See and Be Scene: Jeannette Montgomery Barron on Her New Book
From Warhol’s Factory to Basquiat’s studio, throughout the eighties, downtown Manhattan was the place for young creative types to be. Photographer Jeannette Montgomery Barron was there, and her new tome, Scene, is a sort of yearbook of the time, documenting the likes of Cindy Sherman, Keith Haring, Francesco Clemente, Willem Dafoe, and more early in their careers. “I was just a fly on the wall,” recalls Montgomery Barron, speaking at Indochine, one of her old haunts. (“It looks almost exactly the same, but there were a lot of drugs happening in the bathrooms back then.”) This afternoon, she’ll sign copies of Scene—which, in addition to the snaps, features personal anecdotes about each artist—at Bookmarc, and starting tomorrow, a select group of her black-and-white photographs will be on display in an exhibition at ClampArt. Here, Montgomery Barron discusses her book, and reminisces about shooting Warhol, working out with Bianca Jagger, and spending time with Basquiat.
How did you find yourself in the center of the eighties New York art scene?
I was just lucky. It’s not that I went out and said, “I want to record every artist from A to Z.” It was more like I’d photograph Francesco Clemente, and he’d say, “You should really go photograph my friend Kenny Scharf.” It was very organic in that way. And, I mean, I knew I could drop a name. I’m sure I said, “Hey, I’m a friend of Andy Warhol. Can I shoot you?” I guess I’d get an adrenaline surge.
In the book, you mention that you could just call up Andy Warhol and ask to take his picture. What were those sittings like?
The first time I photographed him was at the Factory in Union Square, and he wouldn’t even let me out of the outer lobby. When I met Bianca Jagger and we became friends, he warmed up. He never really talked much, but he always made you feel like you were the most brilliant person who said the most profound things.
Speaking of Bianca Jagger, wasn’t she two hours late to your first sitting?
She was late, but after she got there, it was magic. She’s a great subject to photograph. She’s got these amazing bones and angles in her face. She’s a star. We used to go work out together at Radu on 57th Street. It was this crazy gym where we’d all run in a little circle, and it was like John Kennedy Jr. in front of me and Bianca Jagger behind. And I’d think, What am I doing here? I’m from Atlanta! Bianca used to wear tapered pants when we’d go. And she’d wear white, which was pretty daring.
You’ve photographed some pretty outrageous characters. Did you ever stumble upon any wild scenes in their studios?
Not really wild, but there were things going on at Jean-Michel [Basquiat]‘s. I photographed him a couple of times. Once was at the Factory, in ’85, when he and Warhol were painting together. It was a pretty dark period for him. He was doing drugs. I was there once when he was waiting for them to be delivered. But he always painted in suits. It was so extravagant.
What do you want people to take away from this book?
Just some sense of what the eighties were like. Francesco Clemente said to me that he loves this book because it really boils down everything about the 1980s. Maybe I’m just being romantic, but it seems like back then there was something much more naive and innocent about it all. Now, it’s much more about commerce. But back then, there was an excitement.