She gazes at the camera with feral, wide-set eyes, framed by pouty lips and bleached blond hair — a face that helped sell 40 million records.
As a rock star and global icon, Debbie Harry has been photographed thousands of times. But never quite like this: in spare, intimate portraits, many of them taken in dingy apartments and clubs before she was famous.
“It was casual. There wasn’t much setup or manipulation (of the photos),” said Chris Stein, her Blondie bandmate and former lover who took the photos. “We were together all the time anyway.”
These images are collected in “Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk,” an art book being published this week by Rizzoli to coincide with the band’s 40th anniversary. The book contains scores of photos, many of them never before published, of Blondie, the Ramones, the Talking Heads and other pioneers of the 1970s New York City rock scene.
Stein studied photography at a New York art school and began shooting pictures of artists and rockers in the scruffy underground world of early-’70s lower Manhattan. New York was grittier back then, and young creative types could live cheaply in the urban squalor of SoHo or the East Village seeking, in Stein’s words, “beauty amid rubble.”
That aesthetic comes through in Stein’s unfussy, mostly black-and-white images, which capture Harry, David Bowie, Joan Jett and other musicians in spontaneous, revealing moments.
“All the pictures are full frame. I never cropped anything,” he said. “I’m a big fan of the accidental image, where you wonder if the person who took it even knows if it’s any good.”
Stein also played guitar, and he became close to Harry after joining her in a New York group called the Stilettos. The pair founded Blondie in 1974 and released several albums in semi-obscurity before hitting it big with 1978’s “Parallel Lines.”
To anyone born after the ’80s, Blondie is an oldies act. But in the band’s heyday 35 years ago, it was one of the most influential bands on the planet. Its sound veered from disco-rock (“Heart of Glass”) to punk (“One Way or Another”) to early rap (“Rapture”) and more experimental music.
Meanwhile, Harry’s looks made her a sex symbol, although she didn’t feel comfortable in front of a camera at first.
“Chris’s sense of humor and easy, relaxed personality made me feel relaxed, too, and eventually, I started to like being shot by him,” she writes in the book. “All of the experiences I had with Chris as his subject in those early days gave me a confidence that made it possible for me to do photo sessions with some of the world’s most famous photographers.
“Because of our personal relationship, I think, Chris’s pictures of me are the most real and unguarded and ultimately revealing.”
Harry and Stein broke up years ago, but they’re still friends. And against all odds, Blondie is still recording and touring — the band just wrapped a tour of Europe.
Stein says the time feels right to publish his photos of the 1970s because many people now have a fascination with that period. But he couldn’t imagine back then that his images, and the people in them, would be celebrated decades later.
“Anyone who’s in their 20s or early 30s doesn’t have any sense of future history. I was very much in the moment,” he said. “People will come up to me and say, ‘Do you remember this (from 40 years ago)?’ And I don’t. But the pictures jog my memories a lot.”
— Brandon Griggs, CNN