BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. - You have to go deep into the back gallery of the Cranbrook Art Museum, north of Detroit, on a wooded campus set far off Woodward Avenue. Beyond bleating video installations by graduate students. Past the surreal touch-and-see-if-its-flesh sculpture of a man exhausted after a workout. There you find two galleries filled with low key art that simply does not fit. Two black-and-white photographs show a boardwalk in Asbury Park, N.J. In both, the focus is on a scruffy guy of around 30 who would look out of place walking around Cranbrook, or the moneyed streets of Bloomfield Hills, let alone hung on its walls.
Stark and dark, these photos could be from any number of artists: Robert Frank, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange. The boardwalk is the only element in the pictures that doesn't appear in an advanced state of decay. Patterns of slanting wood fill their foregrounds.
In the first picture, behind the man, there's a seaside hotel and the Jersey shore is deserted except for a girl on a bicycle, leaning into a phone booth; in the other, a Ferris wheel rises into an overcast afternoon. Puddles spot the boardwalk, and the man, wearing a black T-shirt and jeans, looks surprised and lonely, thankful for the intrusion. He seems anxious to connect with a world outside his own. Then you recognize his square jaw.
He looks so different in pictures taken before 1980. There's a number of them at Cranbrook from 1978. The best is Frank Stefanko's shot of Springsteen looking bewildered, and hungry. Known for sweaty black-and-whites of the Clash and Patti Smith and the burgeoning punk scene around New York, Stefanko's Springsteen is a working musician wrestling with the idea of creating something real - indeed, he was already a star at the time.
In another picture, snapped by
the singer's then-girlfriend Lynn Goldsmith, Springsteen wears aviator glasses and a Chevrolet cap and a jaw so clenched you expect him to slam a fist through the dashboard of his Corvette. These are rare expressions in this show, ones that don't seem self-conscious, or taken for marketing purposes. And yet this meandering new exhibit, “Springsteen: Troubadour of the Highway,” a summer-long show of photos and memorabilia that spans his career, is carried a surprisingly long way by those expressions.
In its earliest pictures, his sideburns are long and his face is wandering and skittish. The boardwalk pictures are from Joel Bernstein, Neil Young's longtime archivist. He took them in 1979; again, Springsteen was already a superstar at the time, but not quite a megastar. He looks haunted by something; at the time of the photos he was writing music for The River and his lyrics were dark and yearning. Here and there on the Cranbrook walls, defensively, as if the museum needed literature to convince itself of the show's worth, those lyrics are scrawled:
“And I'm driving a stolen car/On a pitch black night/And I'm telling myself I'm gonna be all right/But I ride by night and I travel in fear/That in this darkness I will disappear.”
When you enter the gallery, you hear Nebraska, Springsteen's 1982 masterwork, piped through the speakers. Those lyrics on the wall and far-off songs of despair wafting around the room grab your attention, not Annie Leibovitz' glossy photo-shoots for Rolling Stone magazine or reproductions of hand-written lyrics - unless you stare straight across the gallery. Then head for the blowup of the ominous Nebraska cover. Shot in 1975 by David Michael Kennedy, it's an image of desolation through a car windshield. If nature photographer Ansel Adams were ever suicidal, he might have come up with a landscape this forlorn and striking.
A room away is the other high point in the show: A couple dozen pictures taken in the mid-1990s by Pamela Springsteen, the singer's sister. Looking for a visual correlation to the broken dreams of her brother's 1995 album, The Ghost of Tom Joad, her images are a grim travelogue of the Mojave Desert outside Los Angeles. Route 66 signs linger, dilapidated ministries sit; then, in L.A., there's an immigrant farmer in a lettuce patch, a car lot, and chain-link fences.
What Kennedy and Pamela Springsteen share, what makes them best in show, is a lack of Bruce Springsteen. Because as you wander the gallery, you're struck by marketing again and again, and as soon as he shows his face in a photo, it veers into the careful, albeit classy, selling of an icon. On one wall hangs a tour T-shirt. On another the record sleeve of a rare Japanese import. At the back of the gallery is a loop of videos from John Sayles and concert footage from the 1979 “No Nukes” benefit concerts at Madison Square Garden.
The Cranbrook show is certainly not about the subtle image-building of a rock star (that might have been fascinating, come to think of it). So even if you are a Springsteen fan - even if you rarely enter an art museum - that lack of focus leads to a glaringly obvious question:
Yes, this is yet another self-conscious attempt by an art museum to loosen up while simultaneously drawing new faces. But what is the point of “Troubadour of the Highway”?
Colleen Sheehy, director of the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, organized the show, but until I read her catalog, I was hard-pressed to guess that it's all about Springsteen and his use of cars and the highway in his songs.
The joke about Springsteen is that it's always about cars and the highway; and no question, that theme, however thinly, runs through the exhibit. But all I see is marketing: Springsteen and the E Street band promoting Born in the USA, Springsteen driving a pickup for a magazine shoot. Those songs say it better. The highway on his early albums was paved with escape routes to a new life all your own - “Baby, we were born to run.” But the two-lane blacktop of later Springsteen has grown rutted. Dirt has overtaken the pavement, and your car, if you've still got a car, is two decades old and unreliable. If any photos do say this, that would be Robert Frank's 1959 book about a coast-to-coast journey, The Americans.
More interesting is the contrast between Leibovitz's iconic Born in the USA cover (the singer standing before Old Glory) and Pamela Springsteen's photo from a decade later of that same flag, shot from behind harsh sunlight, its colors washed out and fabric transparent. It would have made a better album cover than Leibovitz's - which suggested none of the title song's anger or sadness, and was understandably misread as flatly patriotic.
To be fair, pulling an engaging visual theme out of a musical career is tricky. A show about friendship and the Beatles, anyone? Maybe David Bowie and Madonna and the use of masks in rock? The highway was always more of a genre for Springsteen anyway, as the show's catalog wisely explains - a common language to project universal ideas, the way John Ford used westerns to tell stories about anxiety and manhood, or Walter Mosley tells a history of the African-American experience in the 20th century through his Easy Rollins mysteries.
Trying to find a tangible, evocative photographic correlation with songs falls far short of useful. Besides, I'm not sure anything in the show makes its point more succinctly than a line in “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” You hear it again and again in the last room. Its high lonesome harmonica and words stick in your head far longer than the scenery, words that summarize Springsteen's contradictory fascination with the highway, if not his whole view through the windshield:
“The highway is alive tonight/ But nobody's kidding nobody about where it goes.”
Springsteen: Troubadour of the Highway runs through Aug. 31 at the Cranbrook Art Museum, just off Woodward Avenue in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., about 80 minutes north of Toledo. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets are $6; students, teens, seniors, and children under 12 are admitted free. For more information: 877-462-7262. Or visit www.cranbrookart.edu.