Julia Gorton’s Dark and Beautiful “Nowhere New York”
For his New York Stories column, author Richard Boch talks to photographer Julia Gorton about her new book of photographs, essays and guest commentary documenting the No Wave scene.
Julia Gorton likes to say she grew up in the 1960s countryside—a farmland-adjacent, soon-to-be suburban area of Wilmington, Delaware. My version of a similar story took place on Long Island before strip-mall-mania and urban sprawl took over and swallowed up everything. Digging deeper and comparing notes, it seems we both experienced a true coming of age in the wilds of a dark, downtown, late 1970s New York City.
Seeking higher education at Parsons School of Design, Gorton explored the nether regions of Lower Manhattan and Bowery. Before long, and somewhere between a Polaroid 195 Land camera and a 35mm OM-1 SLR, she captured a music scene on the verge of exploding and imploding at the same time. The No Wave spin on Punk was radical and excitable with Teenage Jesus, Contortions and DNA among others offering up an in-your-face, grinding nihilism to anyone willing to look and listen. It was a reactionary, black-and-white world ready for someone to take notice—and Gorton, camera in hand, was more than ready.
The photos in Julia Gorton’s new book, Nowhere New York, take you deep into that black-and-white moment when No Wave was tearing at the seams of sound, music and noise coming out of the club scene. She references an essay by author and historian Philip Dray when suggesting her book and its content is dark, insulting and unmelodic—almost as a warning or a dare.
I recently spoke with Julia and asked her to shed a bit of light on the darkness.
Richard Boch: Hi Julia. I’m going through your book again, thinking about where everyone came from and how they wound up in front of your camera. You graduated High School in 1976, came to New York City, studied at Parsons and graduated in 1980—that’s all background. The real story here is what you did with a camera, whether it was a Polaroid or a 35mm. Was it your intent to get behind the scenes at CBGB and elsewhere? Did the vision and sound of No Wave and Punk draw you in? Was it a love of music in general or did a friend say, “Hey let’s check this out,” and you said, “Sure, why not?” What’s the real story?
Julia Gorton: I used to think coming from Delaware was strange—you know it’s one of the smallest states—I mean, who manages to leave Delaware to go to New York City? Well, my boyfriend Rick Brown did while I stayed behind to finish up my senior year in high school. By the time I got there the following fall, he was already an expert on all the clubs and he took me to CBGB. Whatever that first gig was, I don’t recall—but I do remember realizing that I’d found my place. I didn’t have to try to get behind the scenes to take photos—I became a part of the scene.
RB: One of the things I love about Nowhere New York is the layout, which manages to present images that document a bit of history in a fresh and very now kind of way. It veers between yearbook and scrapbook, like an off-beat fashion lookbook or family album with a lot of sharp edges. The book has a sense of style that speaks so clearly to the subject matter. Is it your design? Did you do it all?
JG: I’m glad you like the design, Richard. I put the book together myself and wanted the design to be fairly straightforward—a bold and stylish aesthetic that would work well to frame the images and text. Many friends contributed essays and almost everyone I asked said yes. I’d really hoped that guitarist Tom Verlaine would be able to add his own story about growing up in Delaware, but he declined. The book did end up being like a yearbook or scrapbook—that sounds right! I’m happy you picked up on that.
RB: Some of the people you photographed were friends and many were simply acquaintances. You came to know most of them during your time in clubland, whether it was CBGB, Max’s, TR-3 or some other nameless hole-in-the-wall with barely a stage. What’s remarkable to me is how everyone responded by looking into your camera with varying degrees of interest, awareness and in some cases attitude. The four close-ups of Richard Hell with a cigarette clenched between his teeth immediately come to mind. We certainly know candid shots are one thing, often with hit-or-miss results, but when you were doing a shoot and planning to take photos, did you give direction? Was Richard Hell’s cigarette a prop?
JG: It was not a prop, that was his own cigarette! When working with people I’d often offer direction, but each person brings their own ideas to a shoot and it’s a collaborative kind of work. Sometimes people would bring their own props, things I wouldn’t have—like handcuffs! I did have a sizable collection of lingerie I’d purchased from thrift stores in Delaware that I used for shoots with Lydia Lunch. Anya Phillips brought changes of clothes, along with shoes, boots, and wigs—and one time her friend Sylvia Reed, Lou’s wife, accompanied her. But mostly there was just room for myself and whoever I was shooting—my studio was my tiny bedroom!
RB: So much to say about this book, but when I unpacked it, I wound up staring at the cover for a long time before cracking it open. There are a lot of great photos of Anya Philips out there but this cover shot is hard to take your eyes off. Muse, icon, punk legend and so much more—what is it about her besides the reputation and notoriety that continues to intrigue and, to an extent, mesmerize?
JG: She certainly was a muse for me and played an important and memorable role in my life. My photos with her are some of my favorites. When she died, it seemed impossible. It’s like never seeing the end of a fascinating film—you’re left unsettled but still curious. I think she makes a great cover subject.
RB: I know we must have crossed paths at some point way back when, though it’s only since the dawn of social media that you and I have become aware of one another. I remember a friend turning me on to your Instagram and I was just amazed. It was as if I were seeing faces I already knew for the first time, while faces I didn’t know at all became instantly familiar. Were you holding back and waiting to make your move? Did you realize you had this book in you?
JG: I must have passed through your chain a couple of times when I went to the Mudd Club— but was not a regular there. My friends certainly were so maybe that’s why they feel familiar. When I was pulling images for the book NO WAVE POST PUNK by Thurston Moore and Byron Coley the images still felt important to me—just like that time in my life. I wanted other people to get that same feeling and a book seemed like the best way to achieve that. I’d never done a book like this before, but I felt that I was the only one who knew the subject matter and I felt a responsibility.
RB: Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview. I know you’ve been busy traveling in Europe as well as here in the States to promote the book and I love seeing Nowhere New York taking on a life of its own. Does this book’s success hold a place in your wildest dreams and beyond?
JG: Success can be measured in so many different ways. I’m happy to hold it in my hands, flip through it and feel like I was able to make a book that represented my experience.
WORDS Richard Boch
FEATURED IMAGE Maripol and Liz Seidman, 1979, photography by Julia Gorton
PHOTOGRAPHY Courtesy of Julia Gorton
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.