If a single piece of pop culture could be fished out of a time capsule by some hip alien race, entrusted to tell the story of New York City nightlife in the late 1970s, a Blondie record would do the job (and no doubt still slap, no matter how many years after or how many galaxies away.)
Debbie Harry, the band’s vocal powerhouse, resonates as a fashion icon, as a feminist flag waver, as one of Warhol’s famous subjects, and as a main character in the cultural renaissance known as the Lower East Side punk scene. The very images which she evokes in our collective consciousness are captured in the era-defining photographic work of Chris Stein, co-founding member and lead guitarist of Blondie.
In his latest work, Point of View: Me, New York City, and the Punk Scene, Stein unlocks history for those of those of us who weren’t there to see New York at its grittiest yet most glorious, to rub shoulders with the vast network of painters, musicians, poets, merchants, and artistic luminaries who shaped the golden age of Manhattan nightlife (dubbed “the downtown 500”).
On Friday 30 November, Stein and Harry sat down at The Great Hall at Cooper Union for a discussion of Stein’s new book, moderated by the group’s creative director Rob Roth. When asked to differentiate Point of View with his previous works, Stein revealed that his aim was to “show New York’s influence on the band” rather than the other way around.
Stein spoke with the language of his present day peers, describing his book as a series of “finite snapshots”. He likened his work to street photography, observing its popularization by Instagram, which he claimed inspired him to dig deeper into his own personal archives and curate his photos in a style similar to the platform layout.
His ranging subjects featured the obvious likes of Debbie Harry and The Ramones, as well as lesser known members of the scene such as Anya Phillips, who shares the book cover photo with Harry, and who Stein referred to as “an influencer before we used the term influencer.”
The bandmates took turns sharing favorite photos. Harry opted for a black and white portrait of her holding and swooning over cat Daniel who often took to roaming the NY streets. Daniel, Harry told the crowd, belonged to a beloved feline family that also bore Sunday- namesake of the tune “Sunday Girl”.
Stein showed the crowd a photo of two anonymous newlyweds regretfully taking public transit, a photo which Stein recalled taking on the way to or from Rockaway Beach. He often toted around a camera when working with his friends in the arts, which presented the opportunity to capture such candid only-in-New-York snapshots. Roth inquired, what was his camera of choice? Stein answered: “anything I could get my hands on.”
Without relying on pure nostalgia, but rather piecing together moments to form a picture which encompasses the past and present, Stein’s work adds depth to our understanding of an era that yielded so many artistic luminaries, revealing what it was that built them, betrayed them, and at every cross street fueled their creative impulses.
Point of View, which was released on 23 October is available for purchase at chain and local bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and The Strand, as well as on Amazon.