There won’t be many visiting Somerset House’s exhibition of Chris Stein’s photographs of Debbie Harry and musicians from the ‘70s New York art scene who recognize as few of the people portrayed as me. OK, I do know Debbie Harry, David Bowie and William Burroughs and I’ve vaguely heard of the Ramones, but as for Iggy Pop, Joan Jett, Richard Hell, David Byrne, a whole stream of other singers and bands and, for that matter, Chris Stein himself…
Celebrities have their pull and so far as I could see most visitors had come to see the (‘iconic’, as the accompanying material and virtually every review call them) portraits of stars they already know. Awareness of my ignorance only grew as I walked this large and fascinating exhibition and overheard their knowing comments. But if like me you don’t know the subjects, there is a sense in which one can look past the iconic portraits and muse on what there might be to take away from an exhibition of over 50 images of this kind. Somerset House are staging this exhibition to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Debbie Harry’s band Blondie, of which Chris Stein is a founding member. Stein, who studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York (which he ‘left for a few years to be a hippy’), was a photographer before becoming a musician and began taking photographs of the emerging downtown New York art scene in 1968. A close personal bond developed between Chris and Debbie soon after they met in 1973 and Blondie, born a year later, quickly carved out a niche at the heart of the scruffy, down-at-heel but vibrant proto-punk artistic milieu. And Stein was in the right place at the right time as the underground culture, still confined to clubs like CBGB and Andy Warhol’s Factory, was about to burst into the mainstream.
The exhibition includes previously undisplayed images alongside well-known photographs, and all have personal notes provided by Stein which describe the subjects and his relationship to them. Most show the grit of the East Village apartments in which various members of the crowd lived, or backstage shots of Debbie lounging on a car just outside the legendary CBGB club in New York, the band having breakfast in Germany and house parties in the East Village. ‘I think the point of Chris’s charm as a photographer,” Debbie said talking about a photo of her with a burning frying pan ‘is to see beauty in rot and chaos and destruction and rubble’. This shot was taken when the couple discovered their apartment had burned down, an opportunity for Stein to capture beauty in the messy soot of the remains. Stein’s portraits are arresting, and he made the most of his subjects’ natural inclination to play up for the camera. But there are strong compositions amid the clutter and debris and he obviously imbibed enough surrealist influences at some points, as in his photo shoot for Punk magazine of Debbie with baby dolls at her feet, to give many a whacky feel.
What one can take away from this exhibition is a sense of the motivations behind and future journey of a personal archive. Stein’s introduction to his exhibition makes it obvious that he was fascinated by the small, incestuous and closely-tied New York music and art scene, even if his photography was at that stage an unconscious act of personal archive. Looking back though he muses on how lucky he was to have been part of the scene – ‘the heat of the streets, the fog, the violence, and the desolation’. His motivation was no more or less than any other personal archive – a family album, school and college photos, early family days, and so on: an unformed sense that at some stage in the future these mundane events would be significant because they are part of one’s identity. The ability to time-travel backwards drew Stein to photography. Like Brassaï’s photographs of graffiti, hookers and people in bars, his photos ‘exist as objects in the same way great sculptures take up emotional space’
Most personal archives progress into communal archives through the act of being shared with other members of one’s family or friends, or former colleagues. Few progress to become public archives, but some do. Whether the transition to public status happens depends on a number of factors. Like Stein’s exhibition, it helps if the subjects are well-known and infamous, although that won’t last forever. Private archives which attain enduring public status do so because of their ability to evoke the spirit of an age beneath a patina of documentary portraiture. It’s hard to argue that Chris Stein has not achieved this emotional space in his own personal archive.
Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie, and The Advent of Punk
Somerset House, London, 5 Nov 2014 to 25 Jan 2015
Copyright © All text and photography (other than where indicated) Alan Ainsworth Photography 2014.
Cite Alan Ainsworth, 'CHRIS STEIN’S PHOTOS OF DEBBIE HARRY – the journey of a personal archive', 27.12.2014 available at http://www.zenfolio.com/alanainsworthphotography/edit/blog.aspx#496516218