While Chris Stein is best known as a co-guitarist and songwriter in Blondie, the band he co-founded with Deborah Harry in ‘74, he was taking a copious amount of still photos before he started playing guitar seriously, and never stopped. Some background history is in order here to provide the context for Stein’s new photography based book.
Stein, 64, who grew up in Brooklyn, NYC, began photographing at the age of eight. Stein attended the School Of Visual Arts (SVA) in Manhattan in ‘66 and ‘67 as he was finding himself. He then left “to be a hippie,” as he says. The environs and ethos of the the Village, Washington Square Park, The Bowery, and downtown Manhattan in general shaped Stein’s own identity. Returning to SVA at the dawn of the ‘70’s as he was newly into his 20’s, Stein decidedly was a photography major. Seeing flyers for a relatively new band called New York Dolls in the lobby bulletin boards of SVA, Stein was curious about their over the top drag/androgynous looks. He went to see them at the long-defunct Mercer Arts Center in downtown Manhattan. Opening for them was a another new band called Magic Tramps. Stein quickly fell in with them, especially their late lead singer Eric Emerson. It was Emerson that led Stein to the first performance of a girl group that the mother of Eric’s child, Elda Gentile, had founded. They were called the Stillettoes, and featured Deborah Harry, then unknown. Chris was smitten with her, and in short time was able to join the group as guitarist, mainly to be near Harry. Friendship turned to romance between them, and they would go on to form Blondie together shortly after. 40 years on, and long after their romance ended in the late ‘80’s, they’re still best friends and business partners in the revived Blondie of ‘97, after having broken up in ‘82.
Naturally, Stein’s relationship with Harry fostered a comfortable and less guarded rapport for Stein to photograph her, which he did from their start as unknowns. As Blondie’s star was rising to great heights a few years later, many other photographers and publications were clamoring to photograph Harry. She says in the book that she finds Stein’s images to be the most revealing of all, and has said that they’re her favorite.
This fine, 200-plus paged, 9” X 12” publication from high end Rizzoli features lots of these images, some of which have never been published. While Harry is the most present, there are many other subjects, including, in random order, Eric Emerson, downtown Manhattan, London, England, the Heartbreakers, Richard Hell, the Ramones, Brooklyn’s Coney Island, Jayne County, Divine, the Stillettoes, Blondie band members, Legs McNeil, Iggy Pop, Cherie Currie, Joan Jett, Kim Fowley, Devo, B52s, Rodney Bingenheimer, David Bowie, Chrissie Hynde, Sting, Talking Heads, Chic, John Waters, Stiv Bators, William Burroughs, and Any Warhol.
Stein certainly has his own voice and the mandatory “good eye” that a serious photographer must have. Harry noted recently that she would attempt to recreate with Stein’s camera what he had just done with it, but was never able to capture the same elusive sensibility in her frames. Some of Stein’s images are of well known people in their formative years, before they became at all famous. Their candor and relative innocence is ever present in the work. With Blondie touring throughout the world in their peak period of the latter ‘70’s, Stein was able take photos in places as far flung as Bangkok, Thailand. Few things inspire and invigorate a photographer as brand new, exotic, quixotic, or at least unique territories so far from home.
With forwards by Stein, Harry, and Glenn O’Brien, and an afterward by Shepard Fairey, there is much in the way of thoughtful, insightful, and descriptive text to accompany Stein’s predominately black and white photographs, mostly taken with the classic and sturdy Nikon F series 35 millimeter camera.
Although Stein’s once-beloved downtown Manhattan is hardly recognizable from what it was during its dangerous and crumbling state of the ‘70’s, salient story telling and the freezing of time via the powerful medium of photography will never change. This is positively the case in Stein’s new book, Negative. Go snap it up.
Chris Stein Online