The publication of “Halsband Portraits,” Michael Halsband’s first book dedicated exclusively to portraiture, debuts alongside a tightly edited selection of his work, on view at New York’s National Arts Club. For the photographer—who toured with the Rolling Stones and has focused successively on influential subcultures—it is a landmark publication. The first comprehensive survey of Halsband’s work reflects an ever-deepening technical and creative engagement with his subjects.
Alongside portraits of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, there’s footage that Halsband captured as the official photographer on the Rolling Stones 1981 “Tattoo You” tour. It is the first exhibition of an experiment, intended to capture Jagger in motion. “Mick was too fast,” says Halsband, whose motor-driven camera could only capture 3.5 frames a second. “I needed a machine gun solution.” So the photographer turned to a 35mm film motion picture camera. Weighted down by the rig, Halsband carried it through a set, only to find half frames and grainy stills when he searched for images to print. Running on a loop, it’s an eerily silent concert with an audience cast in the shadow of a spotlight.
Capturing images of icons, strippers and surfers, Halsband likens his gaze to that of an anthropologist. “I was very attracted to what Margaret Mead was doing. That it was about our civilization, our culture. That I could go into these cultures and document, bring out whatever evidence I could accumulate,” he shares. Halsband is also the consummate fan: “I brought my camera as a way in, to make myself useful and be accepted.”
Halsband’s camera ensured his presence in great artistic alchemies; his recollections are drawn from the constellation of clubs, eateries and personalities that ignited downtown New York culture during the ’80s. One evening, the photographer was asked to bring his ladder and strobe to document the group culled for AREA‘s ART installation. The legendary (and short-lived) nightclub—re-themed every six weeks—merged New York’s cultural vanguard and social strata into a single scene. Halsband photographed a dinner celebrating the artists responsible for the installation, among them LeRoy Neiman, Dennis Oppenheim and Larry Rivers. Jean Michel Basquiat (consumed with tagging every page of restaurateur Michael Chow’s autograph book) took little notice of Halsband. The photographer later received an invitation from Paige Powell, Basquiat’s girlfriend, to attend one of Andy Warhol’s dinner parties. Halsband went for Texarkana’s fried chicken and found himself seated next to Basquiat. Basquiat’s familiarity with Halsband’s work was such that he steered Warhol towards hiring the photographer to shoot a project, for which Robert Mapplethorpe had already been engaged. The resulting series, in which Warhol squares off against Basquiat is among the period’s most iconic depictions of contemporary art.
“I forgot this was going to happen,” says Halsband. “It was a complete surprise when [art dealer] Tony Shafrazi rang the doorbell.” Halsband’s assistant stalled while the studio was prepared. In image 133, Warhol seemingly deals Basquiat a crushing blow, but in actuality the younger artist bent down and leaned into the glove as Halsband turned the camera. “The work was done in camera,” the photographer explains to CH. “It was like a lightning bolt had hit.”
Halsband has trained his lens on various subcultures and subjects—among them fashion, ballet and sex workers—but it was in documenting surf culture that he encountered curator Andrea Grover, who selected the images for the exhibit. The two collaborate on a festival of short surf films held annually at Southampton’s Parrish Art Museum—though, Halsband initially separated his work as a professional photographer from his passion for catching waves off the Long Island Sound.
The artist’s approach to subjects is a study in the refined art of “letting what is be.” He surrenders props, practices non-attachment and lets go of the influence of his own projections, while “seeking to break through the moment.” In photography, breaking through is often when a technical choice encounters a providential moment. For example, the choice to use infrared film and shoot into the sun; capturing the unselfconscious moment Kim Cattrall, nude at Joshua Tree, bent to inspect a scratch. This image shows Cattrall’s body eclipsing the sun; a parasol becoming the corona.
“Breaking through” may also be a stylistic choice. Halsband has a distinct preference for a solid backdrop, single light source and an 8×10 film camera. It takes longer to load, so it’s not always viable in commercial work. However, in the images produced there are “no hard stops and no big jumps,” as Halsband puts it, but a range in depth of field and tonality. “It’s a way to touch as lightly as possible,” the artist explains. “You get into the qualities of the skin, and the texture of hair,” says Halsband, who focuses on faces to avoid objectifying subjects. There is also a freedom in capturing “more detail than you’re able to perceive”—more than the naked eye is capable of seeing.
There is one image Halsband favors above all others currently on display at the National Arts Club. In a show populated with photos of highly recognizable individuals, Halsband gravitates towards “Young Man in Audience with Fist in Air at the Last Show of the Rolling Stones ‘Tattoo You’ North American Tour.” It’s a photograph taken early in his career and depicts a fan set apart from the crowd by his enthusiasm. Halsband—known for flattening the glamour of a celebrity image and bringing humanity—notes, “In some way that I don’t fully understand, this image is what all my work is all about.”
Images courtesy of Michael Halsband