David Bruce, who launched the I am Bonnaroo project 10 years ago, first learned of Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival from reading an article in a music publication. “I was intrigued because I've always been fascinated with the '69 Woodstock Festival, which I learned about at a really young age through photos I found in a book in my school library while I was living in Nebraska.
He lived in Omaha in the 1970s for a few years before leaving Nebraska. “I was born in Vermont and had lived in 10 states before graduating from high school. My father's job kept our family on the move. I've lived in New York for almost 40 years. I live in Coxsackie, New York, which is about two hours north of New York City.”
As a child, Bruce found the Woodstock Music Festival fascinating. The three-day event began on Aug. 15, 1969, with half a million people waiting on a farm in Bethel, New York, for the event to start. The festival was presented as “An Aquarian Experience: 3 Days of Peace and Music,” according to history.com.
The four-day Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, held on The Farm in Manchester, Tennessee, with its “radiate positivity” slogan, reminded Bruce of Woodstock.
“When I thought about what kind of images I wanted to capture on my first trip to Bonnaroo, the '69 Woodstock Festival instantly came to mind,” Bruce said. “So I bought a 1969-era Nikon 35 mm film camera, which was the standard that a lot of photojournalists used to document Woodstock and Vietnam with.”
A graphic designer by trade, Bruce has worked for a government agency for nearly 20 years.
“But film photography has been my passion for 35 years,” Bruce said. “Someone told me once that you are what you love,” he said. “So when people ask me what I do, I say I'm a photographer. Graphic design is just my means to pay bills.”
His love for photography is only paralleled by his love of music, said Bruce. So when he had the opportunity to walk through the Bonnaroo arch into the world of music and positivity, he seized it.
“In 2011, my daughter, a freshman in college at the time, told me she was thinking about going to Bonnaroo,” Bruce said.
Bruce told her he was envious. She let Bruce know the father of her roommate wanted to go to the festival, and that’s how the idea of embarking on a trip together was born.
“So I bought a wristband, packed up some gear and rendezvoused with this girl’s dad in Long Island. It was a leap of faith. We literally got to know each other on the 18-hour road trip to The Farm. Hindsight tells me that this was an integral part of my Bonnaroo journey. Meeting new people on The Farm, from places I've never been, is a big part of the Bonnaroo experience.”
Once on The Farm, Bruce realized he had come unprepared, but, luckily, he had entered the land of good vibes and high fives, so he found a solution.
“I learned that first year in 2011 how much I really didn't know about doing a festival like Bonnaroo,” Bruce said. “We were grossly underprepared; it was laughable.”
A street-style portrait photographer, Bruce looked at Bonnaroo that first year as a potential photo opportunity.
“I had no idea how overwhelmed I'd be with the Bonnaroo culture from a photographer’s standpoint,” he said. “The festival is a visual feast. I became aware I didn't bring enough film to shoot on my first day on The Farm, so I started going up to anyone with a camera and asking if they knew who I might be able to buy some from. Miraculously, I found someone who sold me a couple of rolls. Now I travel to The Farm with three 35 mm cameras and 30-plus rolls of film. And I've never returned to New York with unused film.”
He knew his first visit to Bonnaroo would turn into a long-term project. The visual feast revealing people’s hearts and emotions couldn’t be captured in four days only.
“I became beyond inspired photographing the people of Bonnaroo that first year,” Bruce said. “I knew that these were the kinds of images that I needed to make: iconic photos that could transcend a generation.”
These images could have more impact and tell a bigger story in 50 years than they do now, said Bruce.
“So I created the I am Bonnaroo project as kind of a photo essay, an homage to the unique and beautiful people that make Bonnaroo the incredible experience it is.
“When I first decided to make I am Bonnaroo an ongoing project, I thought it would be cool to return to The Farm for a few consecutive years and continue to archive what was going on there photographically. I honestly didn't think that I'd be doing this 11 years later. 2020 would have been the 10th consecutive year for this project. COVID-19 prevented this from happening. For me it was a little like running a marathon, having the finish line in sight, and then someone blowing a whistle to say it's over before getting the chance to finish. This doesn't mean I'm ready to stop building this project though. If nothing else, it's inspired me to keep going.”
Bruce’s images will continue to tell a story decades after they’ve been captured, just like the photos of Woodstock do.
Inspired by “peaceful, authentic, and historic” Woodstock as a child, Bruce is thankful for the chance to be part of the musical Bonnaroo experience, and capture the “diversity, unity and positivity” on The Farm.
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