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Old 08.03.2007, 11:13 AM   #18
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Who shot New York?

THERE are five steep flights of stairs to negotiate before arriving at Paula Court's apartment in SoHo, New York, but it's on entering that the acrobatics begin. The photographer's hallway is crammed with filing cabinets, which in turn are stacked with hundreds of boxes, each one housing an archive of photographs that Court has been adding to for the past 30 years. Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Madonna: all the artists, actors and musicians that have inhabited New York's avant-garde world from the mid-Seventies onwards are contained within these walls. It's the kind of archive you would expect to see in a museum or gallery, the photos carefully mounted and hung on clean, white walls. You wouldn't expect such a collection in someone's home. "I don't earn enough to rent storage space, although New York University wants to buy my archive," Court says. "But I don't want to sell."
These days, Court is documentary photographer at New York's Museum of Modern Art. For decades, though, she has been the underground movement's official and unofficial photographer, capturing on film a time when radical artists, filmmakers, sculptors, dancers, actors, singers and musicians were as broke as everyone else, living and working in decaying warehouses and disused loft spaces in New York. Everyone lived within a radius of 10 blocks, because rents were dirt cheap, Court says.

Now, her cinema-verite style of work is set to be celebrated in New York Noise: Art And Music From The New York Underground 1978-88. The book includes more than 400 of her previously unseen documentary photographs, startling shots of the likes of David Byrne, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat (together), William Burroughs, Diamanda Galas and Madonna. There are photographs of Cindy Sherman, Willem Dafoe, Michael Stipe, Merce Cunningham, Glenn Branca and Steve Buscemi. Then there are the bands: ESG, Suicide, Liquid Liquid, and an impassioned Afrika Bambaataa in mid-performance.
Court won't disclose her age, but she began hanging out in the East Village in the late Seventies when she was in her teens. She doesn't want to talk about herself, even though this is only interview she has agreed to give about her book. "I loathe the cult of personality," she says.
For more than a decade Court was house photographer at the Kitchen Center, the performance space that launched the American avant-garde movement, with a board comprised of Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass and Meredith Monk. Currently, Court is official photographer for the Wooster Group - whose production of La Didone comes to this year's Edinburgh Festival - and Richard Foreman's Ontological Theater.
At the Kitchen, Court befriended an extraordinary range of people, including writer-performer Eric Bogosian, who programmed the dancers Bill T Jones and his partner Arnie Zane. When the latter was dying of Aids, Court was asked to photograph him on his deathbed for the memorial announcement. "They trusted me so much - I remember coming home in a cab, sobbing. I loved Arnie and I still miss him," she says.
Court taught herself photography using a no-frills basic camera. "It was a mechanical Olympus, nothing automatic about it," she says. "The lighting conditions weren't great - they did become more sophisticated, but often work was lit only by clamp lights, so I learned how to expose in poor light, using black and white film."
Excavating her archive was like doing an archaeological dig. "It dredged up a lot of memories, because it was my social world," she says. In the early Eighties, new clubs were starting to appear on every rubble-strewn street corner. "I'd go to Danceteria, that's where I first saw Madonna and artists like Karen Finley and Ann Magnusson. Madonna was on the periphery, so I never photographed her then, only later for the film Bloodhounds Of Broadway. I was so shy, the camera was my security blanket; I could hide behind the lens."
One of the first events Court photographed was the 1978 Nova Convention. "Patti Smith, Frank Zappa, Laurie Anderson and William Burroughs were there, playing or reading. It was a big deal and it had a huge effect on me. I'd come to New York from somewhere far, far away - no, I won't say where - because I knew there was something else. Metaphorically speaking, I was born in New York in 1978."
Court is working on a screenplay for a film she hopes to direct. "Film has been the most gigantic influence on my photographs and the first Jean-Luc Godard film I saw - A Bout de Souffle [Breathless] - blew my mind. It made me think for the first time in my life, because I'd had a very bad education. I saw how images are framed, the way people move in and out of the frame. It was a revelation." In 1985, Court was commissioned by a newspaper to photograph Godard. "I got to be in a room with the person whose work I most admire in the world. What a thrill!
"New York Noise is a picture diary, minus entries saying, 'I did this, I did that...' But you can see all these different experiences I've had. I fell in love with so many of these people, not sexually, but they were luminous with talent. If you ask me to choose one image that sums it all up, it would be Laurie Anderson at the Kitchen in 1980. From that moment, banality no longer existed for me." v
New York Noise: Art And Music From The New York Underground 1978-88, Photographs by Paula Court (Soul Jazz Records, 18.95) is published later this year
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