The famous subjects of New York photographer Marcia Resnick include John Belushi, William S. Burroughs and Mick Jagger. The Resnick retrospective PUNKS, POETS & POLITICIANS opens this week at McKay Imaging Gallery in Red Bank.
By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit September 22, 2009)
There’s a disarmingly casual image of three cultural touchstones — Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol and William S. Burroughs — breaking bread together at a downtown eatery. There’s rock muse and sometime singer Bebe Buell, hoisting her young daughter Liv Tyler up by the ankles. The infamous legal lizard Roy Cohn hanging out at 54 with Steve Rubell.
There’s a dizzying parade of iconic faces, all of them passed from the scene. Abbie Hoffman, Timothy Leary, Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg. Sid Vicious, James Brown and Divine. A bleary-eyed, sweaty, unshaven John Belushi, pictured just a few months before the end.
Most of all there are the people that made New York City what it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s — the musicians and the underground filmmakers; the designers and artists and writers and hangers-on who infused the filthy, fading, failing, dynamically dangerous town with a light and heat that would power their own eventual demise, at the hands of condo developers, upscale retailers and media monoliths.
We’re dropping names like Joey Ramone and Blondie, Television and Talking Heads, Johnny Thunders and Richard Hell, Jim Jarmusch and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Betsey Johnson and Laurie Anderson, Legs McNeil and Lester Bangs — and right in the middle of it all, as much of a participant as an observer, was an artist and photojournalist by name of Marcia Resnick.
The Brooklyn-born Resnick had graduated second in her class (to valedictorian and future Senator Chuck Schumer) and attended Cooper Union when she made a name for herself as a creator of art photo books and denizen of the downtown scene. Her proximity to the “superstars” of that insular world earned her the trust of her subjects, and a lasting legacy that’s remained her calling card throughout a long career as an educator and fine artist. She was even married for a brief time to punk progenitor Wayne Kramer of the MC5, an interlude touched upon in McNeil’s oral history Please Kill Me.
Beginning with an opening reception this Friday night and continuing through mid-November, Red Bank will be the setting for a major retrospective of Resnick’s portrait work entitled Punks, Poets and Politicians. It’s an exhibit keyed in to her forthcoming book Bad Boys: A Compendium of Punks, Poets and Powerful People(a work that “examines power, fame and sexuality in addition to the ironic gamut of meanings for the word bad”), and it’s being hosted by McKay Imaging Gallery, Robert and Elisabeth McKay’s walk-up wonderland dedicated to expanding (and exploding) all your preconceived notions of the captured image.
Resnick will be present for the opening night reception inside the artspace at 12 Monmouth Street; an affair that happens between the hours of 7 and 10pm. Red Bank oRBit had the pleasure of chatting up one of our heroes on the phone — and when it was over she had even managed to talk us into compiling a custom CD soundtrack to Friday’s show. Read on.
Marcia Resnick is pictured with one of her images, during a 2009 group show at Bowery Electric.
RED BANK ORBIT: So how exactly did you come to do a solo show at this best kept secret gallery in the suburbs? Did the McKays approach you with the idea?
MARCIA RESNICK: My sister, Janis Hahn, went to school with them actually. And I’ve been there a couple of times; it’s a nice little place. It’s important for me these days to show my work, and I’ve been doing that as much as possible — I had a New York show last March, and I’ve been part of a group show called Bande á Part. I’ve had showings in Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, LA.
I took a look through your online portfolio and I see plenty of punks and several poets, but no real politicians. Who can we expect to see representing the world of politics in your show?
There’s actually only one politician in the show and it’s not Chuck Schumer — it’sMayor Koch, in a picture I took of him for the Soho News back in 1980, in his office in City Hall.
Twenty years later, a friend of mine, who lived right above Koch at Two Fifth Avenue, gave him a copy of the photo, and Koch loved it so much that he wrote me a letter saying let’s do it again, where was this taken, what’s that backdrop with the fabric pattern? And it was the interior of the Mayor’s office where he served for three terms! You’d think he should have known that pattern.
Not sure if he qualifies as a punk or a poet or what, but one of the subjects you’re most closely identified with was John Belushi, and I was wondering how that famous session with him came about.
That was in 1980, September — he died the following March. I’d met him before, he knew my name, and for very odd reasons.
When I did my book ReVisions, the girl that I chose to play me in my book had met John in Chicago when they were filming The Blues Brothers. He went to her apartment and there on her coffee table was my book. In fact, it was on his nightstand the night he died, at the Chateau Marmont.
Anyway, one night at the AM/PM Club, the after hours club, it was about four in the morning and I asked him if he would ever want to do a photo session. He said how about now? So I wound up doing two rolls of film.
He was not in the best of shape either — he’d been up for four days on a binge — and there’s a poignance about these photos, when you look at them, underlying the comedy. You immediately identify with the person he is.
Another significant shoot for you was the Mick Jagger series you did back around that same time.
My friend Liz Derringer called me up on New Year’s Eve when I was sick with the flu, and asked me how would I like to photograph Mick Jagger? It was going to be for High Times magazine, a very revolutionary cover for them, with a celebrity.
Of course I had to drag myself over there — I was kind of quiet, you know, under the weather and just not my usual self. Supposedly I impressed him with my ‘cool’ — he chose me to do the shoot from among several other photographers. And then a week after we met, he and his whole family came down with the flu! I felt bad.
Still, for all the iconic figures you shot, the faces who really stand out are the people in all the struggling bands who were then just starting out; the underground filmmakers and the up and coming artists. None of them had a pot to piss in at that time, but they were superstars in their world, and you brought out that quality in them.
Well, curators tend to choose the most famous faces for the gallery shows, which is understandable. But yeah, the real story is in the less famous people, the ones who really defined things.
It’s kind of a devastating experience to look at your retrospective and contemplate all the people that have passed from the scene. Who are some of the ones that you miss especially?
Johnny Thunders lived in my loft for a time, when he had nowhere else to go. And there was never a dull moment when he was around. He stole my clothes; all my best things. But he was charming, entertaining, soulful. I miss him.
Bob Quine is another one I miss. He had the reputation of being a private person, not wanting to play out live. But he really did want to play, after his wife died. He was seeking ways to occupy himself by then.
Lester Bangs — I really miss Lester. He was a pretty important figure, well respected, but at the same time kind of a laughing stock. He would walk around with these droopy old pants hanging down off him, and people would make fun of him — but of course after he died that became the style for a while. There were a few times when I had to save his life — he would tend to take too many cold capsules.
And Burroughs I got to know in those days before he moved to Kansas, and ended his days living with his cats. He called me ‘Mar-SEE-a.’ A very elegant man, and an esthetic genius.
But this isn’t intended to be some kind of In Memoriam show, after all. It’s a celebration of a time and place, correct? And you all had a blast creating these images?
Oh, sure. I had the best time working with Roy Cohn, at the Mudd Club! And I covered the beginning of the hip hop scene uptown — Fab Five Freddy, Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash — that was an amazing time. I was at the first Harlem Rap Convention, for Sugar Hill Records.
If you had to pick out one musical performer or band from those days that particularly impressed you, who might that be?
Talking Heads — I think I identified with them, with their music, more than anyone else. You wouldn’t believe what David Byrne was like in the early days — he was so shy and retiring, not at all like the confident persona he’d put forward later on. And James, James Chance was another favorite. Just the nicest guy.
That’s funny to hear, because my memories of him on stage with the Contortions were just all about violence and cacophony. He’d fight with people in the audience, wind up all black and blue — but you were very much a trusted part of that same scene; you enjoyed a great relationship with all of your subjects.
Everybody was a willing subject. Well, except maybe for Tom Verlaine. He was just there because the record company wanted him to do it. But he warmed up a little later on.
You’ve made the switch over to digital by now, correct?
I stopped working with film several years ago. I threw away all of my old equipment — it was just taking up space. Nobody’s going to buy it by this point. I reclaimed my darkroom as living space — I have a dream project of turning dead darkrooms into ‘live’ rooms.
It’s not my intention to make this an elegiac sort of discussion, but we keep going back to death here — dead friends, dead formats, and a whole string of dead magazines and newspapers. Reminds me of my own career, doing paste-up and working for rags that went belly-up…
The Soho News, New York Rocker, The East Village Eye, Wet — a lot of them are long gone. But who knows, maybe someday the old newsprint thing will come back, and then doing paste-up by hand, with Letraset type, can be a boutique sort of craft!
Yeah, but no regrets, right? You were a vital part of a scene that was just remaking the world from the ground up, and without two dimes to rub together.
It was the last time that New York was any good. Everybody was poor then — we could all afford to live in Manhattan.