Paige Powell on documenting ’80s New York
The photographer reflects on everything from working with Warhol to dating Basquiat and shares the stories behind her iconic images.
When Paige Powell moved to New York in the early ’80s, only two jobs would do: a production role with Woody Allen or a gig at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. As luck would have it, she landed both—but Interview was the one that stuck. Rising from advertising sales to associate publisher, she became a close friend of Warhol’s and used her camera to immortalize the pivotal people, parties, and happenings that defined downtown New York— “though, we didn’t know it then,” she says. “We just thought New York was always like that.” A recent collaboration with Gucci has led to the publication of four volumes of photography from that time. Here, Powell reflects on everything from working with Warhol to dating Jean-Michel Basquiat and shares the stories behind her iconic images.
What drew you to New York?
Paige Powell: Before I moved to New York, I was living in Portland and I had started working for Blue Ribbon Sports, which is now Nike. They were sending me to New York [quite frequently] and I would just stay out all night. Studio 54 was still open, the Mudd Club, and I would just stay awake all day and all night and then go to the Metropolitan Museum when I had the chance. I realized that New York was where I belonged, but I was very comfortable in Portland. For me to move to New York, it had to be for a very particular reason. I wanted to do something that was indigenous to New York, so I decided that I wanted to work for Interview magazine or Woody Allen. I thought if I could work at one of those places, then I would be okay.
And you’d worked at a zoo as well?
PP: Yes. It’s called the Oregon Zoo now but it was called the Washington Park Zoo then. I started off teaching chimpanzees sign language and playing with them as part of the chimpanzee enrichment program. They’re so genius, I mean they’re like humans. Maybe better! I’m an animal rights activist and have been since birth, quite frankly. While I was there, a post for a public affairs director at the zoo opened up and I got the post. I was there as a volunteer for three years and then I went to art school in Greece [before working at Blue Ribbon Sports].
Did you know anyone who worked at Interview or for Woody Allen?
PP: No. It was a cold call, this was pre-faxing. I just looked the phone numbers up in the phone book but I had rigor, I had determination, and I was gonna make it happen.
[Woody Allen’s team] finally offered me a production job but it wasn’t going to start until May and this was in late December. I thought, Well, I’m going to keep trying for a job at Interview magazine and if I get that first, I can go there.
Everything starts early in Oregon, so I kept going down to the Interview office and it was always locked. I would drink coffee across the street and then go back over until finally, I went at like, 10am. There was a bulletproof door with a little window because Andy had already been shot. Ronnie Cutrone, Andy’s technical assistant, opened the door and I think just to be a prankster, sent me into the Interview room. They asked why I was there and I told them that I wanted to do interviews. Of course, Andy [Warhol] did the interviews and they told me that they didn’t hire people to do them, but they invited me to sit down and talk with them. When I said I was from Portland, Oregon, I think they were very humored by that. They asked among themselves if anyone had been to Portland or Oregon or even knew anyone from Oregon, and no one had been. They said they had been thinking of hiring somebody to sell ads for the magazine and asked if I’d ever sold anything. When I worked at the zoo as public affairs director, we sold elephant manure called Packy’s Power Elixir. Packy was the first elephant born in North America and the fertilizer was really great for growing plants. I managed to get a big story in Sunset Magazine and we had a backlog of people wanting “zoo-doo,” we called it. I think they were really impressed by that story and they thought that if I could sell elephant manure, I could probably sell ads for Interview.
What was your first impression of Andy Warhol?
PP: When I went back for more interviews he’d kind of walk in and out, walk by the dining room with his coffee, but I never met him until I started working there. And he never introduced himself and said, “Hi, I’m Andy.” He just came by my desk and said, “Hi, what are you eating?” or something like that. That was how we started talking.
Were you intimidated?
PP: At the time, there were only eight full-time people at Interview. It was tiny and friendly and just like working at the zoo. It was a different atmosphere than I was used to. It wasn’t a normal office job—whatever that means.
A lot of your photos, especially the ones published in Artists Eating, portray iconic people in a more relaxed way. Do you have a favorite?
PP: I have so many of artists eating because it was a pre-digital age. Now, artists can take a photo of what they’re working on and send it to somebody or post it on Snapchat. Back in the day, the gathering of people was really important because they were getting all their information right then when they were seated talking. Not to say artists don’t still go out to dinner, but people really looked forward to it to find out about news that you can get so immediately now. And also, they loved food. I don’t know why, but artists seem to love food more than anybody I know.
Can you tell me about the shot of Debbie Harry, Stephen Sprouse, and Latasha Jordan?
PP: Oh yeah, that’s a good one. I’m still friends with Latasha Jordan. In that photograph, she was 11 years old and she had won the Apollo Theater amateur night. Ralph Cooper Senior, who started amateur night at the Apollo and discovered Ella Fitzgerald when she was 13, his son Ralph Cooper Junior and I became friends so I went to the amateur night all the time. The kids would invite me to hear them sing at their Baptist churches on Sunday and I became really good friends with Latasha. So she was at the lunch, along with Stephen Sprouse, Debbie Harry, Andy [Warhol], Chris Stein, Tama Janowitz—we were like a little sub-group. We hung out a lot and we would go out to dinner. Stephen Sprouse and I, along with Andy, worked at Church of the Heavenly Rest during Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter giving homeless people food. I would often bring the kids from Harlem down to have lunch with Andy.
Did he enjoy it?
PP: Yeah, he really did. And sometimes I would take him up to Harlem with me and he’d hang out and sign magazines.
Do you have a favorite photo of Andy?
PP: Oh god, there’s so many.
Tell me about the shot of him holding the little white dog.
PP: That was 1985, it was [designer] Judith Leiber’s house. That was her and her husband’s dog, Sterling. Andy loved dogs. He had two dachshunds, Amos and Archie. He was always saying, “I’m trying to get them to talk because I know they can do it and we could make a lot of money.” He was a real animal lover. He would go out on Park Avenue early in the morning and on the weekends and feed the birds.
What was he like as a boss?
PP: He was very soft-spoken and he really loved the advertising. I think in some ways, he was bored with doing the portraits. He loved being around young people, the energy of young people, so he would accompany me on my advertising appointments. We both lived on the Upper East Side near each other so we did everything together. I would meet him at church on Sunday and we would go junking with [chemist and art collector] Stuart Pivar. Pivar was a real character. He had this limousine with this eccentric driver and he’d pick us up at church and we’d go out junking at garage sales and different places.
You dated Jean-Michel Basquiat and took lots of photos of him. Do you have a favorite photo or story?
PP: Stefan Eins had this incredible science art warehouse called Fashion Moda in Harlem that attracted artists who lived in the Bronx but who had a science lean in their art. There were a lot of young artists collaborating and I was just exuberant about these artists and I wanted people to see their work.
I had some friends who had an apartment in New York but they were living in Geneva, so there was basically no furniture, and I asked if I could do a show in the apartment. My boyfriend at the time was one of Andy’s technical assistants and he thought I should really get Jean-Michel [for the exhibition], so I went over to his place on Crosby Street and he practically walked right into me. He said, yes, he would do the show. He was fascinated by Andy Warhol. He never had a friendly relationship with him, but he had just done a painting trade with Andy through [art dealer] Bruno Bischofberger. One of the photos I have in the books is from that trade. The painting is still wet in the photo.
How did your relationship develop?
PP: Jean-Michel kept wanting to go out with me and date me but I didn’t want to. I could tell he was doing drugs and I was putting the show together, so it felt unprofessional to get involved with the artists. But eventually, we did start dating and Andy wanted to go out with us because he was curious about Jean-Michel. Meanwhile, Jean-Michel is asking me all the time, “What’s Andy doing now? What did he have for lunch? What’s he wearing now?” Andy became friends with him basically through my relationship.
How did you get involved with Gucci?
PP: Wilfredo Rosado was going to the Fashion Institute of Technology [when I was living in New York], he was like 18 years old, and he was working part-time at Giorgio Armani. Andy and I would walk down there, this was around ’84, and we would talk to him and he was always so sweet. Finally, Andy said we should hire him. We brought him to Interview and when he was about 22 he became our fashion editor. Andy died in ’87 and then Giorgio Armani hired Wilfredo to be the fashion director for Giorgio Armani. He was living between Italy and New York and we always stayed in touch but not that frequently. I got a call from him a year and a half ago when I was on a ski trip with my sister. He said, “I want to let you know that some people I worked with at Armani, they’re at Gucci now and they really want to work with you on anything you want to do.” They were opening a Gucci store on Wooster Street [in London] and they wanted to do something very authentic and old-school from the ’80s. Because of my photography, they picked me to be one of their artists. They were amazing. They never once censored anything. They’re very open and adventurous. They just supported me all the way through.
PP: I want to do a really beautiful photography book on Harlem in the ’80s. I’ve got quite a large archive of really great images. I spent a lot of time there and had so many friends there, so I’m working on that.
WORDS Anne Fullerton
PHOTOGRAPHY Paige Powell; Featured image: Paige Powell with her dalmatian Andy Trouble in her apartment at the Volney, 1989.