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Blondie, Bourdin and bedroom selfies: from the advent of punk to shoe-inspired visual storytelling and the Instagram generation, a brief foray into the timeless power of image…
Somewhere on 14th Street, New York, the early 1970s. A tallish man with black backcombed hair and dark glasses wears a slim fitting black suit, white shirt and slightly askew thin black tie, slinking along smoking a cigarette. Beside him walks a striking blonde, in head to toe black with a sleeveless leather jacket, shades scraped up over scruffy hair, casually sucking on something that looks like a sweet. All around them, people crane their heads round for a proper look. Literally stop and stare.
“Some people say it’s because Debbie was blowing one of those little plastic whistles,” explains Chris Stein, who took the picture. “But I think it was because no one looked like they did at the time. It’s as if the two of them had been dropped in from the present, from the fashion hipster New York of 2013.” At that time back then, for your average passer-by on 14th Street, they may as well have been from another planet.
The image perfectly captures a unique moment in time; New York on the cusp of a new era. An era that blazed with intoxicating irreverence – gleefully trampling all that had gone before on its dark sweaty dancefloors and rubbish-strewn sidewalks. An era chronicled with such iconic imagery – from Warhol to Lichenstein to Jean Michel Basquiat – that countless future generations would gaze back and wish that they’d been there. That they’d been part of it.
And Chris Stein was right there, at the heart of it – not just capturing it through his ever-curious, ever-present lens, but playing a key part in shaping it. A photography student in 1968, he started documenting New York’s emerging downtown culture. At a time when the city was in a stinking state of decay – bankrupt, downtrodden and overrun with crime –more and more young people, artists, writers and musicians were lured to Manhattan by its cheap rents and burgeoning counterculture. “I am unsure if something like that will ever happen again,” Chris has said. “How can you have a band when you have to worry about coming up with $2,000 every month for rent?” And, of course, the ‘never again’ factor makes his images all the more powerful.
Hanging out in spots like the now-legendary CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City to catch gigs by The New York Dolls, The Ramones, Television and The Runaways, Chris met, and started making music with, a beautiful young singer called Deborah Harry. They formed the band Blondie. And he took a lot of pictures – which played a key part in Blondie’s rise to fame. “In a lot of cases people saw pictures of Debbie before they heard the music,” Stein admits.
Stein’s photography exhibition and book, Chris Stein/ Negative: Me, Blondie and the Advent of Punk is an incredible ride through what was undoubtedly an incredible time. In London for work recently, I caught the end of Negative’s exhibition run at Somerset House… then, head buzzing, tripped across the cobbled courtyard to take in Guy Bourdin: Imagemaker in the Embankment Gallery below.
Kicking off with his shoots for Paris Vogue in the 1950s, avant-garde fashion photographer Bourdin was one of – if not the – first photographers to take a creative storytelling approach to commercial photography. Endlessly inventive, his bold story concepts always came first, and the product second. From disembodied yet glamorous mannequin legs strolling through unexpected rural scenes to catsuited figures draped over doors, his surreal, theatrical pictures have inspired everyone from Tim Walker to David Lynch. And they’ve inspired us, too – about how the creative spirit can thrive, capture infinite influence and attention, in a primarily commercial context.
It all got me thinking about the power of imagery to distil a unique spirit, a unique moment in time. And how in today’s image-saturated social media culture, can images have the same power? Around 55 million pictures a day are uploaded to Instagram alone. Of these, there are undoubtably some equally powerful, era-defining pictures. Taken up close, on the ground, as history unfolds before them even – shot from the hip, on the hoof by a generation who have cameras in their pockets all day everyday, everywhere they go, never miss a moment. But how do you find these era-defining, spirit-capturing, culture-unfolding images in amongst the millions of bedroom selfies, look-at-my-dinners and holiday snaps?
I had a little dig around and found these, but would love to hear your suggestions of Instagrammers to follow….