Jeannette Montgomery Barron Captured the Energy of New York's 80s Art Scene

"You always romanticize the past, but New York really was a place you could live and work as an artist. That's all changed now."

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Jan 15 2015, 8:00pm

Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. All featured images © Jeannette Montgomery Barron, courtesy of Collezione Maramotti and Silvana Editoriale

Photographer Jeannette Montgomery Barron moved from Atlanta to New York in 1979. After graduating from the International Center of Photography and armed with her Hasselblad 2¼, she set about capturing New York's art scene, fascinated with the energy of the individuals—Jean-Michel Basquiat, Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman, Julian Schnabel, Andy Warhol, William S. Burroughs, Bianca Jagger, Willem Dafoe—who came to define the period.

"I wasn't really going to tons of parties, though," she says. "My goal was just to get the picture. I really wanted to record these people, it was like a game to me."

While Barron says that "everyone was photographing the same people in the same area downtown," her work—which, in its stark monochromes, has echoes of her contemporary, Peter Hujar—has stood the test of time as an important document of the 80s New York, where musicians, painters, writers, fashion designers, filmmakers, publishers, actors, models, and photographers worked and played together, made their own rules, and shaped our creative culture as we know it today.

Of course, living and working as an artist in the city is a different story altogether now. "You always romanticize the past but I do think it was a different environment," says Barron. "New York was a place you could live and work as an artist. That's all changed. It's really hard now unless you're super successful, which is why lots of people end up in LA."

Barron's method was always to never take up too much of her subject's time. She was unimposing, relaxed, and the results—whether they were shots for Cosmopolitan or Comme des Garçons—were a striking lesson in the use of subject and shadow. My Years in the 1980s New York Art Scene is the latest collection of Barron's work. Her previous book, Scene, showcased her most famous portrait shots, but this new book goes behind the scenes with contact sheets, etchings, and mementos from the time. We spoke to her about the story behind some of her most famous photographs.

JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT AND ANDY WARHOL
( Image above) "The gallerist Bruno Bischofberger called me up and said, 'Go photograph Andy and Jean-Michel because I'm doing a show of their paintings.' Jean-Michel was really stoned. I mean, he had smoked these huge spliffs. Andy was in awe of him. At the end of the portraits I asked them both to sign model release forms. Jean-Michel was being legalistic, adding something extra to his, and Andy said, 'Oh, Jean-Michel, that's such a good idea, I'm gonna do that, too.' This wasn't in the original Factory on Union Square—I did go to that one, too, and it was like a mish-mash of junk Andy had gone out and bought and didn't know what to do with. The Factory on 33rd Street was very streamlined and professional. You wouldn't go there and see someone lying on the floor—this was business."

CINDY SHERMAN
"I last saw her at a party two months ago and she's so shy I can't believe she ever let me photograph her. She probably regrets it. Recently, I was going through my old answering machine messages from back then and came across one from the morning I was going to photograph her. Just hours before I was supposed to go, she left a message saying, 'Hi it's Cindy, actually, today's not a good day so maybe come another day and if you don't get this message just come.' I got that message, but continued like I didn't hear it."

BIANCA JAGGER
"There was no way to not get a good picture of her. She was complete angle, a beautiful woman. This photograph was an assignment for German Cosmopolitan and, after that, I became friends with her. We would have lunches, go shopping, eat macrobiotic food, and keep people waiting. She was three hours late for our shoot that day—typical for her in those days—and, when Neil Young's 'Old Man' came on the radio, she started to cry."

WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS
"It was his birthday. He was 71 and a friend of mine, Howard Brookner, had made a documentary on Burroughs, so he arranged it. It wasn't in the Bunker—it was someplace else. I went in and saw these shotguns lying on the table and it kind of creeped me out, I have to say. I was like, I'm going to take this picture and get out of here. Little did I know the guns were filled with paint for his famous shotgun paintings."

ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE
"Robert died not long after this photograph was taken. Photographing another photographer, especially one you admire, is really intimidating. I was thinking, What am I gonna do? I know I'm going to mess this up. I'll forget to do something, or forget the film—which I'd done before. Some people used Polaroid backs, but I never did. He put me at ease immediately (we had friends in common) and was very inquisitive of my work. At the end of the shoot he offered me a glass of chocolate milk and a joint. He loved chocolate milk. The 80s were a really sad time—it was frightening, no one knew what was going on. When I first heard about AIDS, it was the 'gay cancer'—that's what it was called. You'd see these guys on the street and know they were goners. It was really, really sad. I lost a lot of friends."

WILLEM DEFOE
"Willem is a good friend of mine. I've photographed him a lot, but this was a movie still for a film my brother and Kathryn Bigelow directed called The Loveless. It's a biker film and was very low-budget for the time. It was Willem's first starring role and then, of course, he went on to do Platoon and became a star. Willem is a great guy. He's not tough—it's all in his face."

JULIAN SCHNABEL
"He was so sweet to me. We met at Barney's, which, at the time, was a small store. I was always at his studio and, this time, I think I was there bringing him prints that he signed for me—it was something I used to get people to do then. He wrote, 'To Jeannette, your fan, Julian,' and I don't think he would do that these days. Julian is a really smart guy. It's amazing how he's figured out all these permutations of his career. He's a great stylist."

DENNIS HOPPER AND MATT DILLON
"This was another assignment for Comme des Garçons. It was 1991 when they asked if I'd photograph them. No one wanted to fly at the time so I said, 'Yeah, if you'll fly me on Swissair,' which was the neutral airline. They did, and it was great. Photographing two movie stars in expensive T-shirts isn't a bad day's work. Matt Dillon is sweet. Dennis Hopper liked to stir things up a bit and provoke you. He had fun doing that."

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