Just prior to the boom that would transform Manhattan into a city of unrivaled riches, excess and greed, the city in the early 1980s was a dirty, gritty, and often dangerous place. Amidst this climate, a collection of artists, writers, musicians and hangers-on converged in SoHo and the East Village and created a community that was bustling with energy, creativity and innovation. This downtown scene – with Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat firmly entrenched at the centre – has become the stuff of legends, arousing a cultural fascination with what many view as a more authentic period in the city’s history before Giuliani made it safe and sterile. It is this fabled era that forms the basis of photographer Jeannette Montgomery Barron’s new monograph, Scene, which documents all the major contributors to New York’s art scene in the early years of the decade. An emerging photographer, Barron turned her lens on the creative individuals who surrounded her, creating portraits of such luminaries as Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, Willem Dafoe, and Julian Schnabel and amassing a portrait of the energy and exuberance of this exceptional period in New York’s creative history.
Barron began taking the black and white portraits included in Scene in 1981 after she moved to New York in her early 20s. Her photographs, and the access she was granted, reveal the openness and inclusivity of the scene; this was a time when one merely had to look up Andy Warhol’s number in the phone book to contact the art star at the Factory, a time infinitely less jaded and guarded than today. A provocative portrait of a young Willem Dafoe sneering at the camera – shirtless with a cigarette dangling precariously from the side of his mouth – is reproduced on the cover of Scene and sets the tone for the book. Each portrait is accompanied by a brief description of her subject and the circumstances surrounding the session, which provides context for the photograph and illuminates the essence of the moment and Barron’s own role within it. From a young Cindy Sherman, devoid of the makeup and props that characterize her own portraits, to a solemn Jean-Michel Basquiat and a pensive Robert Mapplethorpe, Scene features all the individuals who would come to define the era, and a few surprises including a gangly and irreverent William Burroughs who had been a New York staple for decades and a youthful Kathryn Bigelow in the early days of her career.
With the fortuity of being in the right place at the right time, Barron exploited her access and insider status to create some of the most iconic images of the period. While many of the photographs were originally commissioned for magazines, the portraits reveal an intimacy that belies their commercial origins, and flipping through Scene feels very much like viewing a collection of someone’s personal snapshots, albeit ones with very famous subjects. With an unerring eye and remarkable ability for capturing both the spirit of her subjects and the time, Barron’s photographs remain indispensable documentation of New York’s downtown scene in the early 1980s.