One of the highlights of your recent exhibition, for me, were the personal items on display in the center of the exhibit space, like the postcard to your parents where you wrote to them about what it was like going to New York in the ’80s and starting your career there. What was that like?
I became involved in photography seriously when I lived out in Snowmass, Colorado in 1983. I had received an announcement about a class being taught at Colorado Mountain College and continuing education in darkroom photography. From there I fell in love with black and white photography and when I started printing, I was really hooked.
A friend who was a photographer, who’s still a mentor and a friend, recommended me for a solo show at the Aspen Library and I was so flattered. She sent over her daughter to be a subject because portraits were already my thing. I photographed married couples, and I did everything in this house I rented with just a backdrop, a tripod, and natural light. Around that time there was a photographer in town from New York, very famous, who was teaching a workshop at Anderson Ranch. We met and he stopped in to see my show. He said, “Anyone with your passion needs to be in New York. You should go and sign up for classes in printing darkroom at the School for Visual Arts..”
I talked to my mother and father and I said, “I know I can find a job in New York. I know that I can do this. Let me try.” And my father said, “If you don’t get in the ring and try, you’ll never know, and if you don’t go, you’ll always wonder, so go. If it doesn’t work out, we’re here in Baltimore. Take the train and come home.” So that’s what I did. I went up to the school in New York. I registered for continuing education photography, darkroom, and a few other photo classes. I loved going to school. I would work my day job and then go to school at night. And in between I started slowly meeting a few people that I would ask if they would be a subject and pose for me.
Then I went to talk with an optical boutique off 5th Ave about a job for the Christmas holiday, and that was 1984 going into ‘85. I wasn’t crazy about the job, but one day I was in the store and here comes a man with long hair. Very, very gentle and very nice. He asked for some help with the glasses, and we struck up a conversation about photography. I told him I’m studying at the School for Visual Arts and I’m shooting black and white. He said it was his favorite kind of photography. He gave me his card and said, “When you quit your day job, call me.”
Later, I looked at his card and it said: Brant Mewborn, Senior Editor, Rolling Stone Magazine. I called Brant Mewborn after I left the job. He invited me to come up to Rolling Stone and bring my photographs. He looked at my photographs as we talked. He said, “Well, you already have a vision, so you know no one’s going to teach you that. I have a band. Would you like to photograph us at my apartment on the West side, meet my fiancée and meet the band? We’re going to have a rehearsal.” I said, “Sure, I’d love to.”
That was my first opportunity. A real New York person—and not only a New York person, but a Senior Editor at Rolling Stone magazine—who could not have been nicer. I went over to their apartment and met everyone in the band. It was really sweet. Low key. Brant became a mentor and he invited me to rehearsals. He invited me to photograph them again when they were going to perform at CBGB’s.
So that’s when you began photographing musicians, when you got to New York. Was that also the beginning of Fringe and including other performers in your photography?
The beginning of that era. Not knowing that it would be friends, but it was the beginning of it. Brant just opened the window for me. He knew a lot of people, but he was not pretentious, and neither was his girlfriend. They knew a good friend [of mine] named Nelson Sullivan. He was my friend and a video artist who died later in ‘89, but he captured New York’s downtown scene. Later, I photographed RuPaul, Nelson Sullivan, Rhonda, Tish and Snooky, who founded Manic Panic. All of those photographs are in black and white and are all in Fringe.
It seems like it was a very organic process, where you met someone new here and they introduced you to someone over there.
It was very, very organic. It was like, Brant is introducing me to his band. I’m shooting the band more frequently now. Now Brant invites me to his wedding, not as a wedding photographer. He just said, “Oh, and bring your camera.” And so, I did. It was a used Nikon 35 millimeter by the motor drive. Would screw on and off, but I was over the moon with it. At the wedding, there were so many scene makers. I was just taking photos. And I know people have said it’s street photography. Well, yes, it is street photography in that sense, but it is not.
I’m not a paparazzi shooter. I never really thought about trying to shoot celebrities. I was just interested in it being organic. I was hooking up with people that there was chemistry with and they happened to be fascinating, talented. They were musicians or performers or drag queens. The drag queens were just over the top in the 80s because there was a lot of collaboration all the time in the artistic community in New York.
Then the RuPaul introduction came through Brant. He called me and said, “I have a friend in town. I’d like you to meet Dick Richards.” So, I go over and because I had this history with Atlanta, going to school there and living there for a period of time, but Dick and I really hit it off. He was fun, had a great sense of humor, super creative. He had this label and also a TV show in Atlanta called The American Music Show. He said, “I love your photographs and I have someone who’s recording an album on our label. When you come down to visit your friends, call me and we’ll set up a shoot.” You know, I never said no. I always said I’d love to. And again, very informal, very organic. I said, “What’s his name?” He said, “his name is RuPaul and you’re going to love him.” He was not kidding. Dick videoed my first photo shoot with RuPaul.