Marchi-grrrl: Julia Gorton
Issue 1 / December 5, 2020
The Proof is in the Polaroid
Marchioness Magazine talks FORGOTTEN PHOTOGRAPHS, ANYA PHILLIPS and NYC SEVENTIES MOVIE RECS with photographer Julia Gorton
Interview by Jessica Ann Richardson
Edited by Izzy Yon
Julia Gorton’s repertoire of subjects — or rather style icons — reads like the back catalogue of seventies Vogue: Debbie Harry, Lydia Lynch, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Billy Idol, David Byrne are just a few of the names synonymous with her work. One might assume that to land such legendary portraits, Julia worked with fashion editor Diana Vreeland or slaved away at a high brow publication. However, this wasn’t the case. Instead, she was an art student and regular haunt of downtown club CBGBs, a hotspot for kids of the 1970s No Wave scene.
Decades later, the photographs resurfaced via Instagram to acclaim and appreciation by a new generation. Former Slits guitarist Viv Albertine once said “I’ve got great faith that actually good work will surface - you’ve just got to live long enough to see it happen.” How right she was..
The offspring of Bowie fanatics, I was raised to the Sounds of the 70s: Volumes I and II. Upon hearing the news of his death, my parents sank into a genuine depression: watching endless documentaries, getting drunk to China Girl and streaming footage of the Ziggy Stardust tour, which they both attended. This upbringing combined with one too many episodes of Mad Men left me longing for a time I will never know. And who could blame me for falling for Matthew Weiner’s vision of the seventies? Christina Hendricks, Manhattans and mid-century furnishings all wrapped up in a bow of guilt-free cigarette smoke... What's not to love?
Viv Albertine once said, “We look back at the seventies now and we see orange plastic and brown curvy patterns and all this funky furniture. We think of it as a style but actually living in Britain in the seventies was like living in the forties. It was almost pre-war.” Similarly, in an interview with Garage magazine, when asked if she thought the seventies are overly romanticised by the youth of today, Julia responded, “The media has a way of glossing over or focusing on details to present a rewriting of history. It’s hard to know its complete truth without living it. I think they’d be shocked to see the way we lived.”
Jessica: What was your experience of living in 1970s New York?
Julia Gorton: At the time, I was very accepting of my circumstances; the bathtub in the kitchen, gates on the windows, a police lock on my apartment door, one meal a day, crime and walking everywhere. You could still see the shops, buildings, and people who inhabited the city in the ’50s, they existed side by side with us. But the charm and beauty of that time had become decrepit, junkies moved in, and everything was a bit grey and greasy.
The late 70s look great in photographs and movies. In hindsight, movies like Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico feel almost like documentaries – watch Downtown 81 by Edo Bertoglio or Blank City by Amos Poe for an independent film point of view. For a time, the East Village and downtown was an affordable way to live on a shoestring. We ate the minimum food to survive, lived in the turn of the century decaying tenement housing and wore through a lot of shoe leather! The streets had their regular hustlers, girls working the corner, alcoholics and drug users, as well as kids with knives. People played gigs, stripped, and did hostess jobs for rent money. I did some freelance graphic design and photography for New York Rocker to get by.
I never had a pair of new shoes during my four years in design school. When I got my first full-time job, I went to buy a pair of ankle boots at Bloomingdales. I wasn’t sure how a new pair of shoes should fit, and I purchased the wrong size. Unable to stretch them out, I finally abandoned them on the street for someone else.
Jessica: You are known for capturing some of the most iconic moments of New York’s 1970s No Wave scene. Did these moments feel iconic at the time?
Julia: I’m not sure that something can be iconic until well after it has occurred, it’s just a current event. Time has a way of sorting the images from the past into ones that we go back to time and time again – those gain some staying power.
Jessica: Why did you use a Polaroid camera?
Julia: I only used a Polaroid for the first year of this body of work. I was a first-year student and wasn’t able to sign up for any photo classes which would give me access to the darkroom at school. I was able to continue taking photos using the Polaroid. The film was not cheaper, it was more expensive per image. The polaroid 195 was a large camera that was unusual in the setting where I was shooting. People were curious about it and the medium was appealing for the subjects I was shooting. The Polaroids are characterized by their 3 ¼ x 4 ¼ format, being shot with available light and having a shallow depth of field. You only get one chance with a polaroid to get the exposure correct, and it was very hard to judge what the exact exposure should be. So, some photos were overexposed, some just right and only a few were too dark. I kept them all and finally was able to bring the details out of some of the darker ones using photoshop.
Jessica: Where were the photographs kept all these years?
Julia: The photos were in a variety of boxes kept in the garage.
Jessica: What prompted you to dig up your archive?
Julia: I felt frustrated that people didn’t know my work. I wanted people to know my name, and see it attached to work that was already being posted.
Jessica: Do you think the presence of social media nowadays stunts the creative experimentation of young artists?
Julia: The city was sparsely populated in the seventies and the music scene that I was part of was pretty small. Magazines and zines came out monthly and not many of my friends read the newspaper. It took a while for the news to circle back to us and by then, we were usually onto something else. We lived in the moment then, outside of the mainstream culture. Our schedules and objectives were very different from those with day jobs.
I didn’t know – and still don’t know – what I’m doing most of the time. I work intuitively in fits and starts. I post whatever I’m working on that I’m interested in and I hope that people like it, but mostly I do it for myself.
For young artists, social media can create a cycle that is too fast, critical, and competitive which can be crushing when you are beginning but it's also a great space to find a creative community to collaborate with no matter where they live, or when they were born! Use social media to make connections with people that you are interested in and whose work you care about. Build friendships over time and opportunities will start to pop up. Say yes to collaborations as often as you can. Have fun with it, it's your creative practice.
Jessica: What is the subject of your photography?
Julia: I have always found myself drawn to people who don’t fit a standardized idea of attractiveness – I find those people to be bland. I love people who are survivors, who present themselves as characters of their design, who show confidence and determination. I find that very attractive. Clothing intertwines itself into the performance of the characters. The two then become impossible for me to separate.
Jessica: The photographs you took during this time feel very in-the-moment, alive and intimate even though they date back a few decades. Why do you think they have remained so timeless?
Julia: I’ve worked to show as full a range of my work and experience as possible on my Instagram account. I don’t differentiate between performers and friends, still life or street scenes, portrait or documentary photos at the clubs, photos that are “successful,” along with those that have flaws. I’m hoping people will respond and engage with the archive, and if these images still feel alive and intimate, then they have captured my experience of the time accurately.
Jessica: You’ve said of Anya Phillips, who was a recurring subject in your photographs “She was very professional, completely in control of her image and what she wanted to project. She was authentic – her look will never go out of style.” What do you think is it about her style that remains so timeless?
Julia: That’s hard to answer. She died far too young, but I’d say she was expressive of her desires and confident in her skin. All clothes looked great on her, but especially the spandex dresses that she cut out of yardage and laced onto her body, those were amazing. Sad that we will never know what her next chapter would have been.
Jessica: How has your relationship to style and fashion changed throughout your life?
Julia: I’ve always loved dressing up. I used to wear my older sister’s dress as a floor-length gown when I went grocery shopping with my mother, along with a veiled hat and a red patent leather pocketbook. I took grocery shopping very seriously when I was six! Later on, I remember wearing my first black corduroy pants, chrome yellow vinyl vest and a dress I made from a Betsy Johnson pattern, accessorised with platform shoes, glam rock clothing and glitter eyeshadow. Thrift shopping opened up so many decades to choose from. By the time I got to college, I had an expansive and diverse wardrobe. Currently, I am into Marimekko, Birkenstocks, Levi’s, Jo Gordon sweaters, t-shirts by Ollie Dove and Jimbo Easter, and my daughter’s line - Ivy Kirk Collection.
Jessica: What inspired you to document your fashion archive via Instagram?
Julia: I did an online interview with Matt Martin for Photobook Café. He is a talented photographer and zine maker. We first met in London while showing at Doomed Gallery on Ridley Road in Dalston. He was a great collaborator and later became a friend. During our Instagram chat, some questions came up that I did not answer in person and later answered on my feed. One person wanted to know how I met Lydia Lunch, and in my response, I referenced the vinyl pants that I wore during our first chat. When I said I still had them, someone suggested that they would love to see them. I initially found the top I wore with them and posted that. The response was encouraging, so I started thinking about how my apparel from the late ’70s should have a place in my archive.
Jessica: What is your most treasured item of clothing?
Julia: Hm, that is a hard one. I’ve been searching for a pair of old platform shoes in my childhood home. I have the wedding suit my mother wore – it’s a very buttoned-up New Look style in heavy grey satin. I wore it to see David Bowie in 1975 with strappy silver high heeled sandals.
Jessica: What does it feel like to see past work being both discovered and embraced by a younger generation?
Julia: I’ve been a teacher for decades and have always felt a real affinity for people of all ages. I have loved connecting with people via this body of work. I think that sometimes people my age forget that they were ever young, ever struggled, ever had dreams before they settled for something safe and reliable. I have a lot of admiration and respect for the youth of today.
Jessica: What drew you to photograph Kitty Garratt and Chris Lenz?
Julia: I was showing with Ollie Murphy at Doomed Gallery in January of 2018. Many friends of Ollie’s and Matt’s came. I’m nervous at events, so I started photographing some people I knew from Instagram. I saw Kitty and Chris, all bundled up, looking pale and a bit tired! They had such great chemistry together. We shot a few photos against a black curtain, after which I was smitten. I wondered who they were for months. Nobody at the gallery knew them. I posted them to my feed and asked if anyone knew who they were. The mystery continued until October when one of my students in New York told me that her sister at CSM in London was friends with a couple that I had photographed!
Jessica: How has your relationship with New York City changed over the years?
Julian: I left the city after having my second child in 1993, but continued to commute for work. I lived in a large open loft on South Street by the seaport where the elevator never worked, rotten crates of fish were often left in the gutter. Eventually, the noise from tourist coaches became unbearable. We fled to the suburbs when we had another child.
The city no longer supports the kinds of gallery and music spaces that originally drew me there, but I still love the energy of it and the people that call it home.
Jessica: Could you talk a little about your upcoming photography book?
Julia: It’s a coffee table book that will come out next spring in both a softcover and hardcover edition. It’s filled with lots of photos, essays, ephemera, and, hopefully, it will find the right audience!