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The Exclusive Story Behind Warhol & Basquiat's Boxing Photos

Take a trip back in time to when the Rolling Stones were coordinating 'Rolling Stone' covers and David Bowie was shooting music videos, with legendary photographer Michael Halsband.

by Emerson Rosenthal
Jul 7 2015, 9:00pm

Artists Andy Warhol (left) and Jean-Michel Basquiat (right), photographed in New York, New York, on July 10, 1985. © Michael Halsband /Landov

This one was Jean’s idea. He said, “Wait I have an idea. Let me try something here.” He posed Andy and then he laid his head on the glove, and made that expression. As he was doing that, I tilted the camera. It was on a tripod. I undid the lock on it, tilted the camera as far as it could and shot the picture like, as fast as I could do it because I saw this happening but it didn’t last. It wasn’t in motion, but it still didn’t last. He did it and then he kind of like, it changed. I went bam and shot it because if you tilt this picture more this way, clockwise, you'll see that Jean’s leaning and Andy’s just standing like nothing is really the way, this makes it seem that Andy’s coming in with the uppercut.

The use of “Andy” and “Jean” in this case isn’t synecdoche—although given our New York context, they’re just as unbelievable when name-dropped as their surnames. Either way it sounds like he’s describing a scene from Basquiat, but as photographer Michael Halsband walks me through his show of portraits at the National Arts Club on the south side of Gramercy Park, past walls adorned with captured moments of Mick Jagger, David Bowie, spread-eagled strippers, James Brown, and, of course, the late Klaus Nomi, it’s hard to not be swept up in the image of a New York Wonderland, an heterogeneous but unified-under-Pop art vision of a Disney World character breakfast; everyone was there. 

“I got a call from Paige Powell who worked with Andy. She invited me to a private dinner in the backroom of a restaurant. I showed up and the only empty seat left at the table was sitting next to Jean. He turned to me—I didn’t know what to make of that guy—He turned to me and said, ‘I’m a big fan of your work. I've been a big fan of your work.’”

“I thought, what could he possibly know of me and my work?” Halsband recollects. “I thought it was a butter-up.” The radiant child was glowing. “He said, ‘Yeah, I know your work for five years. The first thing I saw was that Klaus Nomi portrait.’ I was like, wow. That was five years ago. It was exactly five years ago. It was crazy.” Later on, in the bathroom, Basquiat would ask Halsband if he'd photograph a traditional boxing-style poster that he and Warhol wanted for a new show. The result, quite literally, is history. 

Amid handshakes and autographs from the admirers who stopped by HALSBAND PORTRAITS that Sunday afternoon, the photographer and I talked for two-and-a-half hours about the stories behind countless immortal images. From the psychology of shooting S&M to the fleeting nature of the medium itself, Halsband time and time again proved himself nothing less than the real fucking deal: summatively an artist, a quintessential New York photographer, and a paragon of a life well-spent chasing beauty, meeting it in the least likely of places, and capturing its unflinching portrait.  

In the weeks following the show, Michael Halsband was generous enough to provide us with a few of his photographs for republication. Below, read the true stories behind his portraits of Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and more, as told exclusively to The Creators Project:

Musician David Bowie, photographed in New York, New York on October 5, 1997. © Michael Halsband /Landov

"This one was at night on a video shoot for the song, 'I’m Afraid of Americans.' I was working with Trent Reznor, so I wasn’t really connected to Bowie. Bowie was there when he needed to be, but it was hard to pin him down and I really wanted to get a picture of him. Three days had passed and I hadn’t really gotten what I wanted out of it, but he was telling a joke to this director and there was this moment—I had this feeling to check the light and set my camera. I put the camera up to my face when he told the punchline because I felt like he would be engaged in what he was doing, and he couldn’t react to what I was doing, and so I caught that moment where, in a sense, he was off-guard but he was coming into an interesting moment.

I didn’t know where it was going to go, but I felt like I have to get ready and now, boom. There it is. When he moved into the punchline, I moved with him because I was at a slow shutter, it was at night and it was light. There were movie lights, but I didn’t want to take my chances. I wanted to get the shot, but I had to move with him to get it, so that he remained sharp.

Nothing else is on that shot. He's kind of blurry. He's moving. Everything’s moving, but he's at least relatively sharp, considering I was wide open at the corner.

It was a tough one to get."

Jan 01, 1981 Keith Richards in San Diego in 1981. © Michael Halsband /Landov

"The Stones approached me and said, 'We have these two cover stories. One is Life Magazine with Mick Jagger, and the other is the cover of Rolling Stone with Keith Richards. We were thinking of you doing one of them.' I thought, oh my God. This is incredible. It’s like, wow. Then, it’s like, 'Which one do you want to do?' I was like, 'I don’t know. It’s tough.' Keith is Keith, and it’d be awesome but the cover of Life Magazine would be awesome. I was a child, a product of that time that I really believed in Life Magazine, so I thought, oh, Life Magazine. Then, he said, 'We think that you'd be really good to work with Keith on the cover of Rolling Stone.'

We worked on these pictures right to the last minute, and we were just up against the wall for their deadline to go to press, and they decided to run with a different picture. Keith recently told me that it was because Jann Wenner thought these pictures made him look too good. Give me a fucking break.

We shot it at three in the morning. My assistant got up very early and got to the lab. We had called in advance and said, 'We’re going to need to run this film, the first run. We got no time.' I think we took our chances. I don’t know if we had time to even clip test or whatever to look at the exposure and see if the film was good. We shot a lot of pictures.

At that point, I don’t remember. I know that by the end of the day, we finally got an opportunity to sit down and edit the film with Keith, get his choices. We edited it first and then we got him in to make his choices, and then he got on a red-eye with his assistant and flew back with the film to Rolling Stone to deliver it first thing in the morning.

Basically, by the time it got to Rolling Stone, it was 24 hours after the shoot. We did it as fast as we could—we did take a month-and-a-half to get there, but that’s the Rolling Stones: you're going to push it right to the last minute and get the best thing you can. It’s always been my way, anyway. I always wait out to see if I can make it better and use every bit of time I can. If there's a deadline, it better be the absolute deadline because chances are, that’s how far we’re going to go—probably past the deadline as much as possible.

There we were at three in morning, on the eleventh hour and I don’t know who maybe said something to Keith like, 'Come on, man. We got to do this. We’re going to lose it if we don’t.' I don’t know. He was like, 'Okay. I'm going to cut away this time and we’re going to do it. Get ready.' In the true tradition of the Stones, it’s always the last-minute notice. You're never going to have a day to set up, you're going to have to always do it now. It's good. I really enjoyed working with them, but I learned a lot from all of them. 

There's something beautiful about that because it takes you out of your comfort zone. It puts you into whatever it is that’s happening at the moment, as opposed to all what you're fighting to control in your vision. The thing is it’s like... yeah."

Artists in New York City pictured April 23, 1985 at Mr. Chow restaurant from top left: Michael Heizer, David Hockney, Leroy Nieman, Dennis Oppenheim, Stefano, Bill Wegman, John Chamberlain, Andy Warhol, Julian Schnabel, Armand Arman, Alex Katz, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, Tony Shafrazi, Red Grooms, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Francesco Clemente, Robert MappleThorpe, Ronnie Cutrone, Sandro Chia. Plus: Nam June Paik, Jennifer Barlett, Jack Goldstein, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Les Levine, Sol Lewitt, Marisol, Peter Max, Meredith Monk, Larry Rivers, Survival Research Labs (Mark Pauline, Mat Heckert, Eric Berner), Mark van den Broek, Tom Wesselman and Greer Langton. © Michael Halsband /Landov

"This gathering was at Mr. Chow and it was to celebrate the change of a theme… I don’t know if you know anything about Area, but Area was a club down on Hudson Street, below Canal, that was a huge space and they would change the entire theme of the club every six weeks.

They had this one theme called Art and they invited all these artists to contribute to it in different ways. When you walked into the club, there was this hallway and there were these plexiglass windows like at the Museum of Natural History or something with these almost diorama-like rooms. In this particular case, Warhol was in one room photographing somebody like actually creating his own artwork in that room. They would do that. They have people painting and doing their art literally in these rooms that you could watch from behind this plexiglass.

This dinner was given for the group that showed up—Michael Heizer, David Hockney, Leroy Neiman, Dennis Oppenheim, William Wegman, John Laurie, Tony Shafrazi, Red Grooms, Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring, Alex Katz, Armand, Warhol, John Chamberlain, Julian Schnabel (who had happened to be eating there that night. He wasn’t part of it, but he stepped in) and Basquiat and Francesco Clemente, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Ronnie Cutrone, and Sandro Chia were there. I tried to talk to Jean that night, but I didn’t get very far.

He was immersed in scribbling, tagging all these books of Michael Chow. The owner of the restaurant had this book that all these artists had contributed, and Jean was going through and tagging. Jean was kind of going off on that and doing it everybody... Collaborating with everybody whether they want it or not."

Published by Michael Halsband Studio, HALSBAND PORTRAITS is available for order online. Click here to visit Michael Halsband's website. 

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