Somerset House presents an exhibition of previously unpublished photographs by Chris Stein, co-founder of Blondie, providing a behind the scenes look on life in the band, from their underground early days to global success chart domination. The images include Debbie Harry and other icons of the 70s and 80s new wave world, from Andy Warhol, David Bowie, to The Ramones, – who are captured in private moments with the singer, or posing for Stein. The exhibition features over 50 images, and serves as a snapshot of the punk scene that Blondie helped to pioneer – with images that show the enduring influence the band had on music and fashion of the day – on the occasion of Blondie’s 40th anniversary.
Stein was a student at the School of Visual Arts, and started documenting downtown New York culture in 1968. The in 1973, he met and began working with Deborah Harry, and together a year later, they formed the band Blondie; and went on to sell more than 40 million albums worldwide.Stein set up a darkroom in the kitchen he shared with Harry on 17th Street, the photographers works were designed to establish the performer as an enduring fashion and music icon. Some of his pictures became the first that many fans had seen of Blondie.
For the exhibition at Somerset House, Stein has selected some of his personal favourites from the extensive archive of images, including early live performances and private moments on tour. Stein captured ‘enduring and ephemeral’ places such as Mudd Clubb, CBGBs, and Andy Warhol’s Factory, where we see Harry with Warhol, or posing for Stein with a young Iggy Pop; or David Bowie, as the legendary performer stares with his uneven pupils to camera with Harry up close to him – as if interrupted during an intimate moment – but half smiling as he knows Stein is behind the camera, and forgives the intrusion. The photographer’s lens even finds Jean-Michel Basquiat DJing – Stein’s images juxtapose the intimate with the iconic; often overlapping the two. The photography on display is bold, and the prints are surprisingly large and immersive, capturing life in the couple’s chaotic Bowery apartment in Manhattan, among other locations.
The viewer moves from one iconic scene to the next; parties by the pool in the early morning hours at the now defunct Beverly Hills Hotel, where rakish characters drink and pose; Stein also captures the early gritty East Village scene in action. The images are always iconic and larger than life; capturing the louche attitudes of 70s punkdom and the band’s burgeoning scene.
The people at these famous locations include figures such as the Ramones, and bands like the Voidoids, the New York Dolls, and the Avengers. The exhibition is set to the music of the day; but instead of rendering the exhibition an inferior collection of rock memorabilia, the photographs are elevated by the juxtaposition of music and image, aptly setting the mood of the show – its all rather cool – the viewer can not help but wish they had been there themselves.
Stein was also able to photograph many of the very early girl bands like the Stillettos, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Slits, Cherie Curie, Tom Tom Club, and long-time friend of the band, Joan Jett – where portraiture blends with other modes of representation – the fashion shoot, the theatrical – where Harry stands in front of the mirror, heals on, preparing for her performance. The accentuation of bodies; that know they’re being captured for a particular kind of posterity. The excitement of the advent of the punk era plays out in front of Stein’s lens.
The photographer also shot for magazines such as Punk and Creem; where Stein carefully crafted the images of Harry; these works helped fuel the band’s stellar success. These iconic photographs of the performer – that helped to create Harry’s image in the public eye – hang alongside the candid and the intimate, often with the overlapping of semi-staged photographs; a kind of theatrical pseudo-documentation, a juxtaposition of guises and reveals.
In a particular photograph, Debbie Harry walks past her own image on a poster in the street; she is at once hyper-real icon, and a total stranger, the singer is a nobody lost in the crowds of New York street life.
Chris Stein Negative: Me Blondie And The Advent Of Punk – Somerset House – Until 25 January 2015
Words: Paul Black © Artlyst 2014 photos Artlyst all rights reserved