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Photographer Dishes on Rare Photos of Madonna in 1980s NYC

In an age when so many pop stars are manufactured head to toe, photos from a new exhibition arriving at the W Hotel featuring Madonna at her LES apartment in the '80s are proof that the look the pop star became known for (well, the first one at least) was all her own. We chatted with the photographer of these images, Richard Corman, to get the scoop on how those photos came about, what Madonna was like back in the day, and what it was like apprenticing for Richard Avedon. Read on for our interview and photos from the exhibition.
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This Thursday, a traveling exhibition featuring awesome unseen photos of Madonna from the '80s will arrive at the W Hotel in Times Square. Called MADONNA: A Transformational Exhibition, it features images by renowned photographers Richard Corman and George DuBose curated by Rock Paper Photo. The "transformational" aspect comes via graffiti artist Alec Monopoly, who we're told will be live-tagging select images outside of the hotel during the exhibition's private launch event (If you want, you can RSVP for a chance to get tickets here).

While that should be cool, we're a little more interested in the photographs themselves--many of which were taken in Madge's very own Lower East Side apartment building, before she was famous. In an age when so many pop stars are manufactured head to toe, these photos are proof that the look she became known for (well, the first one at least) was all her own. We chatted with the photographer of these images, Richard Corman, to get the scoop on how those photos came about, what Madonna was like back in the day, and what it was like apprenticing for Richard Avedon.

How did you first meet Madonna? How did you end up shooting her? I met Madonna through my mother, who was a major casting director in New York and she was casting a movie for Martin Scorsese called The Last Temptation of Christ. Madonna was this kid that was dinging around New York City that somebody had told my mom about and she came in and auditioned for the Virgin Mary. At the time I had just left apprenticing at Avedon’s studio and I was always on the lookout for interesting people to photograph. She didn’t get the part, but my mother called and she was just vehement that I get in touch with this young woman who she’d met because she said she’d never met anybody like her, that she was an absolute original, and that she was just so charismatic and off the charts, so that’s how I was introduced to Madonna. I was given her phone number and the next day we met and we spoke. She knew that I was interested in photographing her and we talked about what I wanted to do what, she wanted to do, and that's how it all began.

Did you have any particular inspiration or look you were going for? No, I was really winging it. When I went down there, in order for me to get into the building I had to call her to let her know I was across the street. I went into the building and the seas parted--there must have been 20 kids sitting on the stoop and in the hallway and then I went up to meet her. I really didn’t know what I was getting into, but as soon as I met her, as soon as she served me espresso on a silver plated tray with Bazooka bubblegum, I knew I was in for a ride. The way she dressed, her sense of style was something that was unique at the time. Everything we did we just did together, there were no stylists or hair and makeup people. This was just two young artists meeting and taking pictures and just creating something...if we did this today, there would be 40 people around us. Back then, it was so organic.

Who were the kids in the photos? Did they know who she was? Every day she would run up to the roof with [those kids] and bring her boombox and dance and sing with them. They knew she was this young singer that was running around town singing everywhere she could because she was so vigilant and so fierce in her attitude to get out there. She adored these kids and they adored her. She really was the pied piper of the Lower East Side. As soon as they heard her going up to the roof, all the doors opened in this tenement walk-up and they would follow her to the roof, so I was really almost a voyeur. What I photographed, some of it was contrived, but most of it was literally happening before my eyes. She said, 'Should I have the kids come up?' and I said, 'Absolutely; do as you would do.'

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Was she dressed as she would normally dress? She was wearing what she would always wear. Her makeup was beautiful--beautiful red mouth, beautiful smokey eyes--it's the same thing I would do on a fashion shoot today. The roots in her hair are so today. The reason why I’m showing them for the first time globally is because I think they’re relevant today. I think this is what’s happening today from a fashion and style sensibility. I’m not interested in bringing back old pictures and paying homage to madonna; I’m really paying homage to a period in time where there was this hysterical, creative spirit going on in new york, and I believe it’s happening today, too. It's all of her styling. One shot, where she’s sitting on the roof top, was from when she was auditioning for a part in an updated version of Cinderella and people were interested in casting her so that was her as if she was going to the ball and she had gone to some vintage store to pull an old gown for this shoot.

How did you get involved with W Hotels and Alec Monopoly? Why do you think your Madonna photos were chosen? My illustrious gallery Rock Paper Photo pulled this collaboration together: they met with the W and Madonna seemed to fit the bill. They brought Alec Monopoly in, who, to me, is just a genius and what he’s done is he’s allowed me a totally different light to redefine the work, in the best way. He’s the Keith Haring; he’s the Basquiat of the moment. He’s everyewhere and he and I have the most amazing relationship where I’ve given him images to paint on. There are people who’ve said, 'How dare you let somebody paint on your photographs,' and I would respond, 'How dare I not," and it’s really given it a new definition. It makes it current, it makes it relevant. Back in the day, I was photographing Basquiat and Keith Haring--that whole group and they were all inspiring one another. Madonna was a catalyst in that group as well, so it was all of these originals that were collaborating.

Can you tell me a little bit about working with Richard Avedon? What did you learn from him? It changed my life. That was my formal education in photography; I didn’t go to school for it. I was ready to go to graduate school in psychology at Columbia University and decided to take some time off. I decided the best way to really learn was to apprentice somebody, I was literally in the right place at the right time. To be around that taste level--the quality of everything that came out of that studio- just turned my head around and I fell in love with fashion, I fell in love with portraiture, and Dick and I traveled all over the country and we just spent so much time together and the stories he told...j ust being an ear to that voice and eyes to his vision was magical.

Any particularly memorable moments or shoots? Every Vogue cover he did. Every time Polly Mellen came in to style a shoot, it was just off the charts brilliant. He'd always really done his homework and he would almost sketch it out before they got there and he just created an energy in his studio that I’ve never seen before. I would not be doing what I’m doing today and I would not have the longevity I have if it wasn’t for that experience, absolutely.

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