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See Intimate Eighties Portraits of Lou Reed, Madonna, Beastie Boys and More

Sample NYC photographer Laura Levine’s comprehensive “ALTHIPHOPINDYPUNK Picture Show” exhibit

Bestie Boys Laughing Photoshoot

Beastie Boys NYC 1987 © Laura Levine

Photograph by Laura Levine

Between 1980 and 1994, Laura Levine photographed more than 500 bands and musicians for outlets ranging from Rolling Stone to influential punk magazine New York Rocker, where she worked as photo editor. Though she shot many live shows, Levine is best known for her expressive portraits, taken in her Chinatown apartment or Soho loft, or on the streets of New York City.

Levine's work can currently be seen in the exhibition "Laura Levine: ALTHIPHOPINDYPUNK Picture Show: Intimate Portraits of Musicians, 1980-1994" at San Francisco's DZINE Gallery. Click through our gallery to see a selection of images from the show and read Levine's recollections of photographing legends such as Madonna to Grandmaster Flash.

Beastie Boys laughing Shoot

Beastie Boys NYC 1987 © Laura Levine

© Laura-Levine.

Beastie Boys (New York City, 1987)

This is one of my favorite frames from a shoot I did with the Beastie Boys, who were about to go on their first major tour with Run-DMC. Sometime in the mid-Eighties, I'd started hanging out in the Rush offices, which was a few blocks from my loft, visiting friends who worked there and photographing some of the artists of their roster. As a run-up to Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys going on their Together Forever tour together, I was commissioned to shoot the publicity photos. They also used my images of the two groups together in the tour book and – such a thrill! – a tour T-shirt. (I'm still kicking myself that I didn't ask for more T-shirts.) This shot captured a split-second moment when somebody obviously cracked a good joke, but I'll be darned if I can remember what it was. 

Boy George Touching Hair

Boy George, London, 1982 © Laura Levine

© Laura Levine

Boy George (London, 1982)

I spent the summer of 1982 living in England, shooting many of the British acts that had not yet hit the shores of America, as well as working for the music paper Sounds. Culture Club was just starting to get a lot of press in the U.K. but was virtually unknown in the U.S. During the shoot he was handed a test pressing of his first single "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me," which he took back to the record company office and which we both listened to for the first time. I sensed a hit!

Lou Reed Standing John Cale

© Laura Levine

Lou Reed and John Cale (New York City, 1989)

Although I didn't realize it at the time, Lou Reed was known for "testing" people. His manager/second wife Sylvia Reed asked me to photograph Lou and John together to publicize Songs for Drella, their homage to Andy Warhol and their first collaboration since the Velvet Underground. This was also the first time they'd posed together for a photo shoot in decades. 

Right from the start, Lou had a bit of an attitude, which I (rightly) suspected was something of an act. At the time he had a large black cast on his foot. I tried to chat with him as we started shooting, to loosen things up, as I usually do.

Me: "So, Lou, what happened to your foot?"

Lou: "I broke it … [dramatic pause] … kicking a photographer."

I paused in fear, then laughed. I knew he was trying to see if I got his sense of humor (it was pretty darn funny). It took us a while to get going, but once I showed them a Polaroid of my "flashlight under the chin" lighting effect, it was all systems go. They were so pleased with the photos, they even signed my Velvet Underground banana album after the shoot was over. And Lou kissed my cheek.

Sinead O'Connor Grab Neck

© Laura Levine

Sinead O’Connor (New York City, 1988)

When I heard that Sinead was coming to the States for the first time, I rang up her publicist to request a portrait session. I'd listened to her first album and was blown away. I thought she was one of the most incredible singers-songwriters I'd ever heard, with an amazing look. I always prefer to photograph people with as little artificial ornamentation as possible, and in this case, sensing how shy Sinead was, a simple, strong portrait from the back seemed to work best. 

The Clash Grunge Standing Instruments

The Clash, NYC, 1981 © Laura Levine

© Laura Levine

The Clash (New York City, 1981)

The Clash famously took over Bond's (a former men's clothing store-turned-nightclub) in Times Square for several weeks in the spring of 1981, with different opening acts every night. I went to five of those nights and saw everyone from the Slits to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five open for them. Because I was shooting them for a major cover story for Sounds, I was granted unlimited access. I photographed them onstage, backstage and on the rooftop. I took this portrait of them in their dressing room right before they went onstage. I have "artier" shots of them, but in this case I wanted to go for a classic punk rock band backstage shot. 

Joey Ramone Raiding Fridge

© Laura Levine

Joey Ramone (New York City, 1982)

"Peer into a man's refrigerator and you peer into his soul" –Anonymous

OK, I made that proverb up, but I think it holds deep truths. The first time I saw and photographed the Ramones was when I was in college, in 1977, and to this day I don't think the world has yet caught on to how great and important they truly are. I loved the idea of showing the domestic side of Joey – hence, the contents of his fridge. Contrary to his "punk" persona, he was one of the sweetest (and shyest!) people I'd ever photographed. We took this portrait in the kitchen of his apartment in the East Village. He had a fine sense of humor. 

Grandmaster Flash Tina Weymouth Carrying Boomboxes

© Laura Levine

Tina Weymouth and Grandmaster Flash (New York City, 1981)

I took this portrait for the cover of the New York Rocker in 1981. It was right about the time that the uptown and downtown music scenes were starting to discover each other and there was a magical musical cross-pollination in the air. Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz’s new band, Tom Tom Club, had just released their first album, which included rap and hip-hop beats. Tina and Flash had never met before, and they immediately hit it off, trading records, dancing and doing the bump as their boom boxes blared in front of a playground handball wall done by graffiti artist Lee Quinones (just a few blocks from where I grew up). Years later, Tina told me that after this session, she invited Flash back to the studio where Talking Heads were mixing their new album, Speaking in Tongues. Within months, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five had done a cover of Tom Tom Club’s "Genius of Love” with their own hit version called "It’s Nasty (Genius of Love)." It’s a thrill to know that a musical connection came out of this shoot. 

Iggy Pop Hugging Chrissie Hynde

© Laura Levine

Chrissie Hynde and Iggy Pop (New York City, 1987)

This is one of my favorite outtakes from a cover story I did for Details magazine in 1987. I'd heard that Iggy and Chrissie had a great mutual admiration society going on, so it was a cinch to get one to commit to the shoot once they knew the other would be there. Despite a raging flu and a big show at Radio City that same night, Chrissie was a real trouper, and Iggy was an absolute sweetheart. Truth be told, they were so thrilled to be working together, I doubt they even knew I was in the room. This photo looks much dirtier than it ought to be; in fact they were like happy puppies playing in my living room.

Madonna Coming out of Curtain

© Laura Levine

Madonna (New York City, 1982)

In 1982 I was assigned by Andy Warhol's Interview magazine to photograph a new singer named Madonna, whose very first single ("Everybody") was about to be released. She arrived alone, climbing the long four flights to my small Chinatown tenement apartment. She was very easy to work with and took direction like a pro. Even when I asked her to do seemingly ridiculous things like wrap herself in my backdrop and pretend to scream, she just went for it. (All in the name of a good photo, of course!).

Joan Jett Petting Cat

© Laura Levine

Joan Jett  (New York City, 1981)

She arrived with a bottle of champagne, a mini entourage and a big smile. I relocated her posse into my tiny bedroom and closed the door so we could do our photo session without any distractions. By the end of the shoot the champagne was gone, Joan's hands were scratched, my cat Tchatchke was exhausted (but happy) and I had some wonderful portraits of a very cool girl.