Bobby Grossman and his Pure Pop Portraits
Eduardo Gion Espejo-Saavedra,
Photographer Bobby Grossman has captured through his lens icons like Debbie Harry, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. He has born witness with his camera the rise of the Punk movement and the New York City New Wave of the 1970’s. During that time, he lived in the mythical Chelsea Hotel collaborating with other era defining artists like Warhol and Glen O’Brien and, today, has become a living legend in his own right.
A version of this exclusive interview first appeared in the pages of the 13th issue of ODDA Magazine.
Talk a bit about your start
I got my BFA in Illustration at RISD. I was well connected in New York once I graduated, since I already visited many publishers and record companies and design firms.
During this stage, you discover emblematic bands in venues such as GBGB or Max.
Chris, Tina and David of the Talking Heads left for NYC two years before I graduated and they were my introduction to CBGB for their first shows. Since I knew the Talking Heads, I was invited down in 1975 to see their first shows at CBGB and I saw Blondie, Television and the Ramones too.
You also had jobs where you had the opportunity to see Warhol’s Factory in action, can you talk a bit about your time there?
André Talley was a Brown University grad student and he introduced me to Warhol while I was visiting home on a RISD break. That same day, Andy phoned Lou Reed and I spent an afternoon with him while he was living at the Gramercy Park Hotel. My involvement with The Factory was marginal, but I was welcome and they were convenient to visit since I moved to 13th Street just South of Union Square and The Factory on 17th Street. Brigid Berlin was there occasionally but not too often. She had pretty much moved on by 1976. But I would stop by on my way to the photo lab or Chemical Bank or McDonalds. I saw the Dolls at Max’s a few years before moving to New York but I missed the entire Warhol Factory backroom fun, so I preferred CBGB, Mudd Club, Lower Manhattan Ocean Club and Hurrah over Max’s.
You were also the assistant of Richard Bernsteid, who designed the covers of Interview Magazine, what was that experience like?
Living at the Chelsea, I would often bump into Richard Bernstein in the lobby. Occasionally, I would visit his studio to say hi. He hired me as his assistant in 1977 and I worked on a few major projects with him. I wish I owned one of Richard’s legendary Popper/Amyl Nitrate silkscreens. I worked with Richard from the beginning to end of the project and picked up the finished art at Silkscreener, Alexander Heinrici’s studio. I helped out on the first two Grace Jones’ album covers and Grace would visit his studio and hang out. I met Divine there too. And, one day, when Richard was away at Fire Island, Hunt and Tony Sales stopped by and I took them upstairs to my apartment and we did a photo shoot. And I met Iggy Pop for the first time too since they were playing in his band. I would routinely walk or taxi the finished Interview Magazine covers to meet the deadline and I became friendly with everybody.
You lived in the legendary hotel Chelsea during the time it was sort of the epicenter of the Punk and New Wave explosion. What do you remember about that time?
I knew this was where I wanted to be since I was a New Yorker born in the city and living in the suburbs. Once I graduated in 1976, I moved to the Chelsea Hotel and leased suite 911 where I lived for a year or so. I kept to myself and lived quietly and behaved at e Chelsea. I ran wild once I left the house!
Did you start shooting with a Polaroid camera? Which cameras were also used to shoot?
For fun, sometimes I would bring a Polaroid camera with me since it was a fun way to meet people. One night I was going to see the Ramones at CBGB and I put a point and shoot Konica camera in my leather jacket pocket and I then routinely brought a camera with me every night. I began my “punk” archives in 1975 using mostly a Polaroid SX70 camera. I owned a Polaroid Big Shot too. That’s the camera Andy used mostly when he’d create a silkscreen portrait of a celebrity or socialite in the mid late 70s. I took one Polaroid of Andy in the dressing room at a Lou Reed concert at The Palladium on 14th Street. As I continued and got more serious about my “art”, I invested in a few Nikon cameras although the pop-up ash point and shoot cameras worked almost as well. Some of my best photos came from the cheaper camera.
You know Fred Brathwaite, who was the TV Party camera operator. How did you start working on the program?
I met Fred Brathwaite early on when he first came to TV Party. We worked on quite a few projects together and we still remain friends. Fred paints and I contributed 6 photos of him to a Gallery 151 show that opened a few weeks ago. The gallery is celebrating a 10-year anniversary and Fab was the headliner.
Tell us about TV Party with Glenn O’Brien.
I met Glenn O’Brien in 1977 and we immediately became good friends. Glenn added me on as the unofficial official TV Party photographer and I think I only missed 3 episodes. My TV Party photos are featured in the TV Party documentary and that work is probably the best part of my archives. Glenn would phone us before the show to prompt us if it was a theme show and required a costume although I seldom wore one. We would meet at a Blarney Stone bar downstairs from the public access TV Studio and across the street from School of Visual Arts and we’d brie y discuss what the evening show would be about as we tipped back a few beers. Over the years, Glenn would request or recommend me whenever a TV Party photo was needed for a magazine or book or gallery/museum catalogue. A few of my photos of Glenn were published in the New York Times as well as other publications this year. Glenn passed in April and he was honored and memorialized in many tributes.
My photo of Glenn and Jean-Michel Basquiat is often requested for museum and gallery catalogues since it’s so historic. It was taken when Jean visited TV Party for the first time. And, now, the photo is even sadder since they are both gone. I was fortunate enough to meet many cool people that I admire, some are still alive but most have passed.
Your portraits of artists like Warhol, Blondie, Williams Burroughs, Basquiat, among others, are pure, portraits where you can appreciate the truth in them. How did you capture that in your images?
I photographed William Burroughs twice at the Factory and other occasions too. I casually hung out with David Bowie and photographed him a few times, great guy.
I met Chris Stein and Debbie Harry back in 1976 and, since they lived a few blocks away from me in Chelsea, we got friendly and still remain friends.
A few years ago, I was invited along with a few other contemporaries/friends to exhibit photos at The Chelsea Hotel gallery storefront. Blondie was celebrating 40 years and we had a fun party for a pop-up show.
Sting and his wife Trudy were there. And twice now, my famous Debbie Pepsi photo has been used by Shepard Fairey. First for his May Day Show at Deitch Projects.
I first introduced Shepard to Chris and Debbie about 5 years ago around the time of this show and this past September the same image was used again by Shepard for a mural on the Lower East Side across from the old CBGB.
What’s next for you?
For the past 7-8 years, I have been working with Richard Boch as my editor on a book of my photos. I have struggled over writing a few essays and I am lucky that many friends have contributed writing and captions for this photo book.
A few publishers have expressed interest in my book and, hopefully, it will find its way in a year or two. I exhibited my Low Fidelity show a year ago in Providence, Rhode Island at Darren Hill’s POP: Emporium of Popular Culture and Marika Van Vessem curated it with Darren. I coordinated the show at the same time as my RISD 40-year alumni celebration so things came full circle, which is always nice.
Eduardo Gion Espejo-Saavedra
Filmmaker, Journalist and documentary. For several years working as an assistant director of short films and feature films in 35mm. His documentaries have been shown at festivals Festival de Cinema de Sitges, New York Film Festival, Portland Underground Film Festival, San Francisco Film Festival, and others. Worked at events “080” in Barcelona, collaborating with photographers Miguel Villalobos for the production of the tribute to Thierry Mugler. Writes and produces reports for magazines “Candy Magazine” to Luis Venegas, Also works for the magazine “Paraiso Magazine”, and Features Editor at ODDA Magazine.
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