Nicholas Taylor Talks Basquiat, Music and Living in the Moment
Eduardo Gion Espejo-Saavedra,
For a while, Nicholas Taylor shared flat with Jean-Michel Basquiat. During that time, they shot portraits of each other. Taylor’s portraits of Basquiat represent, for me, one of the best sessions ever made, since those snapshots transmit tenderness and affection. In this exclusive interview Taylor speaks passionately about that moment and describes his life as a musician.
A version of this exclusive interview first appeared in the pages of the 13th issue of ODDA Magazine.
Q: When did you meet Basquiat?
A: We met in January 1979 at the Mudd Club in New York City. I went there alone and there was this man dancing next to me and we started talking. It was Jean-Michel Basquiat and we started a very good friendship that lasted till he died. That night we danced wildly and caused ruckus by stealing beers. I was really impressed with him; he wasn’t famous yet but many people knew him at the club. He said he needed a place to sleep that night. We went home to my apartment and listened to Punk and No Wave music and smoked weed till dawn. I broke out my camera and we started taking pictures of each other. We never really did sleep that night. That’s why I call them break-night portraits because we broke the dawn.
Q: You lived together for some time.
A: Jean-Michel and his girlfriend Suzanne Mallhouk stayed at my place about 3 months in the Fall of 1981. Not really a long time but 3 months with Jean can seem like a long time. The “Unknown Notebooks” by Jean came out of my apartment. Also one of his most important paintings: Arroz Con Pollo, was done here. I still live in the same apartment we shared. I do all my creative work here on a table placed over where Jean-Michel Basquiat slept.
Q: How did you create that wonderful photo shoot?
A: A little story how photo backdrop paper ended up on my wall: I came to New York City in 1977 during the time when the USA would not rescue the city from bankruptcy; the images I saw of the city as a teenager back home in Illinois were of a burnt out city ravaged with drugs and ghettos. Like many other artists I was drawn here. I was armed with my guitar, my camera and my art skills; like my plan dictated, I found a landlord abandoned building and chose an apartment for free. I placed a large photo backdrop paper up so in case any interesting people came over I could easily have white behind them while shooting. I have many characters’ portraits that I took there. That apartment was also where the band Gray would rehearse and create music.
Q: For me your images are the most intimate photographs of Basquiat, which cameras did you use for the portrait session?
A: In the early days of the Mudd Club I saw Andy Warhol there and I watched as he took pictures with this odd little camera about the size of a cigarette pack with a foldout front lens. Amazed at this camera and too shy to ask him what the camera was, I snuggled up close to him for a second and saw the name “Minox” on it. The next day I spent my last $150 to buy one. I loved Andy’s Interview Magazine and the next month I saw his Mudd Club images in it. Turned out to be a great camera! You can see the interesting grain especially in Niels Borch’s photogravure prints of some of the images. One important fact is that one of the images Niels chose from is one of the negatives Jean-Michel shot of me. We traded taking pictures of each other that night. He took 9 abstract portraits of me, which have never been published or seen. When Jean took pictures of me, in true Basquiat form, he went through a process as he took shots of me, gradually wrapping my face in masking tape with Ray-Ban sunglasses, somewhat like a mummy. I always thought these images by Jean reflect his skull paintings’ motif.
Q: Light is very important in this session. It is full of light and shadows, how do you create that light? Was it natural or artificial light?
A: I had always done black and white photography and I felt that raw lighting was the best for me; two 100-watt General Electric lights with reflectors and adjustable grips to move around. Very cheap and not really meant for photography but they gave the contrast I needed. When I make original analog prints I always burn and dodge too, to make an aura effect. At that time in Jean’s life he was very happy and full of positive energy, I knew he was special. He opened up and went through many mood changes in my shots of him. We were both artists and to get him to hold a yardstick as a prop was my Dada-istic statement. He had just turned 18 and that number is in the middle of his forehead.
Q: You formed the “Gray” music group, what instrument did you play?
A: Gray was an extension of an earlier band called Test Pattern. I was in the group and played guitar when the name was changed to Gray, so I helped form the group. Other players on various instruments were: Jean-Michel, Michael Holman, Wayne Clifford, Shannon Dawson and Vince Gallo. We were all artists making music unconventionally with sound; amazing short pieces of music, sometimes minimal sometimes complex with a punk edge, but very different from that.
Q: In which clubs did you play at that time in New York?
A: CBGB’s, Mudd Club, Tier 3, Squat Theatre and Hurrah’s NYC. We were together a couple of years until after a Mudd Club show when Jean told us he was going to concentrate on painting and we broke up.
Q: What is Track-Loops?
A: An old Musique Concrete tool is to make a loop of audiotape on a quarter inch reel-to-reel tape recorder. When played, it goes around and around. We made many tape loops in Gray. Wayne, also known, as Justin Thyme and I were the main loop experimenters. What I loved about it was I could cut a loop with a beat on it and play the loop for hours while working. Very psychedelic beats were perfect back round for creating. Eventually this influenced me as a DJ and in my early gigs as DJ High Priest I would use tape loops live!
Q: Do you continue to photograph and create music?
A: For many years I have carried a Leica camera around New York City and all my negatives are intact, mostly street scenes. I am currently working on a drawing series. They are abstract graphite renderings on watercolor paper. Going back to my roots by drawing, I love it and always have drawn and painted. Gray continues to work on our second LP. A remix of our first LP: “Shades of…” is coming out soon on Ubiquity Records.
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.
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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