Blondie’s Chris Stein:
How I Capture “Rapture”
The guitarist/songwriter shares his iconic photographs of Debbie Harry and the 70s and 80s New York rock scene
By Milo Miles
From the mid-70s until the mid-80s, the new wave rockers Blondie, led by singer Debbie Harry and guitarist/songwriter Chris Stein, never encountered a sound they could not make their own. Pure pop, girl group, blues-rock, punk, reggae and rap colored hits like “Heart of Glass,” “Call Me” and “Rapture.” In the Mount Rushmore of Blonde Beauties, Debbie Harry appears right after Marilyn Monroe and before Madonna, her image and voice full of more surprises than either of them.
The underground audience first became aware of Chris Stein the photographer through his contributions to Punk magazine’s classic fumetti (a kind of graphic novel told in photos) “The Legend of Nick Detroit” and “Mutant Monster Beach Party.” Gradually it became clear Stein was very serious about these snapshots—a determined professional making a visual record of his band, their friends and the culture around them. Now the art-book masters Rizzoli have published a professional quality collection of Stein’s pictures as well as his comments and reflections on the people and places in them.
There are three Blondie books rich with photographs. The first two suggest competitive siblings with a bit of a scrappy mien, almost the same age. The third, though much younger, is wise and regal, a sage ready to make definitive statements.
The first volume, Blondie (1980), endures as the only book written entirely by rock-critic bad boy Lester Bangs. The layout is rather loose and cheesy, a reminder that rock books, let alone punk-rock books, were not that common back then. Bangs used his bucketloads of style to prove he understood punk as well as anyone who’s written about it, half-understood the band Blondie (he had trouble getting past commercial savvy as anything but pandering and selling out), and had near-zero understanding of female sexuality. But the big limitation not evident at the time was that while there were illustrations by photographers from Mick Rock to Annie Leibovitz, there were none by band honcho Chris Stein, a man who had a camera in his hands if he wasn’t holding his guitar or Debbie Harry. He was saving his stash for the group’s own Blondie book, Making Tracks, then in preparation.
Harry is the top beneficiary of the Stein photos featured in Making Tracks: The Rise of Blondie (1982, reprinted in the US in 1998). With other photographers, she often looks like a model with a chilly surface, or at least a chip-on-shoulder icon. The finest Stein shots reveal a woman with a quicksilver personality who’s also a star. The band’s days of producing pop hits were at an end when Making Tracks appeared (on the dance charts, the mash-up “Rapture Riders” would much later become a farewell for the ages). But the appeal of the music and image of Blondie remains immune to the clock.
Many of the same photos from Making Tracks are given more crisp reproductions in Chris Stein/Negative, but a shift in nuance is crucial: “the Advent of Punk” versus “the Rise of Blondie.” The cast widens until it feels like everyone in the 70s New York music underground gets a moment before Stein’s lens—not to mention many more cities and nations during band tours. Negative offers an introduction to a vanished world and salutes vibrant youths and rascal elders now gone. The earlier Blondie photo books are out of print now and feel too pressed tight against their time period. Negative offers permanent perspective and affirms that, yes, these wild times hold up and can tickle the senses even today. Stein’s larger point, though, is that photographs selected with a careful eye always inhabit the now, ready for any future.
Cuepoint: So Negative is your big-time photography book, right?
Chris Stein: I was just reading this great William Gibson interview in Wired, and he was talking about how punk was the last great, pre-digital big movement. I definitely would have quoted him in the book if I had seen the interview in time.
Let’s talk about equipment a little bit. Some guys are physical film purists. How do you feel about that?
I like film, but I think I can successfully emulate all of those elements in digital media. It’s like in music, too, some they gotta have their hard synthesizers and old Roland synths. But now, you just get a bunch on contact samples. It’s all out there if you’re really horny. Otherwise, there’s just computer-based plug-ins that are pretty cool also.
“The medium is the message” is also going on. We’re in this era where the art is being so formed by the medium. Stuff you hear in pop music, it’s all created on laptops, what we call additive and subtractive synthesizers, which only exist on a computer. By the same token, you’re used to seeing all this digital photography, which is informed by how it’s being created.
The extreme smallness of cameras, even the cell phone thing, how do you feel? Is it an improvement or just different?
It’s cool. I’m looking forward to the watch, the phone watch. I used to have a Casio, a little, shitty-quality Casio. But you could just go right into somebody’s face and look like you were looking at the time and take their picture. But then again, the body language of cell phones… I mean, everybody’s wandering around staring at cell phones and you don’t know if they’re taking a picture or not.
So how about books themselves, photography books. Do they still have value as physical objects?
Yeah, I buy a lot of photography books, can’t get around it. The same in pop music: even though everything’s gotten away from physical stuff, everybody’s still making money selling merchandise and books related to their products. It’s just the music has become ephemeral.
Let’s talk about documenting culture scenes. How was it different photographing back then? Could anyone even do something like that now—capture a scene the whole world didn’t know about?
Well, no. But that’s just because the kind of speed of everything. That was even going on right at the beginning of the digital era with MTV and all that crap. Everything was being tossed out immediately, so things didn’t have a chance to ferment, the way they did with the New York punk scene. Now, the minute anything rears its fucking head, it’s with everybody, worldwide, instantly.
It seems like Negative introduces a whole world that is gone now. How do you communicate to a 25-year-old what it was like back then?
It’s not so hugely different. There’s definitely a connection between what’s going on now and what was going on then. There are things that have changed—the speed thing, the financial overview, all the big Western cities becoming so ridiculously expensive and homogenized. Again, another great quote from the Gibson interview is: “whenever I get nostalgic, I check my pulse to see how conservative I am,” you know? I really try to go with the flow and keep up with stuff. Everything is a new paradigm now.
There’s some little side benefits to documenting that past. For instance, the photos in Negative are the best ones I’ve ever seen of [the band] The Fast. There they are, well-documented.
There are a lot of people who got passed by. But it’s all out there now, you know. Gibson again, just read the interview, talks about things being outside of time. He uses “atemporal”—the Beatles for example, they just exist on their own, which is a nice way of looking at it. Any kid now can absorb that. The Fast don’t have enough recordings.
Another difference with the new book is that there’s a memorial quality to it. Pictures of people who are gone. How do you feel about that aspect?
Well, you know, the rock and roll phenomenon finally got past middle age. It just is what it is. When I was a kid, I had a lot of heroes who were sixty years old, all the old blues guys you know, but there was a period in the 70s and 80s where that model kind of disappeared for a bit.
Blondie has gone on a 40th anniversary tour. How is the experience different now than it was in the old days?
It’s just much slicker and more together. Touring in festival world is an industry unto itself at this point. It was much funkier in the 70s. People didn’t know what they fuck they were doing because it was still being invented. I like doing those big, massive things. The festivals are great. Huge crowds are inspiring. Everything becomes much more common denominator. The music has to stand up for itself,and it’s a little bit less about recognition factor and more about the stuff existing on its own.
Now there’s a sort of imperative for bands—you have to tour to make money, since there’s so little in recordings. How do you feel about that?
It’s the same as with actors. You have a piece, one small percent of one percent make X millions of dollars, and all the rest of them make, whatever the fuck, scale.
I’ve read this summer’s tour is supposed to be the final go-round for Blondie. Is that true?
Oh, no. We’re going to keep going. We’ve just started a new cycle of recording. We’re getting old, but it’s still fun.
Going to do another photography book, you think?
Yeah I really want to do the one with Debbie and Geiger [German artist and sculptor best known as the designers of the sets and creatures of Alien movies]. It will be a smaller book, but I have enough stuff for a book about our relationship with Geiger, because I shot a lot when we were working with him for a while [designing the cover of the Debbie Harry solo album KooKoo].
You note that Geiger should be in major fine art museums. I agree—what’s the matter with these people?
Yeah, it’s crazy. I don’t know if it’s his — I’ve always thought it was his associations with Hollywood, I don’t know who he pissed off. I can’t imagine why he’s not in the fuckin’ Modern. I’ve seen people writing that all dark art, which is a big trend now, this sort of goth and emo, all of it somehow goes back to him.
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Photographs excerpted from:
Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk
With contributions by Deborah Harry, Glenn O’Brien and Shepard Fairey
Rizzoli (2014), 208 pp.
Used with permission
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