Richard Corman is one of a few lucky photographers who captured the icons of downtown New York City in the '80s before their fame. Whether it was Madonna, Basquiat, or Keith Haring, Corman spotted these fresh faces and captured their energy in intimate images to simply build his portfolio after apprenticing for Richard Avedon. He didn't realize that he was documenting some of the greatest artists we've ever known, but he's been able to continually share and reflect his work from these years.
His photographs have lived on and are a reminder of both his roots and those of his subjects. Corman's photographs have been on a tour collaboration with the W Hotels, which for this month's stop at the W in Times Square (April 12 - May 12), involves special paintings on Corman's photos by Alec Monopoly. Read our interview with Richard to see what these images of the Queen of pop mean to him today.
She made sure that I called her from across the street before I entered the building, because if I didn’t, my life would be in danger.
Do you remember the exact moment you met Madonna?
Not only do I remember, it’s just so vivid, because it is somewhat bizarre how I met her. In early May of 1983, I was introduced to her by my mother of all people. My mother was a renowned casting director and producer in Hollywood, and she was here in New York casting a movie for Martin Scorsese called The Last Temptation of Christ. Madonna came in auditioning for the part of the Virgin Mary, but she didn’t get the part. In 1983, I had just left Richard Avatar’s studio, where I had apprenticed for a couple of years, and I was always looking for interesting subject matter just to build my portfolio. My mother knew about imagery, and she would occasionally call me to say, “You’ve got to meet so and so,” and when Madonna walked in, she said, “This is the 'it' girl.” Her charisma, her attitude, her confidence, and her sense of uniqueness were so rich that she made sure Madonna and I met.
So it began with the intention of photographing her?
It began with the intention of photographing her, yes, but certainly with a conversation, because I never take anything for granted. I got Madonna’s contact information, I called her, and we decided to meet. I went down to her place in the Lower East Side, and at the time it was a ghetto; she lived in a very rough building. She made sure that I called her from across the street before I entered the building, because if I didn’t, my life would be in danger.
Madonna was the pied piper of the neighborhood. All the kids would hang with her, sing with her, and go up to the rooftop with her to dance. When I called her, she yelled that this guy was coming down for me, and the seas parted for me. It really happened like that, and once I got through this sea of guys just hanging on the stoop and inside, I looked up and saw this amazing face with these cat eyes over the railing four flights up. At that point, I knew there was someone special upstairs, definitely.
How do these images specifically focus on street style? Was the purpose to document her style out in New York or did it happen accidentally?
This was all accidentally. Nothing was preconceived. I was going to meet this woman, who I later went back to photograph. I wasn’t looking for street style, but I had never seen anybody like her. We all know she is really iconic in the way she's transformed pop style history. She was her own person, so it was all Madonna. What you saw was what she was. She styled everything we did together from her make-up to her clothing, and it was all beautiful—from those beautiful red lips to her smoky eyes and the black roots showing through her blonde hair.
I think the main reason why I’m showing these amazing images through my amazing gallery, Rock Paper Photo, is that they still seem relevant today. If I saw these images on Complex, I would say, “This kid looks like someone I would see on the streets today.” It feels current, and that’s why I’m showing them. I’m not paying homage to the '80s or Madonna of old and trying to bank on that; it just really feels so relevant and so “today.” That’s what is exciting about this whole body of work, quite frankly.
Some people think it's scandalous that I'm letting people paint on my photographs, and I couldn’t be more indifferent to that.
Do you have a favorite photo or experience with her?
It was all incredible, whether we went up to the roof with the kids or were in the rubble of the Lower East Side. If I did this shoot today with her, there would be forty people with us from bodyguards to make-up people and assistants, which is like most of the shoots I do today with celebrities. Back then it was her and I.
I had an old Rolleiflex camera, and that was it. We just kind of cruised through her hood at the time, which she loved, and she was laying in the rubble and leaning against filthy walls. It was so unpretentious and so natural. The photos where we were walking through her neighborhood are the ones that ring truest to me, because at the beginning of my career, I had spent a lot of time downtown photographing the Keith Harings, the Basquiats, and the Johnny Rottens. That whole community had its own little world, and Madonna, in her own way, was one of the catalysts of that artistic movement.
What is it like to have captured the development of the fame surrounding these people and the movements they created?
That, to me, is the most exciting—tapping into people who are on that journey and just beginning. The energy that was going on and the fierce determination of all of these people was so inspiring, myself included, because we would do anything to create. It was a magical moment, and I continued to look for the young musician, the young writer, whoever it may be, to touch base with today, because that energy is so different.
Madonna would be very different to photograph today. I don’t have a relationship with her. I haven’t since those years, and I’m totally fine with that. I think there is mutual respect, and I know she loves these pictures, because her manager, Guy Oseary, is the owner of Rock Paper Photo, my gallery. I'm told by him occasionally how much she loves these photos. Again, there is no relationship, but she’s aware that these images are beginning to get out there.
How did the collaboration with W Hotels and Alec Monopoly happen?
We collaborated with Alec recently, because he had a one-man show in Los Angeles that I saw. Our relationship continues outside of Madonna, but Rock Paper Photo brought me to the W Hotel, and the W Hotel thought it would be great to have Alec on board. A lot of people had said to me, of course, that the W is the right place to be, because it is on the cutting edge of style, fashion, and design.
The relationship with Alec is incredible, because it is allowing us to redefine the work. Some people think it's scandalous that I'm letting people paint on my photographs, and I couldn’t be more indifferent to that; I think it’s the most exciting thing to see your work in a different light, and Rock Paper Photo has allowed this to happen by putting all these parties together.
I’m certainly not living off of the past, because I shoot everyday, whether it is an advertising client or a celebrity—whatever fits my own body of work. Some people look at these photos and think I must be dead and buried by now, but I’m as active as ever and still feel eighteen when I’m out there. I love it.
Everybody thinks they are a photographer today, and trust me when I say that everyone’s not.
What is your advice for younger photographers and artists?
Well, I think the most important thing is to just go out and shoot, whether you are shooting with and iPhone or a much more sophisticated camera; you need to hone your craft. Everybody thinks they are a photographer today, and trust me when I say that everyone’s not. It's much more complicated than it seems, and although it is accessible to everybody, to be put on the spot and assigned something to photograph is difficult.
Photography, in many ways, is problem solving. When I’m asked to go shoot someone, whether it's at their home or out on the street at night, you need to be able to light somebody and most importantly, you need to be able to deal with people. This ensures that the photograph really does tell a story, and you do see it through somebody’s eyes. Otherwise it is flat and means nothing to me. My advice is just to get out there and take pictures.