Former Mapplethorpe BF Marcus Leatherdale is one of the interview subjects in tonight’s HBO/World of Wonder documentary Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures. He is also, of course, a legendary photographer in his own right, and WOW was there for his recent New York opening at the Barnarducci Meisel gallery in NYC, which featured his work from the ’80s. Among the guests who stop by to pay homage: nightlife legend/cosmetics mogul/WOW MCN partner Dianne Brill, designer Mary McFadden, image guru Montgomery Frazier, former Danceteria doorman Jorge Socarras, and the late, great Anita Sarko. (And I’ll give you a gold star if you can tell me WHO those fabulous ladies in the hats ARE).
Watch it below.
And in case you missed it, here’s the interview I did with Marcus to coincide with the documentary:
Photographer/downtown legend/all-around hot guy Marcus Leatherdale was already a force to be reckoned with when I arrived in Manhattan in the early eighties. He had famously been one of Robert Mapplethorpe’s last boyfriends, and was currently the darling of the downtown club scene, photographing the denizens of Danceteria and Area, as well as artists and pop culture icons like Madonna, Andy Warhol, Divine, Lisa Lyon, Andrée Putman, Kathy Acker, and Jodie Foster.
I had a chance to catch up with him the other day and chat about his relationship with Robert, life in the ’70s and ’80s, and what he’s doing with himself now.
JSJ: Hey Marcus! I haven’t seen you in FOREVER… 20 years? Could it be? I just saw the Mapplethorpe documentary and was simply mesmerized. So much I didn’t know. I wanted to ask you a couple of follow-up questions for the WOW Report. You went to the San Francisco Art Institute in the ‘70s. That must have been a pretty wild period. Tell me a little bit about it. Did you explore the nightlife/gay culture that was happening at the time – Sylvester? The Cockettes? The burgeoning Castro scene?
ML: I was doing my BFA in photography at San Francisco Art Institute. It was an interesting time in San Francisco in mid-to-late 1970’s. The times were shifting from Hippie to Punk… as I was. I had arrived from India with long hair… but soon morphed to a Punk. My closest friends were the punk band called The Avengers.
The Gay nightlife was way too disco plus I was quite asexual in that period.
I had a good friend, Peter Berlin who occasionally showed me around gay night life… and who actually introduced me to Robert.
You talk about how sexually innocent you were when you met Robert, which is funny because I think of him as Decadence Personified. That’s quite a yin/yang for a relationship. Were you just plunged immediately into the depths of depravity? Tell me a little about navigating boundaries.
Sexually Innocent? Yes, that was very true … Robert was my first gay relationship. Robert was the most fascinating person I had ever met and I was totally enamoured with him. However I could just as easily been his best friend, as long as we were close…but that would have been impossible for Robert.
To be close to Robert one had to be either Rich, Famous or Sexy.
My first night with Robert in NYC… he brought me to One Fifth for dinner (the hip restaurant of that moment)… and then the Mine Shaft for dessert. I was never into S&M so it was quite a shock to actually see men in slings being fisted or lying in bathtubs being pissed on… Robert was amused when I told him that I felt I was in a Lina Wertmuller film. Our relationship had nothing to do with his notorious bad boy reputation.We were inseperatable for about 2 years.
How did you change as a result of the relationship? How did your photography change? There were some superficial similarities in the beginning – did you consciously move away from those?
Our relationship changed drastically when I became know as an Art Photographer in NYC. Robert did not handle that well. I personally am ambitious but not competitive… so did not understand the drastic shift in affections. Unfortunately we were being compared… which seems to be what people do. That was fine with Robert as long as he came out the star… But unfortunately there were those who preferred my work.
I loved Robert’s photographs and as a young artist , I, of course, was influenced at first… but as a point of departure.
I was attending NYU, studying studio lighting. Robert had an amazing strobe light system that Sam Wagstaff bought him…. but he never used it because he was afraid of be electrocuted… So I showed him what I had been learnt in class. Together we used his equipment and I also shot in his studio. In hindsight… sharing the same studio and lighting was not a good move for me in regard to creating my own identity… Also photographing the same models like Lisa Lyon did not help either… who, by the way, I introduced to Robert through my friend Marcia Resnick. But that’s another story.
He was pretty cruel to you after you broke up, and played some weird power games with you – inviting you to his party, say, then ignoring you… You seem to very zen about that in the documentary. Did it bother you at the time, or was your reaction always “Oh, that’s just Robert?” Did it take time to reconcile yourself to what happened in the relationship?
Actually what bothered me mostly about Robert’s intentional snobberies was that it made everyone quite uncomfortable. Most of our friends were mutual… and I feel and this behavior made for very awkward moments, it made Robert looks petty which is sad… and so unnecessary. At the end, he was not being the Robert I loved and still do. His illness and the meds he was taking… along with having to deal with dying made him a totally different person. He died shortly after that party
The ‘80s were a great period for you, I still often look back at your work from then. Let’s talk about working at (the old) Details, doing the “Hidden Identities” series. How did it come about? Who were some of your favorite subjects to shoot?
“Hidden Identites” started at a DaDa Night in a nightclub called Underground. Different participants settled themselves up in different areas of the club… I took over the Go-Go cage.. and was photographing unidentifiable portraits as a form of Dada expression. Shortly afterwards Stephen Saban and Annie Flanders started up Details magazine. Stephen approached me to do a monthly page of these portraits and actually came up with the name “Hidden Identities.” It started with these portraits but then expanded to photographing the who’s who of Downtown cool.The series ran for the entire duration of the publication… several years. It was not a commercial gig at all. I was given total freedom to choose anyone I wanted and I loved doing it.
Of course I loved working with Andy Warhol, Leigh Bowery, Iman and Jodie Foster (below)… but actually I loved photographing every Hidden Identity as they were all unique individuals.. That was the point… that their star quality would shine without actually revealing their faces. Details ended so abruptively. I had Madonna and Debbie Harry all set to be published….and James, in time I am sure that we would have gotten around to you and your lunch box for Hidden Identities…
There’s still such interest in the artists, nightlife, and fashion icons from the ‘70s and ‘80s. What do you suppose is their enduring appeal? Why does New York during that period hold such fascination for the kids today?
Being 18 is always an exciting time in one’s life…however I do believe historically that certain eras are more interesting than others to experience. Like the Golden era in Vienna in 1900s and Kiki’s Paris in 1920s, Carnaby Street in London in the 1960s…and NYC from Max’s to Studio 54 and the East village Art scene. So many creative people have disappeared from the NY cityscape and not been replaced. Today the replacement is the Internet…which is extraordinary but rather impersonal. Back in the 80s… you had to make the extra effort… you had to be in it to win it. One had to be unique… an eccentric.
Tell me about your life now. Where do you live? What are you shooting these day
My studio is based now in a Quinta up in the mountains of Portugal. In the winters I am in my compound in India where I still photograph exclusively. I am focusing on the Adivasi /Tribals of India. I still use negative film and a darkroom… no digital equipment as my work now is about being timeless… I am having a show of my India photographs in Paris next month at Galerie David Guirand.
Are you surprised at the resurgence of interest in Robert’s work? At the way legacy seems to be being reevaluated lately?
Robert’s work has always maintained critical interest I feel… However this nostalgic trend of late… has definitely fast-forwarded international interest, I know in my work… my 1980s photos were stored away. .. I had not looked at them for eons, until about 10 years ago. They were just my past. Now I am a schizophrenic artist with two very different bodies of work. But finally NYC 1980s and Tribal India are not too very different. Just different tribes. Only difference is that as with India work, I am aware that I am archiving an era that will be extinct in 20 years… while in NYC in the 80s…. we thought we would be 20 something forever.
Thanks, Marcus. I miss you. Hope we don’t go another 20 years without seeing each other. And pleeeeeease give (our mutual friend) Larissa a hug for me. I hope she’s OK. I miss that kooky dame. xxx J
I gave Larissa a Massive Hug from you xxM
(Photo: above – Marcus by Mapplethorpe)