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Point of View

May 13, 2019

By Katherine Turman; photos by Chris Stein

England has Queen Elizabeth II. Emperor Hirohito ruled Japan for more than six decades. Prince Albert II reigns over Monaco. But New York City’s Lower East Side has the best of all monarchs: the rock royalty that is Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, whose cool rule began in the mid-70s and continues to this day.  

Much of that rule was—and continues to be—chronicled in photographs by Stein, Blondie’s guitarist, co-founder and longtime consort of Harry’s. (He’s been married to actress Barbara Sicuranza since 1999.)  The people, places and moments are sublimely captured in the guitarist’s latest book:  POINT OF VIEW: Me, New York City, and the Punk Scene (published by Rizzoli),which follows 2014’s Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk. The 208-page book features photos of such iconic characters as William Burroughs, Lydia Lunch, Andy Warhol, Shepard Fairey, and of course, Debbie Harry—are wonderful, though Stein’s portraits of unnamed subjects are often even more intimate. 

Stein, 69, is very active musically and photographically. Blondie’s 11th studio album, Pollinator, was named one of Rolling Stone’s 20 Best Pop Albums of 2017, and the band continues to tour, including a recent concert in Cuba. Stein’s photographic work has been featured in galleries and press around the world, and he continues to be engaged in the cultural life of New York City. The affable artist spoke with ALICE about POINT OF VIEW and more. 

You went to New York’s School of Visual Arts (SVA). What did you want to be when you grew up?  

I don’t know, specifically. I was in fine arts, you know. I think my first year was around ‘67 or ‘68, then I was out like a year or two, then I went back. So when I was there, my last three years were kind of the height of conceptual art, which I found dry and unromantic, so I drifted more into photography even though I was fine arts person. I was just going day to day. And then I started seeing fliers for the New York Dolls in lobby of the school, and that got me going to Mercer Arts Center, and the rest of it is me entering the music thing. 

When you were a kid or a teenager, did you always have a camera around your neck? 

Not always. Yeah, I wish I had taken more pictures actually than I have, but I was always doing music stuff; that was what was ongoing, more so. But as a kid I grew up with this guy Dennis McGuire, who was on the periphery of the Warhol scene before I was. He apprenticed with Diane Arbus briefly, and he was a great photographer. So he was a big inspiration and probably got me seriously thinking about photography when I was 18, in 1968 or so. 

What was your first camera?  

The first camera I owned was a Pentax 35 millimeter, and that got stolen out of my apartment. I’m not even sure how it got stolen. And then I used a lot of Nikons. People would lend me cameras here or there. Later when I was in Blondie it was easier to borrow cameras and that’s how I finally bought my Nikon. 

When you got a record deal with Blondie, did you request specific photographers to shoot you, or  did you get involved with your shoots and album covers and visual aspects of the band?

Not too much with Blondie. I did Robert Fripp’s first album cover, his solo cover. An album called Exposure [1979]  And I co-did his second one with him. I don’t think I shot any Blondie stuff that we used on any records. I kind of art directed the Autoamerican cover, the one with the painting. We ran into the artist dude somewhere, and he showed me his portfolio, and amongst the portfolio was a picture of that same piece of roof with a model. And I said, ‘why don’t you just stick us in this, redo this with us?’ So we went up to his roof, which is on Eighth Street and Broadway. Then he re-shot a picture of us and did a painting.

In 2014 when you put out Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk, did you know you were going to do this second book?

You know, sort of, in the back of my head, but I wish I had shot more stuff. I don’t have like 80 million cabinets full of slides. I remember, Mick Rock, and those guys do, you know.

You’ve  now published two photography books; do you still have more photos that you consider great? 

I have a great series of stuff with HR Giger, when we went to stay with him—when we were working on that album cover [KooKoo; Harry’s 1981 solo album] and doing a couple of videos with him. [“Backfired” and “Now I Know You Know,” both directed by Giger and filmed at his studio in Switzerland.] That’s why it’s not as big a book, but it’s cool. I’m still buddies with his manager, so I think the next thing might be that. There was one image on the cover of Heavy Metal magazine of Debbie. That series was all done with Giger. He was a great character and I have great affection for him; he was terrific and we were really lucky to be able to hang out with him.

How do you physically keep your photos? Are you an organized guy? 

Binders. I have them all, collated, an intern helped me do it, but doing my books, you have to pull it all apart. So I mean there really is no way to fucking categorize them! It’s not like they have meta data and dates and shit on them. So they’re all just  in binders, and now for the books I’d scan them, so that’s just separate in boxes. It’s a pain in the ass to try to put them all back together. There are only one or two when I didn’t have the negatives. I never developed my own film. Way back—Debbie and I lived in Little Italy–there was a guy there who had a lab and it literally cost like a dollar and a quarter to do a roll of film. Back in in the day, I’d send seven original slides to a magazine and that would be it [you’d never get them back.]  You know the one on the cover of Negative, Debbie and Anya [Phillips, Mudd Club co-founder], that negative was returned to me from the magazine after like 10 years. Somehow they managed to send it back; that was one of my favorite pictures and it almost got lost. 

I love your shots of anonymous people living life. Do you prefer doing street photography or famous people you know in more candid, or slightly posed, situations?

Both. I guess I was sorta’ star struck in the next person, you know,

You mean when you’re shooting the Ramones, for instance, or David Bowie and Debbie?

Yeah, I guess that kind of stuff, though they’re my buddies. My wife and I met Peter Dinklage at a gas station. A couple years ago. And it was great because I was able to approach him and go ‘I’m from Blondie,’ and he was charming. So that was terrific. You know, I get that starstruck like that. Malcolm McDowell, we met on an airplane. 

Have there been times when you’ve wanted to ask for a photo or if you could shoot someone, and they said no?

Well, because I’m so used to Debbie getting hit on [for photos and autographs] and seeing her having to say no to people; maybe she doesn’t have makeup on or whatever. Then she felt bad about saying no to them. So I try not to overstep my bounds in the asking.  

I wanted to ask about specific photos which I loved. Tell me the story behind the little girl who’s looking at the guy lying on the ground with crutches.

Well, I knew her. The girl, she was a girlfriend’s daughter. But she was still kind of shocked at seeing this guy. Maybe it’s Tompkins Square, I’m not 100 percent on which park it was. Back in those days, you always have to wait to get your film back, though after a while I had a good sense of exposures in my head. But it wasn’t like the digital world where you can see what you’re doing immediately; you know, correct it and do a second shot. 

I also really loved the self portraits in Sheepshead Bay. Do you know the term ‘ruin porn’?

No, but yeah, that’s good shit. I think Robert Frank and some of those guys had been doing that kind of stuff back then, too. I’d seen stuff like that when I was at Visual Arts. I’ve just been attracted to old, beat-up stuff.  

What about the photos of who you call the STP family, ragamuffin-looking street kids? 

STP was a really powerful psychedelic, and also, the motor oil. But if you Google STP Family, there is information, and some of them are still around. They were in, I think the Southwest, I’m going to say probably San Francisco and New York. I just saw this troop of them. I didn’t know anything about their history at the time. I used to see them around St. Marks and the Bowery, camping on the street. They were really like a little motorcycle gang without motorcycles. A lot of earth tones. Dirty and a lot of dogs with them, and they were just very cool. I wish they had taken pictures of them, but I didn’t. The one kid in the photo is in the style of it. I don’t think he really was one of them. Oh, it’s a fascinating little rabbit hole.

Speaking of rabbit holes, you have great photos of Eric Emerson from 1974, and I spent most of my prep for our conversation going down that rabbit hole, which is like, wow! [Emerson, who died in 1975, was a musician, dancer, and actor best known for being in Warhol films and in the glam band Magic Tramps.]

Yeah, they fucking they shouted him out on Vinyl, that stupid TV show. The Magic Tramps were very obscure, so the fact that came up on that show was bizarre. They also had Good Rats, who were a bar band, super obscure, you know, you know. I couldn’t take that show. For me it was like ‘did [Vinyl series co-creator Martin] Scorsese really not do enough blow in the fucking ‘70s; is that what this is about?’ I mean, ‘cause it just seemed bizarre to me, you know. I love the Rolling Stones, but Mick Jagger, who was one of the producers, he’s been in this elevated position for decades, now; I don’t know how in touch he is with the street scene. Yeah. It was weird. I could tolerate Deuce a little better. I think I watched the first piece of that, but that kind of lost me too in a way. I just don’t understand why they made [James] Franco twins. You know what that is? That’s like in every soap opera they run out of ideas. The writers run out of ideas. They make twins. They don’t even go there [to good and evil]/ They just have he second one floating around in the background so they can demonstrate their great CGI.

The street kid with a Jack Daniels bottle reminded me of a Gus Van Sant moment; like out of Drugstore Cowboy, you know?

Yeah, yeah. That kid was totally cheerful,  I remember actually the moment of taking pictures with him. He was cool. He was really young; he must have been 15, 16. 

The Lester Bangs photo in Coney Island—what was that day about?  

That was from Punk magazine for their fumetti [Italian-style comic] The Legend of Nick Detroit. No, Mutant Monster Beach Party, the second one. [July/August 1978]. That photo didn’t make it into my first book because Rizzoli was more cautious about having civilians [who are in the photo with Bangs] in the first book. I don’t know why; legalities.

So after your book’s out a while, do you think you’ll hear from people about some of the “civilians” in your photos, going, “wow, that’s my dad or my grandfather”?

I put up a picture on my Instagram from Visual Arts of a guy in my video class, which was probably 1972, or something. Then some kid wrote, ‘thats’ my dad.’ So that happened. Then there’s the picture of the two girls on the stoop with the hot cocoa and that’s the story in the book. I put that on Facebook and in a couple days they both chimed in, ‘that’s me and my friend.’ One of them went on to be a sergeant for the NYPD for 20 years. 

 At what point did you start shooting in color? I think it’s not until page 46 of POINT OF VIEW that there’s a color photo.

I was always shooting maybe shooting like a quarter color, three quarters black and white. The black and white is cohesive. Occasionally I’ll put in a color if feel the need. I convert a lot of photos that I shoot on my phone to black and white. New York is sort of a black and white place, anyway. 

The shots of Debbie that are in the book. Did she ever say yes or no to publishing anything? Like, ‘oh, I hate that one to me or that brings back a bad memory’ or anything like that?

Nah, I pretty much think we’re on the same page. I know what’s good for her and  what’s not.

The book ends very conclusively with September 11th, 2001. You say in the afterword, “the whole event was unreal and surreal. 

Well, that was like the big turn over, as I mentioned in the text; that’s when everything changed. It was a big moment for the city. 

 I was glad to see like so many NY natives,  you don’t hate the “current” New York, though you do say in the book, “back in the 1960s and 1970s, I had no idea that I’d come to miss the decay and the danger.” 

New York’s okay. There’s a lot of great stuff going on. There’s a lot of great bands, the scene is there, though the financial aspect is kinda fucked, you know. It’s so expensive, but the young people still  manage to live and be crazy.

Point of View now available on Rizzoli https://www.rizzoliusa.com/book/9780847862184/

Follow Chris Stein @christein

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