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A Cold Night, A Long Time Ago….

Dec 9

In history at 7:59am

In 1980, I was a network staff photographer for ABC TV in New York. I had graduated through the post college processing school known as New York press photography, and somehow landed this odd duck of a job shooting stills for TV folks. Which meant of course I was the always the caboose of the operation, the afterthought of a bunch of people who were pre-occupied with moving pictures, not still ones. I would be dispatched to various events, like Monday Night Football, or political conventions, or All My Children, to shoot the pictures that would support the news, advertising and publicity surrounding the various endeavors of ABC. These snaps would be used a hundred different ways from Sunday.

That was what I was doing the night John Lennon was shot. I had just gotten back to my tiny apartment on W.65th St. after shooting the stills for a televison special called “The American Dance Machine.” Shot, as always, color and B&W, horizontal and vertical, fulfilling my ongoing assignment mandate of shooting material that anybody could use, any which way they wanted. I had no TV,  just an AM-FM radio, which I always turned on at night, being a bit of news junkie at the time. I would get a quick overview of the day, and switch to WNEW,  my preferred rock and roll station. Music to go to sleep by.

The music stopped. Vin Scelsa came on, shaky voiced. I remember the ever loquacious Scelsa saying”for the first time in my career as a radio deejay, I am speechless,” or words to that effect.  John Lennon had been shot. Scelsa simply started playing Beatles music.

Very quickly, the news he had been shot changed. Very quickly, word spread that John Lennon was dead.

I was tired. But, on a sidewalk I had traveled hundreds of times, a few blocks from my bed, this voice I had grown up with was gunned down. Couldn’t sleep. Slung the cameras and the press card, and went out.

First stop was Roosevelt Hospital. Had to go there to see what was happening. Of course, there wasn’t anything to see. Grievously wounded, he was DOA, even though they worked on him in the ER. There was a column in the Daily News after, about officers Bill Gamble and James Moran, the cops who transported him to the hospital. They asked him, “Do you know who you are?” He allegedly replied, “I’m John Lennon.” There is evidently conflicting reports as to whether Lennon was able to respond, but the thing is, when the cops make the desperation move of using the squad car as an ambulance, it’s more than serious. Death is imminent.

I made a picture of the hospital building, what is called in NY press parlance a “real estate.” No possible pictures of the drama and sadness inside, but you can always run a photo showing where it went down. Went from there to the Dakota, where a crowd was already gathering.

They spilled all over 72nd St. Singing Beatles songs and holding candles. I stayed, shooting pushed Ektachrome, and trying not to feel like a ghoul. Hard thing about being a shooter, right? Some people understand what you are doing, others don’t. Have to let the judgments slide off your back. Bad feelings, bad words, keep working, let it go, keep your eye in the lens. Remember–at the end of this day what remains? The pictures.

And not many of those. My early archive is mostly fragmented junk now, a scrap heap of early efforts and things I wish I had seen a whole lot better than I did. Have just a few frames left of that night, and the day that followed.

I stayed into the night and the morning, which then stretched into the day. Lots of coffee. Lots of thoughts. Sometimes, with a camera in your hands, it’s just tough to leave. More tk….

f/8nate says:

on December 9, 2010 at 8:24 am

i remember the moment when i heard about it -8 years old at the breakfast table, dark, cold northeast winter before school, one of the unforgettable “where were you” moments of my life. yet another visceral blog entry sir, keeps us coming back, thanks and have a nice day.

Stephen Nesbitt says:

on December 9, 2010 at 8:41 am

Thanks for sharing these moments with us Joe. I think most of us enjoy reading about other photographers and the journey they have take during their careers. Its nice to see some of the shots taken during those times too.

Dominik says:

on December 9, 2010 at 8:43 am

Thank you so much for sharing these memories with us.

Andy deBruyn says:

on December 9, 2010 at 8:47 am

It was a feeling of total unfairness. Numb for days.

Richard Kozak says:

on December 9, 2010 at 9:02 am

There are certain landmark events which anchor feelings, times and emotions. this was certainly on for our generation. We’ll never understand the “why” behind events like this and even after all this time are still difficult to accept. Thanks for sharing Joe.

Martin says:

on December 9, 2010 at 9:09 am

Well said.

Ed says:

on December 9, 2010 at 10:23 am

What a post Joe, could really feel the tension, emotion and exhaustion in it. Thanks for sharing. The opening was a great link and follow-up to your interview on “The Candid Frame.”

james says:

on December 9, 2010 at 10:31 am

Thanks for being there. Thirty years ago until today. And thanks for sharing what you’ve gleaned from those thirty years.

Ronald Paulsen says:

on December 9, 2010 at 10:58 am

Thanks. You made this old guy cry. What a memory.

CJ Kern says:

on December 9, 2010 at 11:03 am


I was living in NJ and listening to Vin at the same moment. I can’t believe it was 30 years ago; seems like yesterday.

Tyler Vance says:

on December 9, 2010 at 11:05 am

As always, a very heart felt post.

Thanks. John would be proud.


Paula says:

on December 9, 2010 at 11:15 am

You pictures always stir emotions in me. Thank you for sharing…

Susan says:

on December 9, 2010 at 11:33 am

Compelling images and very eloquently put…thanks for sharing this, Joe.

Travis Forbear says:

on December 9, 2010 at 11:37 am

I was three years old when this happened. I’ve read a great number of accounts of the night and days that followed, but this really hits home the thoughts and feelings we have to come to terms with when dealing with difficult situations. Thanks for sharing it Joe.

Ian says:

on December 9, 2010 at 11:45 am

After meeting you in Calgary I was re-inspired to pick up my gear again and carry on.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and images from a time we all remember to be as difficult as it can be.

Girish says:

on December 9, 2010 at 11:55 am

It’s good to see these pictures. Specially for a fan and that too from India for whom it’s like miles and miles away.
Good that you went out again and took the shots

Mark Block says:

on December 9, 2010 at 11:58 am

A scar in the minds of our generation. I always wonder if the ppl in the crowd of those type of historical photos of significance even know the photo exists.

Tim Skipper says:

on December 9, 2010 at 12:08 pm

I was too young to really know anything about the Beatles, but I still remember hearing about Lennon’s death. Even though I didn’t grow up with the Beatles I understood what they brought to our culture.

M.D. Welch says:

on December 9, 2010 at 12:35 pm

Always so well written, takes me right to that place and moment.

Thanks for sharing, as always, so much good information and memories.


Tyson Murray says:

on December 9, 2010 at 1:06 pm

Nice memorial Joe. I’m not old enough to remember. I was born in 1984 however my mom is past and I know she would have loved these photos you posted to remember the day that music died!

Keith Emmerich says:

on December 9, 2010 at 4:16 pm

Thanks for sharing the pics and your words…I was a child when Lennon was murdered and did not find the Beatles until my late teens…I could only imagine the music he would have created.

Randy Frost says:

on December 9, 2010 at 7:38 pm

You know Joe, the heros of today always had a beginning. No big contracts, vendors tripping over themselves to give you things and want your name attatched to something. Its nice that you share your beginnings with us. It wasn’t like you just appeared out of nowhere being this megastar, yea megastar. You are, so don’t fight it. You were just like everbody else with a dream and a drive, the drive to do the best job you can. Joe, you are what I aspire to be, humble, grateful, and have a knack for getting the job done and done right. This piece of history that you shared with all of us, your fans, friends, and family is a glimpse of what true heros do. Your there regardless of how tired you are, people spitting out foul language at you, or whatever craziness you had to endure with to get the picture that people will remember and savor. Thank you for sharing your little piece of history and being there.

J W Nienstedt says:

on December 9, 2010 at 8:23 pm

Thanks for sharing, buddy. That was very touching – I’m sure the people who didn’t get your presence then are happy about what you captured and appreciate what you have to share now.

Gerry Johnson says:

on December 9, 2010 at 8:24 pm

Thank you for sharing, Joe!

SteveD says:

on December 10, 2010 at 12:37 am

Thanks, Joe. Been reminiscing a lot myself this week. Amazing how vivid memories can be even after 30 years, but it’s nice to have the photos, too.

Jay Mann says:

on December 10, 2010 at 3:24 am

Hi Joe,

It was final exam time, my last semester of Engineering school. Tough to concentrate with that news…
Thanks for reminding us again of the importance of the still image.

Best wishes for the Holiday season,

Chris Klug says:

on December 10, 2010 at 5:55 am

Great post. I spent that whole night on the phone with a dear friend of mine, each of us trying to help the other trying to make sense of things.

patrick snapp says:

on December 10, 2010 at 3:36 pm

Powerful post. I was not around then but I could imagine the sorrow.

Jon DeVaul says:

on December 11, 2010 at 3:11 am

Thanks for sharing Joe…great shots of such a terrible event. How ironic that a man who was all about peace and love met his end in such a horrible way!

Harry, says:

on December 11, 2010 at 9:56 am

Thanks for sharing. It is always difficult to shoot at places and times like these. You will meet angry stares and even agression, but afterwards, people will be happy with the shots, as it helps polish away some of the sadness.

I was only 10 and in The Netherlands, but the news and hurt was global rippling over the world like a nuclear blast..

Cheers, Harry

Jason says:

on December 11, 2010 at 2:52 pm

Amazing the amount of attention that goes into some events over others. Not to diminish the impact that John Lennon had on society in the U.S. at the time, but the posts from yesterday commemorating the anniversary of Pearl Harbor were far fewer.

Also not intended to be a bash on the Beatles – I like their music just as much as the next person, but still, what’s more important to remember, those who died to protect our country or someone’s impact on the music industry?

Just sayin’…

Sanford Myers says:

on December 11, 2010 at 4:56 pm

If you are a young photojournalist take this quote from Joe’s post and paste it to your dashboard, “Bad feelings, bad words, keep working, let it go, keep your eye in the lens. Remember-at the end of this day what remains? The pictures.” That is photojournalism in a nutshell, your creed if you will. I have been doing this over 20 years and this is what I live by. If you are lucky enough to make a living with a camera to your eye remember that quote, you’ll be better for it.

Thanks Joe, you the man

Moshe says:

on December 12, 2010 at 7:24 am

After so many years, what’s left from “obtrusive” photojournalism, is merely a way for us to take a glimpse at history.


JerseyStyle Photography says:

on December 12, 2010 at 10:36 am

Nice post, Joe. Really interesting to know that you were on the scene at this event, “pushing Ektachrome.” Good stuff.

And, I nary a guess, the stuff on your scrap heap is so much better than any of our good stuff….


Rock says:

on December 13, 2010 at 9:51 pm

This is a line for all photogs, no matter the circumstance;

“Bad feelings, bad words, keep working, let it go, keep your eye in the lens.”

taryn langemann says:

on December 15, 2010 at 11:04 pm

these photos are haunting and beautiful. i am so thankful that you shared them.

Arif Budi Setyawan says:

on December 24, 2010 at 10:39 am

nice photos, i like the first photo.

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