Imagine the scene: it’s 1984 in New York; a young photographer is on an assignment to take a series of portraits of an artist in his studio. He is unaware that he is about to capture a rare insight of a to-be icon whose work will transcend time and maintain relevancy by pervading art and political landscapes. Upon arrival at 57 Great Jones Street, the studio is a buzzing scene filled with artwork and people, and despite the loud music playing the aura was somehow still harmonious, young photographer Richard Corman recalls.
Corman isolates the artist, the esteemed Jean Michel-Basquiat, from his party to a corner in the room and in front of a grey sheet paper, where the artist then focuses on the camera. The results were a series of vulnerable portraits that serve as an antonym to Basquiat’s daring and vivid artwork, often chaotic to the eye, such as his 1984 painting, Self-Portrait. The eyes that meet your gaze through Corman’s lens are so soft and serene that it’s hard to envision the mayhem in the background surrounding the photo shoot; this is where Corman’s artistry excels as he is dedicated to capturing the ‘human spirit’ of his subjects.
These rare 79 portraits of Jean-Michel Basquiat are now housed in the photographer’s latest photo book Basquiat: “A Portrait,” (with pages folding out to nearly four meters) sold exclusively on Vero. “I think these photographs have a raw, real and simple presence that maybe others of Jean-Michel Basquiat do not,” Corman comments. What is captivating about these photographs is the simplicity; the no-frills approach that makes them timeless and appear as though they were taken just yesterday – emphasising Basquiat’s prevalent influence.
Early in his career, Richard Corman completed an apprenticeship with the renowned Richard Avedon who was famous for his fashion photography and celebrity portraits. Like Avedon, Corman’s own oeuvre of work boasts of celebrity profiles and influential public figures featuring the likes of Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali, and pre-fame Madonna. PETRIe spoke to the man behind the lens to get a deeper sense of what it was like to document such a revered figure on that day in June 1984.
Jane Chanakira (JC): How did this photo shoot with Jean-Michel come to fruition?
Richard Corman (RC): I was assigned by L’Uomo Vogue to visit Jean-Michel Basquiat’s studio and take his portrait in 1984. This was part of a series of other remarkable young artists I was to photograph.
JC: Why was he an interesting subject matter to you?
RC: Jean-Michel Basquiat was so intriguing, as his art, politics, poetry, social conscience and persona was unlike anyone I had ever met.
JC: Do you feel like you captured his essence with these photos?
RC: It was certainly part of his essence and charisma I felt on that day at that moment.
JC: At the time of the photo shoot, did you know you were capturing an icon?
RC: No, but shortly after spending a few moments with him, I knew I was in the presence of someone very special.
JC: Nowadays we have unrivalled access to our favourite cultural figures at the touch of a button, and we are able to build a vision of who we think they are because of their digital footprint. Our knowledge of Jean-Michel is secondary and through his art and his portrayal by photographers such as yourself. When you captured him for this photo-book, what were the revelations of Basquiat as an artist and person?
RC: Please remember I was a young artist at the time, who knew so little and was very naive about what he was capturing with Jean-Michel Basquiat. The revelation was that he was a determined and fearless artist where no rules existed and nothing would stand in his way, other than himself, as to what he wanted to express through his art.
JC: The images look incredibly timeless as if they were taken yesterday. What was the thought and creative process behind capturing him so intimately?
RC: I walked into his studio on 57 Great Jones St. which was filled with frenetic and fantastic creative energy…many people, artwork everywhere, loud music and yet a sense of peace. I asked Jean-Michel Basquiat if we could move ourselves into a corner, removing him from this confusion, setting up a one-meter wide sheet of grey paper and isolating him in front. He responded by focusing intently on my camera and somehow was able to remove himself and share what I thought was an intimate process.
JC: Why is the book relevant in 2019?
RC: Although Jean-Michel Basquiat has always been relevant, I think his paintings, writing and politics are raising all of the red flags and questions we all are asking in 2019. In my mind, for me, these images are more relevant today than ever and his vision continues to be a major topic of conversation.
JC: What do you think makes Basquiat an artist that transcends time?
RC: The great ones stand the test of time and Jean-Michel Basquiat maintains a presence that continues to question a world where racism, war and disrespect for our environment continues to rage.
JC: What do you want people to take away from consuming this photo book; both about the man himself and the way you captured him?
RC: I think we all look at art in our own unique way. I hope people see some of themselves in these photographs and a Jean-Michel Basquiat they had not yet encountered. A sense of truth, vulnerability and curiosity.
Basquiat ‘A Portrait’ is a limited-edition publication of 500 books. Each book is signed and numbered by the photographer Richard Corman. Available to buy exclusively on Vero for £200.
Words - Jane Chanakira
Photography - Richard Corman