There’s a tortured simplicity to the cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. Standing there is not Bruce Springsteen, the joyful guitar-wielding rock star from Born to Run three years prior. Instead, you see a man as a man. A cabbage-rose wallpaper serves as a partial backdrop to his broodingly neutral gaze, outdated and tinged yellow by the many lives who once inhabited the house.
Springsteen’s expression brings to mind a lyric from “Candy’s Room”: “There’s a sadness in her pretty face.” It’s not the familiar, sexy, and sullen glare that adorns many magazine and album covers alike; there’s a profound absence of emotion and attitude, which carries into the core message of the album: that optimism only leads to disappointment. This fable is told repeatedly through the eyes of nameless characters. To the observer, these people are extras in their own story. But they have their own lives, textured with love, joy, destruction, and disappointment. Bruce looks like Bruce, but doesn’t feel like Bruce. And this is why, 40 years after its release (on June 2, 1978), Darkness on the Edge of Town, an album dedicated to the underdog, is still the underdog in Springsteen’s discography. Its rawness cuts you like a knife because it details a universal experience.
Bruce wrote about working with Darkness photographer, Frank Stefanko, in his autobiography, Born to Run, noting his ability to “to strip away your celebrity, your artifice” and how “he naturally intuited the conflicts I was struggling to come to terms with.” But how was Frank able to encapsulate this in its hazy roughness? I caught up with him over the phone to find out about the events leading up to the shoot, the photo itself, and its impact in the 40 years since its release.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you and Bruce meet?
Frank Stefanko: I was a fan and I told my friend, Patti Smith. Bruce went backstage to see one of Patti’s shows in New York. They were talking about photography and Patti suggested, “You should have my friend Frank photograph you.” Bruce saw some of the photographs that I did of Patti over the years, and he liked them, so he called me. And we started working in 1978 for the album cover for Darkness on the Edge of Town.
Did you listen to the album before planning any concepts?
No, I didn’t. He had just called me and said, “Let’s get together and do some photos.” I asked him if I should come up to North Jersey or New York or if he wanted to come down to my place, which was in South Jersey. He said, “No, I’ll come down to your house. What should I bring?” And I said, “Well bring some changes of clothes and whatever else you want.” So he stuffed a few t-shirts and jeans into a paper supermarket sack, and appeared at my front door.
Bruce came in, sat in the living room, and we looked at some of my photographs. But before we ever picked up a camera or had any idea what Darkness on the Edge of Town was going to be like, we just started talking. I found out that we both have a lot in common. We both had Italian mothers and non-Italian fathers. We both came from blue-collar, working-class New Jersey families, and we both loved the Jersey seashore and the same kind of music. We felt very comfortable with each other. When we started shooting in the house, it went well. He was able to open up to me and we kind of trusted each other.
Without having heard the album, what sort of concepts did you want to tap into?
My concept was to shoot Bruce Springsteen as the young man that was standing in front of me. And that’s basically, it turns out, what worked, because in shooting him the way I saw him, he in turn saw the images as the characters that were in his songs. And of course these songs [had] much more mature characters than the first three albums.
Did Bruce have anything in particular that he wanted to embody? Or did he just let you take control?
He wrote in his memoir Born to Run — which of course I was very proud to have the cover of that book as well — that he just did his best troubled young man look. Although he used the more serious ones to represent the Darkness characters and ultimately the River cover characters as well, which I did. There were a lot more personal shots that showed more of him as a person.
What’s your favorite photo from the shoot?
People like the album cover, of course, and I’m proud of that. But there are two photographs from that same shooting session. One is called Corvette Winter, which is actually the cover of Bruce’s autobiography and subsequent album, Chapter and Verse. It shows him leaning against his 1960 Corvette in my neighborhood. I often wondered why that was the most popular. One day, it suddenly hit me. I was staring at it and looking at Bruce leaning on the car out in the street with the house with the porch in the background, and I said, “Oh my God, this symbolizes one of Bruce’s most famous songs, ‘Thunder Road,’ where he says, ‘From your front porch to my front seat, the door’s open but the ride it ain’t free.’”
Why do you think the cover of Darkness became so iconic?
There were many ideas [for the cover]. He could have gone anywhere for it and the very simple shot of him taken in my bedroom in this house that we had just purchased with this cabbage-rose wallpaper that is so old fashioned that it transcends a certain amount of time, it could have been the ’40s, could have been the ’50s, could been the ’60s, could have been in the 70s. Here’s this young man who’s got this troubled look on his face and I think it resonated to the people that looked at it and said, “What’s going on inside this album?”
I did a gallery show with my friend Danny Clinch back in 2012 in Sweden. And a young man came up to me. He said, “Frank, I have to tell you what this album cover means to me.” He was there with his wife and children. And he says, “When I was nine years old, I lost my father and I was lost. I didn’t know what to do. My mother gave me some money so I could go buy a book or something, but I went to the record store and I saw Bruce Springsteen staring at me on Darkness on the Edge of Town and saying, ‘Bring me home.’ I took it home and I played it over and over again. Bruce and your picture saved me. I now knew what to do. I knew that life goes on and there are things out there.”
Oh man, I tell you, I was crying listening to this guy’s story, and it’s not the first time that I’ve gotten stories like this from people. I never realized how much my art and Bruce Springsteen — especially Bruce Springsteen of course — meant to so many people and how many lives he’s touched.
How did listening to the album for the first time and seeing that marriage of your photography and his music make you feel?
On top of the world. I just felt like I was part of something great. That I was able to contribute to something that … like I said, I’d always been a fan of Bruce’s music and now he was taking a turn and going in a more sophisticated, more mature direction. I felt that this was a stepping stone to greater things in his career and I just felt wonderful being a small part of it.
This interview has been edited and condensed