[Photo caption: Dreaming: Debbie Harry, World Trade Centre, NYC, mid-’70s]
Blondie’s Chris Stein on his “dreams and memories” of New York in the ’70s
CHRIS STEIN can’t remember exactly why he and his then girlfriend Debbie Harry were at the World Trade Centre sometime in the mid-1970s. The couple made a habit of wandering the streets of New York City, camera in tow; the city was alternately his subject and the backdrop for his portraits of Harry. Together, they snuck up to the roof of one of the towers, where he snapped shots of her with the city sprawling out behind her, a queen surveying her kingdom.
In the picture that appears in Stein’s second photobook, Point Of View, she turns her head from the panorama, as though lost in thought (above). It’s a melancholy image that shows a very different side of the Blondie singer not long before she would become a pop star and one of the most photographed women in the world. “She wasn’t always aware of how striking and charismatic she was,” says Stein. “None of us were aware of any of that early on. It took years for us to catch up to that.”
Like 2014’s Negative, Point Of View captures New York’s punk scene in all its gnarly ’70s glory, but this time with a greater emphasis on the city that produced those musicians. Once again Harry is his primary subject, appearing in nearly half the pictures, but there are many images of regular New Yorkers going about their business on regular streets. “I’m just trying to give a sense of the atmosphere of the city, what it was like physically and emotionally. I wish I had been shooting constantly, but buying film and developing images cost a lot of money back then.”
Point Of View recreates a New York that is very different from the city today. For one thing, the World Trade Centre is gone. A photo of everyday New Yorkers running from the crumbling towers, one of the book’s strongest images, is sequenced a few pages after Harry’s rooftop portrait. “A lot of the buildings look the same now as they did then, but the cultural change is much greater. People have to make a lot of money to live there now. I never had a job coming up with Blondie, but it was cheap to live in Manhattan.”
That means fewer artists and more tourists. “Whenever I’m in the East Village, there’s always a knot of people looking at the fucking Sex In The City brownstone. There are millions of people here every day just wandering around. That wasn’t happening in the ’70s. The streets were less crowded because there wasn’t as much going on.”
This is the environment – desolate but vibrant, empty but busy, an artistic paradise where you might get mugged – that produced Blondie and so many other punk bands. Point Of View provides a valuable, often poetic look at that world before any of these bands had hits, before Debbie Harry became an icon.
Living with these images in his archive is one way for Stein to stay connected to the past – not just his own, but New York City’s as well. “Photos are a link to dreams and memories, in the way dreams are manufactured out of pieces of your past. It’s amorphous for me. It’s like a smell. The photos are a trigger. There’s a lot of stuff I forget, so they remind me.” STEPHEN DEUSNER
Point Of View: Me, New York City, And The Punk Scene is published by Rizzoli on October 23