As co-founder and guitarist of the seminal new wave band Blondie, Chris Stein had an all-access pass to one of New York’s most exciting cultural periods. And now he’s offering a personal look at this bygone era in his new book, “Point of View: Me, New York City, and the Punk Scene.”
The project serves as an informal history of the city’s downtown scene in the 1970s. Among snapshots of derelict buildings and unsuspecting passersby are captivating portraits of William Burroughs, Andy Warhol and Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry, alongside other creative fixtures of the time.
Stein may be better known for his musical endeavors, but his relationship with photography stretches back to his childhood in Brooklyn.
“I’ve always photographed what was around,” he said in a phone interview. “I started screwing around with little cameras – Brownie cameras as they called them when I was a kid.”
Chris Stein's images of New York's 1970s punk heyday
Influenced by his friend Dennis McGuire, an apprentice of photographer and Warhol contemporary Diane Arbus, Stein began taking his practice more seriously at the age of 18. But his first break – as a photographer, at least – came a few years after co-founding Blondie in the early ’70s. Iggy Pop and David Bowie invited the band to open for them on 1977’s The Idiot Tour, and Stein was on call to capture the action.
“Bowie was a little cautious about having his picture taken,” he recalled. “I don’t think he actually thought I was a real photographer. He was more controlling about the stuff he put out of himself, so we have a couple of shots of him. But the stuff with Iggy – he was down for anything.”
An evolving city
As well as providing a record of a scene Stein helped build, his photos tell the story of New York’s transformation.
“The city in 1970 was physically similar (to how it is now) in many ways, but the atmosphere was extremely different,” he writes in his book. “It was much less crowded. There weren’t many tourists. It was darker and there was more magic around.”
Since then, he said, the city has changed significantly. Stein expresses particular disdain for Soho’s “high-end shopping mall” look and the Meatpacking District’s “plastic surgery” gentrification.
The shiny skyscrapers of today’s New York stand in stark contrast to the run-down neighborhoods in Stein’s images – and to his self-proclaimed love of “old, falling down, dusty stuff.”
“I’ve always been attracted to the decay falling down,” he said. “I don’t know where that attraction comes from.”
Fittingly, perhaps, the book ends with images of dust clouds, debris and transfixed observers in the aftermath of 9/11.
“There was about a year of very communal feelings, of togetherness, in the city afterward,” Stein said of the terror attacks in his book. “And then, as if a switch was pulled, New York City began its ascent (or descent) to becoming the almost final form of a vast corporate world center.”
Yet, despite his evident reservations, the guitarist expresses affection for the city at the heart of the punk and new wave scenes.
“It’s different,” said Stein, who still lives in West Village. “But there’s still some freaky people around,” he concluded.
“Point of View: Me, New York City, and the Punk Scene” by Chris Stein, published by Rizzoli, is available now.