMI lights outside going through Venetian blinds, so it cast those kind of shadows. They had their bed with their bedspread from the Dakota. A few other objects: John’s glasses, their boots, there was an apple on a pedestal. And it was just a pretty unbelievable set. And then they did this scene for the camera – Don Lenzer was shooting 16 mm film – first in their street clothes and then in those beautiful kimonos. They would disrobe and get into bed and pretend they were lovemaking. And I was just saying, “Wow, I don’t fucking believe this! This is incredible!” So, I was like a fly on the wall, not getting in the way of the film camera and getting my shots – which were just incredible. And, so yeah: John felt comfortable. That’s how I got those pictures.
PKM: Do you remember what one of your last assignments was as a photographer for the SoHo News?
Allan Tannenbaum: One of the last ones was to photograph Suicide – Alan Vega. So I photographed him at his studio and I got some great shots. And I think that was my very last assignment.
PKM: And then the paper folded after that?
Allan Tannenbaum: Very shortly after that. I think that was my very last assignment. We got a call on the Ides of March 1982, to come to the office. And I knew instinctively what it was, because the Brits who had bought the paper, Associated Newspaper Group, which also owned the Daily Mail, were tired of sinking money into the paper. They didn’t want to bleed any more money. And that was it. And that day I called the great French photo agency Sygma, because I had been giving some of my John Lennon and my other photos to Sygma. And I called the New York chief there and said, “They just folded the SoHo News.” And she said, “Do you want to come work with us?” And I said, “Yeah!”
The last few years at the SoHo News, I was feeling a bit frustrated, because I was getting a little bit tired of covering the nightlife and rock concerts. And I had friends who were doing international photojournalism and I wanted to expand my horizon.
In 1983, I went on my own – not for the agency – to South Africa and Brazil. I was getting the lay of the land [in South Africa]; I went to a game preserve, photographed around Cape Town. And, in Brazil, I photographed the Carnival. So, it wasn’t till actually 1984 when they sent me to Nicaragua, because there was talk of an imminent U.S. invasion, which didn’t happen. So, that was my first chance at an international story. I photographed in Nicaragua. I went to Honduras; I actually did get a photo from Honduras into Newsweek of some U.S. troops there. And I passed through El Salvador.
PKM: And what’s an assignment abroad that you’ll never forget?
Allan Tannenbaum: One of the biggest for me was covering the Intifada in Israel and the territories in 1988. That one, I really learned a lot. I knew my way around from a trip in ’79, so that helped. And I was working with a lot of photojournalists, traveling around together. When you’re in a dangerous place, you have to look out for one another. But if everyone’s getting more or less the same picture, then your pictures aren’t worth as much – especially if you’re traveling with people who work for a wire service like Associated Press: Their picture is going to go out all over the place, while yours is sitting in a film canister. I said, ‘I’ve got to split off from these people and find another way to work’. And I did. So, the pictures I got there and then were some incredible scenes. I wound up getting, in 1989, first prize in spot news stories in the World Press Photo Amsterdam for my photo work covering the Intifada. By that time, I was on the map as an international photojournalist.
PKM: And what was the image?
Allan Tannenbaum: The main image was a Palestinian demonstrator leaping over a burning barricade with a Palestinian flag. The Palestinian flag was illegal and a rare sight at that time. So that was the main image. But I also got a lot of the violence that was going on. So, that was a story there. I beat out a lot of… I mean I’m not interested in awards and prizes, but the competition was impressed, and they said, “Wow, you really beat us with these pictures!”
PKM: You’ve said the biggest assignment of your life – 9/11 – took place right in your own neighborhood. And it’s coming up on the 20th anniversary of that event. What can you say about that day? And how do you feel about it today?
Allan Tannenbaum: Wow. That was extraordinary. I mean I’ve described it many times. I don’t know if I have much to add to that.
But coming up on the 20th anniversary is very significant and I plan to be in the area with my camera to see what I see. But this year it has special significance, because of the events that just transpired in Afghanistan, which makes me feel…I’m kind of in shock about all of that. It makes me feel that we’re completely vulnerable to the same kind of attacks all over again after spending 20 years fighting the terrorists and making the world more secure. We just threw that all away. And now we’re in very grave danger all over again. The whole country. The whole West.
PKM: You spent several years after 9/11 documenting the first responders who had been at the World Trade Center. Are you still in touch with any of them?
Allan Tannenbaum: Right, I documented the health effects of Ground Zero toxic exposure [among] first responders, recovery workers, local residents, returning workers, returning students. It was quite an epic story that I worked on for several years. And many of the people I met died from their diseases. And many, actually, I’m still friends with. Probably the closest friend is firefighter Tim Duffy. He’s in my iconic photo of him riding his Harley-Davidson in full bunker gear [Ed. Note: protective equipment] through the dust of 9/11 to go to work. So, I’m friends with Tim Duffy still and that picture is really kind of a popular photograph. A lot of people who ride motorcycles are into it. But, you know, it’s an amazing photo. And he’s an amazing guy, actually. He’s retired and he has some health issues. He started a foundation called 1 Soldier 1 Dog 1 Team. He finds rescue dogs and trains them and puts them together [with] wounded warriors. He does an amazing thing.
PKM: And does the way the first responders were treated by various aspects of government still anger you?
Allan Tannenbaum: Well, yeah. The Mayor of New York, Mayor Bloomberg, he tried to sweep it under the rug. Everybody realized it was going to be a big financial obligation. And, finally, the Congress came through and passed the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act [of 2010]. Tim – his firefighter health insurance takes care of it. But a lot of other people, they really needed this fund. I’m actually involved in that, because – you saw the picture of me covered in dust – I’ve had different health issues from that. And I participate in the World Trade Center Health Program. I actually just had a physical exam with them the other day.
PKM: And how would you describe your health as a result of that day?
Allan Tannenbaum: Well, I’m still taking some meds for certain things. And I’ve had surgery for respiratory problems. My health is, thank God, pretty good now. But I still have to take certain medications and I have certain limitations. But, I’m pretty lucky.
PKM: I wonder how it felt to have been friends with John and Yoko and then attend a Support Our Troops rally and photograph a sign saying “We Gave Peace A Chance, We got 9/11!”?
Allan Tannenbaum: Well, I don’t know what to say about that. I’m wondering, really, what John Lennon’s politics really were and what he would have thought about 9/11. I’m not sure. So, yeah, I mean, I don’t really want to get into the politics of the whole thing.
PKM: When you were reporting abroad did the fact that you took photos of John Lennon – or Bob Marley in his glory – ever help you? Did that ever provide you an in anywhere?
Allan Tannenbaum: No, I don’t think so. I can’t remember any instances of that. I mean, it’s just two different worlds: The entertainment business and pop stars – it’s light years away from life and death situations that I found myself in.
PKM: What were some of the greatest concerts that you recall? Bob Marley, certainly?
Allan Tannenbaum: Oh yeah, Bob Marley was one of the best. I remember there was a Bob Marley show at Madison Square Garden and one at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. In between that, there was a Rolling Stones show. Now, the Rolling Stones are my favorite rock and roll band – and they were great. But the feeling at the Bob Marley concert was just incredible. I mean the vibration and the sense of oneness and love and the sound of the music – I actually am getting a chill thinking about how wonderful the sensation was of being at a Bob Marley concert. So, Bob Marley was great. I loved The Clash, the Ramones. Blondie was super. You know, a lot of great ones that were so much fun.
PKM: You’re not just a fan of British music, you’re a fan of a particular British motorcycle, as well.
I started [riding motorcycles] in the ’60s in California. I had a Honda 305 I bought around 1964 and I went around California and down to Mexico on that; brought it back east with me when I went back to college. And then in 1968, I got enamored when I was in San Francisco with the British motorcycles and I rode a Triumph and then a Norton in 1968 belonging to a friend of mine. A Norton Atlas. I was so impressed with that bike I said, “I’ve got to get something like this.” And then Norton came out with the Commando range. And in 1970 after working on freighters and sailing across the ocean, I had enough money to go to England and buy a brand-new Norton Commando there. So, I rode around England. I went to Paris, I rode around France, over the Pyrenees to Barcelona to Campari [España] to Ibiza where some friends had a villa. Did a reverse trip and brought the bike back with me to New York.
PKM: And that’s the one you still ride it to this day?
Allan Tannenbaum: That bike, unfortunately, I totaled it in Brooklyn in 1973. That was shortly before I found the job at the SoHo News, so I used my insurance money to buy camera equipment. I was not interested in getting another motorcycle, at that point. Of course, I was lucky I didn’t lose my leg or my life.
PKM: How does it feel to have built the body of work that you have?
Allan Tannenbaum: Well, that’s very satisfying, actually. Funny, because when I was working for the SoHo News, I remember thinking, I still do admire the great documentary photographers like W. Eugene Smith, Paul Fusco, and the street photographers like Elliott Erwitt and so many others; the ones who would really go out and do stories on coal miners in Appalachia – things like that. And I said, “Well, I’m not doing those kind of serious stories…but, you know, you’re going to have a body of work.” So, that turned out to be true. I do have what turned into, from my work at the SoHo News, an important historical document of a very particular, fascinating era in the life of New York City. Many aspects of it – not just the rock scene: the art world and daily life and politics, fashion. So, I feel very pleased and satisfied with this. It feels like an accomplishment.
PKM: What do you feel your eye gravitates towards?
Allan Tannenbaum: [Laughs.] Everything. What my eye is really gravitating towards now is Portugal. I just spent three months there. My wife and I have a place there and I love shooting in Portugal. When I’m in New York, I guess, I’m a little burned out on it. It’s become monotonous after all these years. But when I’m in Portugal, I feel alive – and I feel inspired to take pictures. It’s just completely different. It’s really beautiful: There’s so much history, culture, architecture, scenery, the ocean. That turns me on. That inspires me to photograph.