A revealing archive of unseen photographs of music stars taken more than 20 years ago is to go on display in a New York gallery on Thursday. The images, which were all taken by Laura Levine while working for a succession of music magazines in Manhattan, show performers such as Chrissie Hynde and Michael Stipe in an unpretentious setting or a pose that often challenges their public image.
“It was definitely my intention to get away from the studio look,” Levine told the Observer this weekend. “I started out as more of a photojournalist anyway and I wanted to get past all the artifice. I wanted to show a side to the public that was really something that they weren’t aware of. To show them something you don’t normally see.”
The photographic show, titled Musicians, is being mounted by the Steven Kasher Gallery and came about almost by accident after Kasher worked with Levine on another show chronicling the same era. Levene’s show is being billed as an insider’s look at the artists at the forefront of rock, punk, indie rock, post-punk hip-hop, new wave and no wave – and it is already causing a stir in the Big Apple.
“We were setting up a punk and post-punk poster show and talking to Laura then,” said Christiona Owen of the gallery. “Steven has known Laura for many years and enjoyed her photography and so we invited her to do a second show with us. We didn’t realise how many vintage prints she had for show that hadn’t been seen in public before.”
The show will be the first solo gallery exhibition for Levine and will feature more than 35 vintage and modern prints, including the photographer’s vintage gelatin silver prints, many of which are one of a kind.
“There’s been a strong interest in seeing the photos so we think the show is going to be very popular,” said Owen.
Levine has not taken photographs since 1994 and has worked instead in painting, video and animation, but in the 1980s she showed frequently in downtown galleries after working as chief photographer and photo editor of underground newspaper New York Rocker. She also published in the Village Voice, Sounds and Rolling Stone.
“My photo sessions would be very relaxed,” said Levine. “Most of the subjects I didn’t know beforehand, although some became friends. The REM photo I took in Athens, Georgia, at a point where they were very good friends. It was one of many times I photographed them. By the time I did that picture in the diner I knew them really well. I flew down to see them and we spent two whole days just going around Athens and we stopped there for lunch. Then I thought this would be a great picture, so I got behind the counter and told them all to look up.”
Among the other images in the show is a striking early photograph of Madonna. “I took it before she was famous in 1982, I think she had her first single coming out, and she was really game,” said Levine. “I knew nothing about her at the time. She came over to my apartment in Chinatown and climbed up all the steps to the top. I think some of the other pictures from that shoot are well known, but not the one in show. She was a pleasure to work with and had a real sense of self even then. I set that picture up by asking her to scream.”
The show also includes an evocative picture of Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads and hip-hop artist and DJ Grandmaster Flash. Marking the birth of hip-hop as a popular genre, it was taken in New York in 1981 in front of a wall of graffiti. “I love that shot. It was for the cover of Andy Warhol’s magazine Interview. They look great with those boomboxes,” said Levine.
“I think the most important thing with anyone you photograph is to establish a real sense of trust.”