Just when you think the fabled downtown New York 70s punk scene centered around CBGBs has no more secrets to offer, another homegrown documentarian appears to show us photographs (on Instagram) we’ve never seen and tell some pretty nifty stories to go along with them. Julia Gorton came to New York from her native Delaware in 1976 and used a Polaroid camera to capture her firsthand encounters with legends like Debbie Harry, Patti Smith, David Byrne, Tom Verlaine, Iggy Pop, Richard Hell, and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks’ Lydia Lunch (below), “a natural for the glamorous black-and-white photos I liked to make,” she says, and a “a real partner” in Gorton’s enterprise and her most-photographed subject.
In Christina Cacouris’ interview with Gorton at Garage, we learn that the photographer “ended up meeting Tom’s mom [Television singer and guitarist Tom Verlaine] at the flea market in Wilmington [Delaware]. She was a proud mom who played her son’s single on a cassette player in the back of her station wagon while she sold things on a folding table.”
Exactly this kind of intimacy and family atmosphere pervades Gorton’s work in the punk clubs, downtown streets, and record stores. Like most of the performers onstage, Gorton was a relative amateur, learning her craft alongside the musicians and artists she photographed. “You didn’t need to be perfect before you started,” she says.
Although she found her lack of technical ability frustrating, in hindsight, Gorton says, “images that I perceived at the time as failures actually represent the true character of the time period more honestly and powerfully than the images I thought were ‘successful.’” In many cases, however, it has taken 21st century digital technology to unearth some of her most revealing shots.
The cost of film prohibited her from taking multiple exposures, and the darkness of CBGBs left many prints too murky. Using Photoshop, Gorton has been able to revisit many of these seemingly failed attempts, like the moody portrait above of Tom Verlaine. “I was able to scan and finally pull him out of the shadows of decades past,” she muses.
Along with the glamour of her portraits, Gorton’s candid shots of the period capture downtown legends in rare moments and poses. (Check out John Cale above at CBGBs, for example, or Jean Michel Basquiat, then known as SAMO, dancing on the right, below.) Shot while she was a student at the Parsons School of Design, Gorton’s photos of the punk, New Wave, and No Wave scene were the beginning of her long career as a photographer, illustrator, and graphic designer.
On her Instagram feed, 70s and 80s images mix in with her current projects, and the juxtaposition of contemporary musicians and artists with their counterparts from 40 years ago gives a sense of the long continuity reflected in Gorton’s engagement with street art and underground rock culture. Explore her photo collection here.