How Marcia Resnick Used Her Camera to Tame a Generation of New York City ‘Bad Boys’
Andy Warhol in 1978
You'd be forgiven, on this drizzly autumn night at the Howl! Happening gallery, for thinking you've stepped into CBGBs or Andy Warhol's Factory circa 1978. Punks, as it turns out, still smell like wet leather when it rains, and it's this scent that fills the spacious East Village gallery and performance space.
But these aren't today's in-from-the-suburbs weekend punks. Nor are they the rage-fueled punks of forty years ago. Though leopard tights, skull-printed scarves, and studded belts still abound for this occasion, wrinkles have replaced spiked hair and reading glasses are standing in for safety pins. These are the people who appeared and performed regularly at CB's, the Mudd Club, and Max's Kansas City. These are the people who gave readings at KGB Bar and made incendiary, avant-garde works of art. And most of them have this, too, in common: They've all been photographed by Marcia Resnick.
In the 1970s, Resnick became one of the earliest documenters of the downtown punk and art scenes that would come to define New York culture for a generation. From her Tribeca studio loft she would introduce the city — in some cases the world — to some of the most important and iconoclastic artists of her era — cult figures like Johnny Thunders and Lester Bangs, legends like Warhol and William S. Burroughs.
To the outsider, this is just another New York City book-launch party. But unlike most literary gatherings, this one has managed to draw the people who appear right there in the pages of the book being celebrated. Punks, Poets & Provocateurs: New York City Bad Boys, 1977–1982 is a collection of photographs Resnick took during that five-year period, pictures that embodied the idea of downtown counterculture. It's a book that says as much about the era as it does about the photographer.
"Wow, I remember this picture," says Steve Shevlin, former boxing champ and founding member of one of the scene's earliest breakout bands, the Senders. He points to an image of himself alongside punk legend Thunders and Senders' lead singer, Philippe Marcade. "[Resnick] always knew how to draw out the soul."
Across the room, Resnick, now 64, is sitting at a table in the corner of the gallery, wearing a bewitching black dress, silver rings on her fingers, and red platform Doc Martens. The bangles on her wrists chime as she signs copies. Beside her is writer and journalist Victor Bockris, her collaborator on the book and a close friend for decades. He is snappily dressed, in a dark three-piece suit and bow tie. She plays with the pen in her hand between autographs and warmly greets the swarm of attendees. Bockris signs a page with a flourish, having inscribed a personal message: "New York really has it all!" Bockris and Resnick whisper in each other's ears, wave at friends, and pose for pictures.
"Your books are selling like hotcakes," remarks Joff Wilson, guitarist for local band the Bowery Boys, who hands Resnick his copy for an autograph.
He isn't lying. The books sell out in an hour.
"Rock 'n' roll ain't dead!" yells an adoring fan in a thick New York accent. He pushes his way closer to Resnick, gesturing toward her with his copy. "She's keeping it alive, baby."
Not exactly, but on this night she is.
Back when rents in both the East and West villages were cheap, crime was rampant, and junkies were nodding off in Tompkins Square Park, Resnick sought to capture a world in which, she says today, "boys called the shots." For the many among us with that insatiable nostalgia for the somewhat opaque, often fetishized notion of "old New York," the book is a trove of intimate photos accompanied by in-depth interviews and anecdotes revealing the stories behind them.
Walter Steding, a musician and visual artist who worked with Warhol, holds his copy of the book open to page 85. He's staring at a picture Resnick took of him when he was just 22. In the photo he's standing outside a nightclub. He can't remember which one, but he remembers the pose.
"She had a way of bringing that bad boy out," he says, referring to Resnick. The image shows him holding a cigarette, wearing a suit and glaring at the camera — the quintessential mod punk. He had attitude. Lots of it. Examining the photo, Steding laughs. "I see the face of my daughter here," he says.
Steding, now 65, still has the bluntly cut hair of his youth. But his face has thickened and is, at present, heavily furrowed around the corners of the mouth and eyes: As with most everyone in the crowd, you can read in these lines the years of hard living. These were the men and women who defined the punk and downtown arts movement in its heyday — and four decades later, all that's really changed is their age.
In the book, Resnick and Bockris describe the era they chronicled as both "enchanted" and "endangered" — unlikely ever to be replicated, at least not in New York.
"There aren't great figures people hold as inspiration anymore, like a Warhol or Muhammad Ali," says Bockris, a native of Sussex, England, whose accent remains intact more than fifty years after he moved to the States. "It's a strange thing with celebrity culture now."
"I don't have any heroes now like I did then," Resnick adds. "And I can't imagine myself wanting to photograph anyone with a digital camera."
Resnick and Victor Bockris: Friends and collaborators for more than forty years
Nicole Fara Silver
"Everything is different," Resnick says, shifting her gaze from one side of Canal Street to the other. She and Bockris have just hopped out of a cab at the corner of Canal and Washington in Tribeca. They're making their way to Resnick's old loft, where she lived from 1975 until 1990, and where the majority of the photos in her book were taken. Resnick now lives in the West Village, having sold the space to Lou Reed's widow, Laurie Anderson. Even as a lifelong resident of a city that never stops changing, she's amazed at how different her old neighborhood looks. "That building wasn't here. Neither was that one," she says, gesturing toward a pair of shiny new condos that flank the red-and-white-brick ex-warehouse that served as her home and studio for those fifteen years. She shakes her head. "Let's cross the street."
Today's journey to Tribeca began in the East Village, where Resnick and Bockris sipped coffee at Veselka, the popular Ukrainian restaurant, and reminisced about the old days. Though he'd initially resisted the idea of seeking out the old loft, Bockris, 66, eventually hailed a cab, telling the driver to head west.
"This part of Christopher Street used to have more small businesses, mom-and-pop shops," Resnick pointed out during the drive.
"I'm glad the Village looks mostly the same," Bockris had offered. "This is Hudson, right? I used to walk up this street from my place to Marcia's place." As the cab neared Canal, Bockris had his hand poised on the door handle.
Now Resnick is in disbelief. "That's my building: 530 Canal Street," she says. "I used to have river views, but now my river views are blocked!" She pauses to watch some construction workers next door as they put the finishing touches on the interior of another steel-and-glass luxury residential complex to the west of her old building. "It was just this summer last time I was here. How'd that happen so fast? It's amazing."
Bockris turns his attention to a front-facing window on 530 Canal's fifth floor.
"I hung out of that front window on the top right, remember? Like this," he says. He demonstrates, showing how he dangled forward with his arms out. Why? "Because Marcia was being mean to me."
"I don't remember that," she says. "But I remember someone threw a television set out of that window." Resnick nods her head at one of the front windows not obstructed by construction.
"You know, Lou Reed did a book about the views of the Hudson River taken from those windows," she says. "If he were alive today..." She trails off, looking up at the building one more time before turning on a heel toward Hudson Street. Bockris begins to follow on the opposite side of the block.
The conversation for the remainder of the walk revolves largely around what does or doesn't exist anymore.
"The bodega is gone!" Resnick laments at the intersection of Canal and Greenwich streets. "I'd borrow the bodega cat to kill the mice in my loft. His name was Nino."
After proceeding in silence for a few more blocks, she finally mutters: "These new buildings are grotesque."
"Well, the buildings look a bit more polished," Bockris replies. "Why don't we go by the Ear Inn? That's been around forever." Indeed, the Ear Inn is said to be one of the oldest bars in New York City, situated on the ground level of the historic James Brown House, itself named after the African-American Revolutionary War veteran.
Walking toward Spring Street, Resnick explains the history behind the Ear Inn's name.
"The edges of the B came off, so it says Ear," she says. "I guess they just left it like that."
On Hudson Street, once the center of what used to be Lower Manhattan's printing district, Resnick spots one of the dozen or so outposts of the popular office-lunch chain Just Salad. "Obviously, that wasn't there, because no one ate kale back then," she jokes. "We weren't health-conscious, we were on heroin."
They reach the Ear Inn and Resnick finally relaxes. Little has changed at one of her and Bockris's old haunts.
She surveys the room, taking in the low ceilings, the dim lighting, the beer-and-a-shot crowd cozied up on stools along the bar.
"It looks the same inside," she says.
"It really does," Bockris says.
A waitress approaches. Resnick quickly explains she's not staying long. "Just reminiscing about the Seventies when I used to hang out here."
Her eyes move across the bar, coming to rest where Bockris stands by the door. Their bar is still here. Like her photos in their book: protected. Not everything is gone.
"I feel better now."
Walking out of the bar, she's re-energized. There's an emotional change, a bounce in her step.
"That felt good, going in there."
David Byrne in 1977
Resnick grew up in an out-of-the-way neighborhood in south Brooklyn called Mill Basin. It's a neighborhood without a subway line, so riding the bus is essential — "like those neighborhoods in Long Island," Resnick says. She was raised by artists (her mother was a painter, her father a printer) in a strict Jewish household and had her first art show at age five — a drawing she made of a blonde Asian woman on a stage was exhibited at the Brooklyn Children's Museum.
"From the time she was in kindergarten, she was painting. Creating always came naturally to her," says Sonia Resnick, Marcia's mother. Sonia Resnick always supported her daughter's dedication to her art (though Marcia says her parents always wanted her to become a teacher), and even now, at 87, she herself continues to paint with charcoal and pastels.
"Marcia was a bit of a wild card, a rebel, all the time thinking out of the box," says Janice Hahn, Resnick's younger sister, who helped with the design of the book.
Resnick took her first photograph in the third grade but didn't study photography seriously until later in her teens, though she knew from an early age that her future was as an artist. She was also, in general, an exceptional student, graduating at sixteen from James Madison High School having finished second in her class — just behind a future U.S. senator by the name of Chuck Schumer.
"Out of our class of 1,200 students, he was the smartest boy. But I was the smartest girl," she says today.
Soon after graduation, Resnick moved to Manhattan to attend NYU on a full academic scholarship. Almost immediately she started gravitating toward the Sixties counterculture then emerging on college campuses across the country. She joined the Students for a Democratic Society and began participating in anti-war marches. In 1968, when she was seventeen, she read Burroughs's Junkie and promptly asked a friend to inject her with heroin every day for a week. It would be her first experience with hard drugs. ("I wanted to experience it and sought it out," she says.)
On the advice of an NYU professor, Resnick transferred to Cooper Union and thrived for three years while she developed as a photographer and artist. She documented the Columbia University protests of 1968, and a photo of her at the demonstration, her body blocked by a police officer's baton, appeared on the front page of the New York Times.
In 1972 she moved to the West Coast for graduate school, enrolling at the California Institute of the Arts, just outside of Los Angeles. It was there she learned to drive; after completing her MFA in conceptual art in 1973, she drove across the country back to New York City and self-published three books of her own work. Then, in 1975, she totaled her Chevy station wagon crashing into a pole in the West Village, an accident that left her hospitalized for two weeks. It was during that time she began to seriously explore identity through photography. Two years later, she published a book called Revisions, a collection of staged photographs of a single female model, none of which showed her face.
After that book, she began experimenting with self-portraits. "The person I understood least was myself," she says. "So I turned the camera on me and took my first self-portrait."
She also started photographing the club and concert scenes but realized quickly that that wasn't what excited her.
"I wasn't into doing live shots," she says. "They never interested me. I wanted to confront people."
More specifically, she wanted to confront men — especially after returning from a trip to Egypt in July 1977, where she recalls being leered at and objectified by the men she encountered.
"You have to look at the time it was — it was right after women's lib got big," she says. "Men always photograph women. I was interested in what it would be like to photograph men. What kind of exchange would occur. The female gaze is very different."
Back in New York, Resnick started to notice that the downtown punk and arts landscape consisted of very few women, and she became interested in flipping the power dynamic by photographing the men who dominated those arenas. It was around this time that she met Bockris at an art gallery. The two hit it off, introducing each other to their own respective worlds.
"Marcia took me into the nightlife and punk, going to see bands, which I wasn't doing before I met her," Bockris says. "And I took her into my world at the Factory, Burroughs, the Beat writers, and the scene at the Bowery. It added to her spectrum of subjects."
Resnick later began shooting for the Soho Weekly News, which earned her a press pass and access to a wide range of celebrities, personalities, and politicians — including then-mayor Ed Koch, whom she followed around for two days one autumn. ("It was Halloween," she says. "I got pictures of him bobbing for apples!") She wrote a column for the paper called "Resnick's Believe It or Not," which was where some of the photos that appear in the new book were first published.
She says that as she pored over long-mothballed negatives while researching the book, she discovered images she hadn't seen in decades. She specifically remembers coming across a shot of music critic Lester Bangs, who had posed in whiteface for her Believe It or Not column.
"I often had friends in my loft that would pose for me for that column," she says.
While she was with the Soho Weekly News, her photos were also being published in the East Village Eye — and some, Resnick notes, "gained a celebrity of their own," including what is perhaps the shot of her career, a portrait of Johnny Thunders posing with a syringe sticking out of his hat.
She shot most of her subjects in the Tribeca loft, which had become a popular gathering place for a veritable who's-who of downtown cool. Everyone hung out at Resnick's loft — and she didn't miss the chance to photograph the more unexpected visitors.
"The John Belushi shoot — that was a big surprise," she says, referring to the late actor-comedian who graces the cover of the book. Resnick met Belushi in September of 1981, at an after-hours party at the club AM-PM, and asked him to sit for her. "I went over to him and said, 'When are you gonna do a photo session with me?' He said, 'Now.'
"I didn't believe him. So I just went about my business for the rest of the night, and then I went home and saw a limo in front of my building. With him and his entourage waiting for me." It was 6 a.m., and she hadn't slept, but she managed to grab her camera, pull together some props, and guide him through what would be his final photo shoot. Belushi died of a drug overdose six months later.
"I sought provocateurs," she says. "It was just whatever I could do to get people in front of the camera. I wasn't really famous, but I knew what I was doing."
Resnick wasn't making much money from her work in those days, so she held down day jobs teaching photography at Queens College, Cooper Union, and NYU. The steady work also helped keep her in film — something modern-day photographers are rarely forced to worry about.
"[When] I had Mick Jagger in my studio, I only had six rolls of film," she says of a famous cover shoot she did for High Times magazine. "When I took a photograph I was very careful. I crop in camera. I think of the whole photograph when I'm taking a picture. When you're [using] film, you know when you have the right photograph."
She recalls many of her shoots in vivid detail. When she photographed Belushi, he was in the middle of a two-day drug binge and was dripping with sweat. She used a 55mm macro lens, which meant she had to get close.
"I was standing above him," she says. "For a period of time I was taking my aerial views. I got closer and closer as time went on."
Bockris remembers feeling as though the Belushi shoot, and the actor's subsequent death, was the beginning of the end of the hedonistic scene at Resnick's loft.
"Bands started collapsing," he says. "Heroin was an enormously damaging force. But the heroin honeymoon is where you do your greatest work. It lasts for about three years. You might do some great work, but then you're finished."
"Heroin turned the scene on, but then it destroyed it," Resnick adds. "People live on in our work. They may have died, but we're keeping them alive, in a way."
In 1980, Resnick caught Jagger, Burroughs, and Warhol chowing down.
These days, Resnick is reminded that she is getting older each time she opens her mail. "Every day I get something from Medicare," she says. Her 65th birthday is approaching. She recently tripped and fractured her shoulder and is now in physical therapy. She says she has also begun exercising.
"Taking care of your body requires time as you get older," Resnick says. Her looks belie her age, and her long, ash-blond hair is only part of it. Even at 64, she manages to exude a seductive innocence, which her friends often describe as "magical." And she has no plans to stop shooting.
"I'm still taking pictures," Resnick says, adding that her next project will focus more on the women she's photographed. "I was working on Bad Boys as a series. I had it in my head back then to do a book. But I photographed powerful and interesting women, too. Maybe the next book will be Wild Women."
She's also running a studio out of her apartment in the West Village, where she still paints and continues to make art.
"I did a series of painted photographs a couple of years ago," she says. "I'm intrigued by making marks. I was into handwriting analysis. The whole idea of making marks and expressing yourself on paper."
In 1982 Resnick was briefly married to a musician, former MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer. ("It didn't last due to personality conflicts. Let's just leave it at that," she says.) She does not have any children.
"If I was younger, I'd have a child of my own," she says, adding that she's not on the lookout for love.
When asked about her relationship with Bockris, Resnick says the two originally formed an "instantaneous connection" that eventually evolved into more of a brother-sister-like dynamic. She describes their connection, now, as that of "really great friends."
Bockris, who now lives in Florida, looks at things a bit differently: "I've been in love with her for nearly forty years," he says. "I don't think it's brother-sister."
When she hears this later, Resnick laughs. "That doesn't surprise me," she says. "I've known it. Early on, we were together. But we went our own separate ways. It was mostly because of me. I was very independent."
Standing on the street beneath her old loft, she pauses to stare up at the building. A brisk wind whips hair across her face. What she misses most, she says, is the light off the Hudson at sunset, which, illuminating her loft, had helped create many of the images she included in the book. So much has changed in the 25 years since she last lived and worked here. The view. The bodega. The sobriety. But even as a fish out of water in her old neighborhood, Resnick is still the fearless self-proclaimed "bad girl" whose work did more than simply document a scene — it helped define it.
In May 1977, during an interview with Rolling Stone, Resnick was asked, "If you could be in any one situation anywhere, at any time, with anyone and any camera, what would it be?" She answered, "I would like to be in bed with Iggy Pop and a Polaroid." That reply, which would also serve as the headline for the piece, eventually led to a backstage meeting with the legendary singer; the two would go on to share an intimate photo session, a photo from which appears in the book.
Nearly forty years later, as she walks back east toward the Village, away from the old loft, she's asked the same question: Name the subject, the venue, the camera. She laughs.
"I'd still be with Iggy Pop, in bed, with a Polaroid."
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