Chris Stein Takes Great Photos
One of my favorite New York City memories goes back to CBGB circa 1977. It was a benefit for PUNK magazine and the evening line-up included two of the biggest bands on the Bowery—Blondie and Ramones. When Blondie launched into a cover of “Little Red Rooster” sometime around 2am the room was practically spinning. It was a wild night—and thankfully, there was always a handful of photographers ready to capture the moments, the memories and the history being made. Chris Stein, Blondie’s lead guitarist, main songwriter and founding member, was often one of the photographers on hand and his images paint a vivid and loving picture of those golden days.
I recently talked to Chris about his career, including his photographs currently on display in the lobby of The Roxy Hotel. Here’s what he had to say.
Richard Boch: Hi Chris. I had the opportunity to stop by The Roxy and check out your photos. Despite my familiarity with the subject matter, as well as several of the images, there’s a very fresh vibe about revisiting that bit of NYC history. Did you realize then that you were documenting something for the ages or were you just taking photos of friends and the people you loved?
Chris Stein: I was just shooting what was around, in my line of sight at that time. For years, I would always recommend to the kids to take as many photos as possible because you never know what is going to happen next. I guess with iPhones everyone is doing that now, but consistently taking photos was rare in the past. I wasn’t so much documenting at the time—it was more about the artistic process or flow, capturing what was happening in our world through the years.
RB: Going back a bit further or maybe just jumping around here and there, when did you first pick up a camera—and which came first, the camera or the guitar?
CS: I was experimenting with those small Brownie cameras when I was 8 or 9 years old. I would take photos of my toy spaceships and my cat. The camera preceded the guitar by a few years. I started playing guitar at around 12 years old. By 1968 and 1969 I was taking photos more consistently—prior to that it was casual or incidental.
RB: Your relationship with Debbie Harry, putting the band Blondie together, and being part of a music scene that was ready to explode in mid-1970s NYC, are all the stuff of legend. Having your camera at the ready for a good part of that time was an opportunity for you and a gift for the rest of us. Did you ever seriously consider that five decades into the future you’d exhibit these photos and we’d appreciate and talk about them?
CS: For me, it was less about advance planning and more about everything being very immediate. We didn’t consider that our music would extend into the future. We were simply doing everything we could to be creative in that moment, allowing the creative process to evolve. I wish I had taken more photos at the time! Often, when I would go to a concert or an event, I would need to decide upfront if I would take a camera or be more present in the moment at the show or event. Choices were involved, decisions had to be made.
RB: The camera always loved Debbie and many of your other subjects were friends and acquaintances who were fascinating and photogenic in their own way. Did you feel lucky to have the access and opportunity, whether it was backstage, at home or on the road?
CS: Yes, lucky in the sense of being in the right place at the right time. We were exposed to so many interesting and charismatic people over the years passing through our world and to be in the position I was in, for sure, there were fortunate and timely moments.
RB: A lot of people and even fans of your music don’t know about your love and admiration for musicians and bands such as Iggy Pop, Ramones and Television. Not only did you take great photos of them but Blondie performed their songs and the images at The Roxy Hotel speak to that connection. Tell us about it and offer your thoughts on why, during those crazy mid- to late 1970s, Blondie was Punk as anyone out there!
CS: I don’t know if we self-described as a punk band—we thought we were pop. All of the bands you mention were inspirational to us, and yes, we covered many of their songs over the years. It was an incestuous scene; it was what it was, reciprocal inspiration that fueled creative growth.
RB: I’ve always loved the images in your books Point of View and 2014’s Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk. What’s next for you as far as photography and music? When can we expect you to tell the whole story—because it certainly is a great one!
CS: I have a third photography book being published by Titan Publishing Group in mid-April. The title is GIGER: Debbie Harry Metamorphosis—and it documents the collaboration Debbie and I had with H.R. Giger for Debbie’s first solo album, KooKoo (which is actually being reissued in early May, tying into the book release). Additionally, I have a memoir being published early next year by St. Martin’s Press. It will probably be titled Under A Rock.
Chris Stein’s photographs are on display at The Roxy Hotel through March 27, in collaboration with Morrison Hotel Gallery.
INTERVIEW Richard Boch
Richard Boch writes GrandLife’s New York Stories column and is the author of The Mudd Club, a memoir recounting his time as doorman at the legendary New York nightspot, which doubled as a clubhouse for the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Debbie Harry and Talking Heads among others. To hear about Richard’s favorite New York spots for art, books, drinks, and more, read his Locals interview—here.