Art Boom

Jeannette Montgomery Barron Photographs New York’s Downtown Scene

Back when Andy Warhol’s number was listed in the phonebook, photographer Jeannette Montgomery Barron documented fixtures of New York’s creative downtown. See the highlights.

At the mythic origin of the downtown scene, there was Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. And photographer Jeannette Montgomery Barron was there too -- photographing the superstars, the wannabes, and the demigods in-between. In 1981, when Barron was her mid-twenties, she began capturing the explosive creative energy in SoHo and the East Village. She started with a portrait of the artist Francesco Clemente. "I was a bit naïve—taking everyone and everything at face value,” says Barron. “In a way, New York was a bit naïve too, just coming out of the recession but before the art boom that is now so famously remembered." At the time, scheduling a portrait session with Andy Warhol was as simple as a single call—he had the number to The Factory listed in the  phone book. Throughout her years of work photographing the natives of downtown New York, Barron became a friend a social fixture herself – and her documentation of the period has been widely exhibited and collected since. Now, Powerhouse Books releases Scene, a collection of Barron’s iconic downtown portraits – including those of David Salle, Cindy Sherman, and Willem Dafoe -- and the ClampArt gallery in New York will host an exhibition of her prints in May. See the highlights, with Barron’s own captions.

from 'Scene' by Jeannette Montgomery Barron, published by powerHouse Books

Bianca Jagger

I was assigned to photograph Bianca for German Cosmopolitan. She was three hours late, typical for her in those days. She had been at Calvin Klein’s showroom picking out clothes for the shoot. Once she walked in the room, we all forgot how angry we were. She started to cry when Neil Young’s “Old Man” started playing on the radio. Whenever I hear that song, I feel like crying, too.


I got to know Bianca pretty well after that. We used to exercise together, meet for lunch, or go to the movies with her daughter Jade. She would call me up and say, in her low, sexy voice, “Come to lunch at the Factory right now.” I would sit at Andy’s long table with Boy George, Quentin Crisp, or Keith Haring, whoever was current at the moment. One time Bianca took me to lunch at Le Cirque where we ended up having a chat with Richard Nixon. You always got the best restaurant service when you were with Bianca. Sometimes we didn’t even have to pay.

from 'Scene' by Jeannette Montgomery Barron, published by powerHouse Books

Cindy Sherman

I wanted to take a simple portrait of Cindy. Just outside the frame lay all of the pig noses and assorted props we have seen in her photographs. I love Cindy’s work, especially her early black–and–white film stills.

from 'Scene' by Jeannette Montgomery Barron, published by powerHouse Books

Willem Dafoe

I first met Willem in 1980 when he was starring in a film that my brother, Monty Montgomery, and Kathryn Bigelow were co-directing called The Loveless. It was shot in south Georgia and was Willem’s first leading role. I have known Willem since then and photographed him many times over the years. Despite looking like a tough guy, Willem is very sweet.

from 'Scene' by Jeannette Montgomery Barron, published by powerHouse Books

Katherine Bigelow

In 1980, Kathryn and my brother Monty directed The Loveless, shot in South Georgia. I was the stills photographer and learned a lot by sitting around the set all day. The entire crew was staying in a Holiday Inn right off the highway. The bar there was hopping, I can assure you. Kathryn was always very disciplined and focused, so it came as no surprise to me that she was the first woman to win an Academy Award for best director.

from 'Scene' by Jeannette Montgomery Barron, published by powerHouse Books

Francesco Clemente

This was the first portrait I took in my series of artist portraits. My brother Monty and our friend Samia Saouma brought me down to Francesco’s studio. Francesco is very photogenic and I was really happy with the pictures I took that day. Afterwards, we had lunch at Ballato’s on Houston Street, an old–world Italian place where Warhol and lots of other artists ate regularly.

I became friendly with Francesco and would visit him in his studio from time to time. His wife, Alba, reminded me recently that they used to let their mynah bird fly free so the entire studio was filled with bird shit. I modeled for Francesco on a few occasions, as well. One day, when I was on my way out the door, Francesco said to me, “Please do not disappear.” I wasn’t really sure what that meant, but I liked it.

from 'Scene' by Jeannette Montgomery Barron, published by powerHouse Books

David Salle

I photographed the painter David Salle more than once in his White Street studio. He told me to take a look at Ugo Mulas’ photographs of artists. I did, and they were a great influence.

from 'Scene' by Jeannette Montgomery Barron, published by powerHouse Books

George Condo

There wasn’t much time for this sitting and I was secretly coveting the Eames wooden screen that George was posing in front of. We were at the apartment of gallerist Barbara Gladstone. George’s stature as a painter has certainly risen since this photo was taken.

from 'Scene' by Jeannette Montgomery Barron, published by powerHouse Books

Georg Dokoupil

I forgot how many photographs my friend Sarah organized for me. Some were for magazines, but others were just because she thought I should photograph someone, which was the case with this photo. Georg was a founding member of the German Mülheimer Freiheit group. This portrait was taken in an abandoned warehouse on the West Side Highway, along the Hudson River. We just walked around until we found the right location—nobody stopped us. Hard to imagine such a thing could ever happen today.

from 'Scene' by Jeannette Montgomery Barron, published by powerHouse Books

Jenny Holzer

Jenny lived on the Lower East Side on Eldridge Street. It was nighttime in the fall or winter so there was no natural light in the apartment—that’s why I asked her to sit at her desk near that great lamp. I was never happy with the portrait until this year—now it’s one of my favorites. Funny how that happens. I can’t tell you how often I think of that truism from one of her conceptual art pieces, “Protect me from what I want.”

from 'Scene' by Jeannette Montgomery Barron, published by powerHouse Books

Jean-Michel Basquiat

I was in Basquiat’s studio several times and can affirm that he did indeed paint in designer suits. He was always nice to me and I would see him out at parties some nights. This photo was taken early one evening in his studio. Jean- Michel was very quiet, almost edgy. Then the door rang and a few guys came in and they went off to another room for a few minutes. Jean-Michel’s mood improved afterwards.


Why in the world didn’t I buy one of his paintings?