Music

Chris Stein Examines Punk, New York City History, More With 'Point of View'

Jedd Beaudoin
Photo by Shepard Fairey / Press Here Publicity

Blondie co-founder Chris Stein looks back at a time long gone in the city where he lives. The pages of his new book find ordinary New Yorkers sharing the spotlight with Warhol, Bowie, Lester Bangs, Debbie Harry, and more.

Point of View: Me, New York City, and the Punk Scene
Chris Stein

Rizzoli

October 2018

Chris Stein's new photography collection, Point of View: Me, New York City, and the Punk Scene contains images that span from the late 1960s to 2001 with the Blondie guitarist capturing punk's earliest days as well as mesmerizing street scenes from his hometown. There are a variety of characters (a word Stein uses frequently in conversation to describe his subjects) from the world of art and music, including Andy Warhol, David Bowie, Lester Bangs and, of course, Debbie Harry, as well as ordinary New Yorkers who were captured in moments of joy, sadness, and even vulnerability.

There is also evidence of urban life, through captures of decaying or abandoned buildings, car fires and the urban landscape Stein traversed in those early days. A few remarkable self-portraits crop up as well, standing as some of the finest images in the collection's pages.

With a loving and frequently humorous introduction by journalist Jon Ronson, Point of View stands as an excellent testimony to Stein's prowess in the world of image-making as well as a New York City that has long passed.

How did you think about this book in terms of organization?

I have a thing for street photography and I keep seeing a lot of great street photos out there. It was partially inspired by that. There's also a lot of interest in the period, there are younger people who missed the atmosphere of the time, so I'm trying to convey that.

Some of the images in the book date back to 1969-1970. What was the city like for you, as a native, at that point? Were there a lot of changes going on?

I don't think there were a lot of changes or that there were for a long period. Car designs changed, phone booths, but there weren't the kind of changes we're observing now. I bookmarked this collection with 9/11 imagery. That was a big moment of transition.

At some point you got out of the city and photographed William S. Burroughs in Lawrence, Kansas.

Lawrence was great. A college town with a thriving punk scene. It was very entertaining, generally. We'd met Burroughs in Manhattan and had dropped by his place when he lived outside Lawrence. He was always great, always intelligent. He was one of the people I was very lucky to have had associations with.

Let's talk about the Outhouse, the famous punk club outside Lawrence.

It's a strip joint now if I'm not mistaken.

It is.

[Laughs.]

Do you have any specific memories of your time there?

It was so fringe and outlaw. It was inaccessible, out on this dirt road. I remember asking the kids there, "What do you do when the police come?" They said, "We just run into the field." [Laughs.] I thought that was so great. It was completely run by the kids who were there. It was just a fucking cement bunker. I think they stole the electricity from a lamppost or something. It was really great. I loved the outlaw qualities.

I saw this band, Unseen Force, when I was there, with Greta Brinkman and Dewey Rowell. Greta went on to play with Debbie Harry, Moby, a whole lot of other people. She's still working. Dewey was in GWAR [as Flattus Maximus]. Dewey's gone now.

The images of the late Eric Emerson are beautiful. He's striking.

He was another great character. It was a shame he died so early on [at 29]. His acting was terrific, especially in the Warhol movie Heat. He's in Lonesome Cowboys. He was gorgeous. He got everybody he wanted to, romantically. [Laughs.]

There's an image of the Women's House of Detention, which is gone now, in the book. It's formidable, foreboding. Eerie.

There would be these gatherings of boyfriends, husbands, whatever one the corner. They would have yelled conversations at women who were in there. It was such a fucking oppressive symbol. I don't know how much I appreciated that at the time. The photo itself I had kind of forgotten about. It was a heavy thing.

You have this great picture of two girls sitting on a stoop and you actually heard from them.

I put it on Facebook and within a couple of days, I heard from people who knew them and then both of them eventually. One of them was an actor and the other went on to be a sergeant in the NYPD for 20 years. It was kind of great. There's a Facebook group called Manhattan Before 1990. Frequently I would put up an old picture and have the location identified very quickly.

You didn't know them.

I was on my route back and forth to school. I was going from 23rd Street downtown and I'd walk back and forth on First and Second Avenue. They were just sitting there. I've since found the stoop too. The railings are the same and everything.

Do you have an inclination to go back and photograph those places as they stand now?

Some of them. It's easy to find them on Google Maps at this point. There's one image that's a boarded-up storefront in the book. That's a pizza place now. I tagged those guys on Instagram when I posted the image. They appreciated it and wrote back. I think it's called Iggy's Pizza, which is on First Avenue.

I love the wrestling images you've included.

I wish I would have taken more pictures. We were backstage and met a lot of those guys. I have pictures of me by George Napolitano, who was one of the main wrestling photographers. I have pictures of me with the Grand Wizard of Wrestling [Ernie Roth], Greg Valentine, all this stuff. We met Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan, all those people. We were going to the matches before Cyndi Lauper did her whole thing with Captain Lou Albano. Vince McMahon was always saying, "Let me put you in the ring!" but we never did. He wanted to do something like that with Debbie but it didn't happen.

You mentioned earlier that the bookend of this collection is 9/11. You clearly remember the city before the towers and were there when they fell.

My wife and I had just come back from Burning Man. We'd just been back for five days. That was enough of a culture shock. That was when Burning Man was less of a commercial spectacle. We were really close to the World Trade Center. Within 10 blocks uptown. I don't think I appreciated what a huge deal it was at the time. I don't think anybody quite did. There are videos on YouTube that we took. My wife shot a lot of videos that day. It changed the face of the city. The floodgates opened for a floodgate of corporate and financial input that hadn't been here previously.

For me, a great photo has narrative, metaphor. Maybe even some plot.

All that stuff. It's like a little story. It's a piece of time, time travel. Composition is always important to me. Every picture in this book is a full frame. I never really crop anything. Try to put the whole shot together as you're looking at it. There's psychology involved too. I don't know if I get as deep as Diane Arbus but it's there.

What do you make of photography in its present state, when everyone has a camera on their phone and they can shoot and edit right there?

It's kind of fascinating that everybody's doing it and the camera's ubiquitous. There are great photographers on Instagram. Great street guys. I use my phone frequently. I used to have a little shitty Casio camera watch. It was great because you could make believe you were looking at your watch and stick it in somebody's face. The resolution was terrible. It was five megapixels or something. Probably .5 megapixels. It was the worst. If the fucking Apple Watch had a camera, I would buy it.

[Laughs.] So you're not particular about gear? There's not like a fetish over certain pieces.

Nah. Film at this point is like a fetish, like vinyl. I don't know that it's an improvement over digital. I mean, I like the idea of the object but I'm certainly not going to deal with film again. It's so tedious to deal with that shit.

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