Candid Photos of New York's Radical Women in the 70s and 80s
Photographer Marcia Resnick's portraits of fierce female artists like Joan Jett and Debbie Harry capture the revolutionary spirit of the times.
Left: Anya Phillips at Max's Kansas City. Right: Damita Richter posing with a toy gun. © Marcia Resnick
Brooklyn-born photographer Marcia Resnick has documented New York City’s art communities for more than half a century. When she was in high school in the 1960s, she mingled with aging hippies at Greenwich Village clubs like Café Au Go Go and Café Wha? And in the 1970s, she shared a loft building in Tribeca with neighbors like Laurie Anderson.
During the 70s and the city’s wildest years, Resnick spent most nights at CBGB, Max’s Kansas City, and the Mudd Club. Around this time, she also started photographing the “bad boys” of the art scene. Resnick wanted to see how powerful men like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Iggy Pop, and William S. Burroughs reacted when the tables were turned and a woman was behind the camera, subjecting them to the female gaze.
Resnick was also enchanted by the gregarious women she lived, worked, and partied with who were simultaneously shaking up the scene. Though it’s less well-known than her Bad Boys series—which was later published as the book Punks, Poets and Provocateurs, NYC Bad Boys 1977-1982 (Insight Editions, 2015)—Resnick’s Wild Women series captures the revolutionary spirit and creative power of artists like Joan Jett, Debbie Harry, and Susan Sontag.
Wild Women is a rarely seen body of work that embodies the DIY ethos of the era, and VICE recently sat down with Resnick to talk about what it was like documenting her peers and how Women’s Liberation shook up the 70s and 80s.
VICE: How did you get into art and photography?
Marcia Resnick: I always loved art. When I was five, my father put a drawing of mine into the window of his printing shop in Brighton Beach. A customer liked it and had it placed in a show at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. That was my first art show.
I went to NYU for two years, then transferred to Cooper Union, where I became captivated by photography. I attended California Institute of the Arts for graduate school, where I studied “Post-Studio Art” with John Baldessari, was mentored by Robert Heinecken of UCLA, and had Ben Lifson, a “straight photographer,” as my graduate advisor.
CalArts awarded me my MFA in Photography in 1973 during the first flush of the Women’s Liberation movement. Colleges were looking to hire women to balance their faculties. When Queens College offered me a job, I grabbed it. I drove my car across the country, taking photos along the way. By this time I had decorated my car with the names of all my boyfriends on the hood. The words “Marcia the Masher” were written across the side of the car.
What was New York like when you returned?
New York was dangerous and on the brink of bankruptcy—but cheap and filled with possibilities. I found a place near Bowery and Houston Street and moved in with my old roommate from Cooper Union, Pooh Kaye, an artist and dancer. We each paid $70 a month. My salary was $100 a week for teaching two four-hour back-to-back photography classes one day a week.
Nearby Soho was the center of the art world. Pooh and I frequented art gallery openings, patronized art bars, and went to parties in artists’ lofts. Mickey Ruskin owned Max’s Kansas City where Warhol and his superstars, “blue-chip” artists, and rock celebrities were known to mingle. Pooh was Mickey’s house cleaner so we had entrée.
How did you come to live in a loft building filled with artists?
I found a building on Canal Street between Washington and West Streets in the neighborhood now known as Tribeca. Each floor was divided into two 2,000-square-foot lofts. The first two floors were a city-run methadone maintenance center. The lofts on the other four floors were dilapidated.
Pooh lived in the other loft on my floor and we built a bathroom and a kitchen for the two of us. My loft had 14 windows. I built a very large darkroom, which closed off three windows. During the winter I slept in a sleeping bag on the darkroom floor because the rest of the loft was bitterly cold. No amount of heat could warm a space with winds gusting from the river.
After I saw Laurie Anderson do a performance about how her loft was consumed by a fire, I invited her to move into the building and she became my upstairs neighbor. Periodically, lost methadone patients who were drugged into oblivion accidentally wandered into our lofts, but soon the center was moved elsewhere.
What was nightlife like back then?
Painters were making films. Writers were doing performance art. Sculptors were doing installations. Artists were generally collaborating with each other.
I went out every night to hear music at CBGB, Max’s, and the Mudd Club, which was my favorite. It was an artist’s bar with late night performances by bands, art shows, plays, Betsey Johnson fashion shows, and performances like the Rock n’ Roll Funeral Ball which featured mannequins with syringes stuck in their arms. Celebrities like Joe Strummer, David Bowie, Marianne Faithful, Nico, Grace Jones, and Diana Ross could be found happily mingling in the crowd.
To allay the guilt I felt for spending so much time in clubs, I convinced myself that my photographic forays into the night were my art. Pushing through crowds to get backstage at concerts became a necessary activity. Backstage I tried to simulate the look of a studio portrait. Whenever possible, I arranged a meeting at another time and place.
What are some of the projects you were working on in the 70s?
In 1975, with the help of government grants, I self-published three conceptual art books: Landscape, See, and Tahitian Eve. In 1978, I published Re-visions (The Coach House Press), an autobiographical book of humorous staged photographs.
After the introspection of Re-visions, I did an about-face from my cool, conceptual work. I wanted to explore a world outside of myself and moved on to another topic, which had confounded me… the male species. My series, Bad Boys, was born out of a fascination with the dynamic of a woman photographing men.
What inspired you to create Wild Women?
While working on the Bad Boys series, I couldn’t help but work on a side project I called Wild Women. Mostly men performed in the punk bands, but certain fascinating women embarked on their own projects in art, music, literature, and film.
Patti Smith and Debbie Harry of Blondie eventually became quite commercial. Laurie Anderson hit number two on the UK pop charts with her avant-garde electronic single “O Superman,” much to her surprise. Until then, her multimedia performance art was known by those exclusively in the art world.
Lisa Lyon was a pioneer who won the first Women’s Pro Bodybuilding Championship. She was a standard bearer for the sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll lifestyle. After meeting her, we became fast friends. We wore all black, enjoyed the nightlife of lower Manhattan, and were dubbed the “Weird Sisters” by photographer Marcus Leatherdale.
What are some of the most radical things you and the women of this era did at the time?
As women became aware that the white, Western male viewpoint was unconsciously accepted as the viewpoint in the art world, they understood it was incumbent upon them to change this situation and level the playing field.
While I was at CalArts, Linda Benglis, who was a visiting artist for one semester, befriended me. Her art and her style were a tremendous influence. I photographed her sporting her new, slicked-back short hairdo in front of her yellow Porsche. When she returned to New York after being refused editorial space in Artforum, Benglis paid for an advertisement that consisted of a full-page photograph of herself, nude except sunglasses, and masturbating with an oversized, double-ended dildo. It was the ultimate “F*ck you” to the art world.
Working on my book Re-visions, which is being republished in 2019 (Patrick Frey Editions, Switzerland), was an exercise in learning about myself and learning about all women. It prepared me to be sensitive to independent, self-aware, creative women functioning in a “man’s” world. Every woman I was compelled to photograph taught me something about her experience. Each of the liberated women artists, writers, musicians, dancers, designers, and sexual pioneers I photographed had a talent and a vision that made her a breed apart.
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