Instinct lured legendary photographer Christopher Makos from the beaches of Los Angeles to the wild pulse of New York City. It was the early 70s and life was far from monotone. Every type of artistic frequency rippled through the city, driving an era of uninhibited creation which the former Man Ray apprentice took full advantage of.
It was here that Makos became embedded in a world of fabled characters, from Tennessee Williams, Debbie Harry, and David Bowie to Richard Hell, Halston, and Keith Haring – he honed his lens on the icons surrounding him. “I’m about capturing the moment,” shares Makos below. “It’s the pictures in between the pictures that I’m always interested in capturing.” A close friend of Andy Warhol, responsible for some of his most legendary portraits, Makos quickly became a familiar face at Studio 54 where he became a key chronicler of New York’s underground club culture.
Within this era-defining community was the artist Keith Haring, who believed in the unifying power of creativity irrespective of sexuality, age, religion or background. Many images from this era were captured on Polaroids and, in honour of Haring, Polaroid has released a special edition camera and film imprinted with Haring’s signature line drawings. To celebrate the release we spoke with Makos about his recollections of New York and that time of unlimited potential.
GALLERYPhotography by Andrew Tess
J.L. Sirisuk: As a kid in LA I dreamed of going to New York and your photos only added to that. I know you also spent some time in Southern California – can you tell me how this time shaped you?
Christopher Makos: When I was thirteen, my mum divorced from her husband and we moved to Southern California. I’m thrilled I have that very interesting thing of being from that East Coast world, going to Europe, and then going to the really frothy world of the Beach Boys and the surf lifestyle of Southern California. California was very instrumental in giving me the chill factor that one needs when you come to the hysteria of New York City. I was this sort of cute, blonde, blue-eyed kid, so chilled out and everything. All of the hysteria and everything didn’t work, it didn’t connect with me. I was just who I was and people wanted to connect with this chill guy from Southern California like, “What’s he all about?”
JLS: What was the decision making behind heading to New York?
CM : This friend of mine had just bought a Mustang convertible. He had a big bag of pot and he said, “Do you wanna take a road trip to New York City?” And I said, “Sure.” I was fresh out of high school and thought, “Let’s just give myself a break from all this stuff and go check out New York.” A convertible, a bag of pot, and I arrived in New York City ten days later, found myself in the West Village and rented a room on Waverly Place.
JLS: Who were some of the most memorable personalities you initially encountered?
CM: I’d have to say Tennessee Williams was the most kooky, odd, interesting – you know, an alcoholic like all those famous writers were, kind of quasi-alcoholic. When I look back, all of my friends are the most interesting people in the world. They’re all a little kooky, a little bit off base, a little bit left of centre, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t like middle of the road at all so Tennessee [Williams] really affected me. He actually hired me to help him do stuff and of course I was too young to understand: “Here is one of America’s most important writers and here I am taking his typewriter around.” On one of our first trips, I left the typewriter on the bus which is a major sin. You’ve got Tennessee Williams and you leave his typewriter in the transit bus! Tennessee made a big impression on me.
I met Andy [Warhol] who really left a very big, long-lasting impression on me because I turned out to be part of The Factory for ten years. He taught me the business of art. We always think of Andy the artist, but if you were at The Factory he taught you about the business part. The art part just rubbed off on you, but learning how to manage being a freelancer and learning how to manage a steady paycheck every week, that was key. At the time, there were so many places to apprentice with. If you were in the Halston circle, you could apprentice with him and cut fabric or in the case of Andy you could apprentice at The Factory. Whatever your field was, there were ways to apprentice within the career that you were looking at. That was the sort of golden age of the arts in the city.
“I’d have to say Tennessee Williams was the most kooky, odd, interesting – you know, an alcoholic like all those famous writers were.”
Andy Warhol and Keith Haring / photography by Chris Makos
“If you were in the Halston circle, you could apprentice with him and cut fabric or in the case of Andy you could apprentice at The Factory. Whatever your field was, there were ways to apprentice within the career that you were looking at.”
JLS: The 70s and 80s were a period with its own challenges and sense of wildness. What do you think made that era so creatively fertile?
CM: When you have a city, I don’t want to say decaying, but it was sort of rundown – this was when Times Square was kind of a mess – what happens is you have low rents. This means small art galleries don’t have to do secondary art, they can get a young artist that’s just coming up and sell his piece for four or five hundred dollars and still pay the rent. You can’t do that today. It was that atmosphere of things being much more accessible, whether it was the rent or restaurants. I’m always so hesitant to say it was better then, it wasn’t better, it was just different. I live in the West Village, and before the pandemic the West Village was so on the outside. It was all wealthy billionaires like Harvey Weinstein and all the crooks and everybody there. So much of that is gone and it’s made it so much better because it’s lower rents, which means the creative class can re-emerge and come into town. That period is very similar to what’s going on right now. It’s not as extreme but it’s similar and that’s what led to the enormous creativity whether it was Keith Haring, Basquiat, Talking Heads during the punk era, or CBGBs. It was what a city can bring to the creative class.
JLS: You captured the visual narrative of an era. When did your relationship with the camera start?
CM: The actor Tony Perkins who I was dating at the time, he did the movie Psycho, for my birthday he gave me a camera and it was perfection because I was dabbling with electronic music and poetry. And you know the way that young people come to a new place and don’t know what they want to do? You play around with a bunch of different things, so that’s what I did. Tony saw that I had a very visual bent so he gave me a Nikon camera and that was one of my first cameras. I’ve come a long way since the Nikon camera.
“This friend of mine had just bought a Mustang convertible. He had a big bag of pot and he said, “Do you wanna take a road trip to New York City?””
JLS: You also spent time with Man Ray – how long did you spend with him?
CM: Just a really long weekend. I remember years ago, somebody said, “So you studied at the Sorbonne in Paris.” I didn’t answer that, but they said, “Did you study architecture in Paris?” I said that every time I went to Paris I would look at the buildings and really study them. It came off, “Oh, you studied architecture in Paris.” It’s the same thing, they say I apprenticed with Man Ray. My art dealer at the time represented me and Man Ray so he invited me to a birthday party of Ray’s in Fregene, Italy and I hung out with him for that long weekend. One of the things I remember he taught me is obeying your first impressions. In that short weekend, I learned a bunch of tips about photography, and so I tell that same story and then people say, “Oh, I guess you apprenticed with Man Ray.”
JLS: Obeying first impressions, is that something you’ve carried with you throughout your life?
CM: Absolutely. Especially at that time. When you take analogue pictures you would get a contact sheet back and you’d have either 36 or 12 exposures, so I’d look at it and I would like a picture right away. That was my gut reaction and so I always would circle that with a grease pencil. I always paid attention to my first impressions because often those are the most honest things. It’s sort of like when you go into a shop and you see something and that’s the thing that you end up getting, the thing that you saw right away. I remember people used to call that ‘women’s intuition’. I don’t know what men call it, I guess first impressions, but I’ve always ended up obeying that.
Keith Haring / photography by Chris Makos
JLS: You’ve taken so many legendary photos of Warhol. How did you meet and did your gut tell you it was special?
CM: That’s a funny story because in 1975 or 76, I met Andy at his Whitney Exhibition through Doston Rader – he also introduced me to Tennessee Williams, he was sort of my wingman to be around some of this stuff. I met Andy then, and it was so funny because I knew he’d been shot but didn’t know he was still alive. He said, “Why don’t you come to Max’s Kansas City?” You have to remember I was this kid that was all into Southern California, hanging out by the beach, so the idea of going to some dingy dark club didn’t appeal to me. Can you imagine? I never went. But I took all the information and then some months later I had an exhibition in 76 , a show called, Step On It, where I took all of my photographs and put them on the floor and covered it with plexiglass. There were no photographs on the wall so when you came in, you had to look down. It was my idea of manipulating the viewer. I thought this would be the perfect thing to have the King of Pop come to see it. He was busy that night, but he did send Bob Colacello. Bob loved it and said, “Why don’t you come to The Factory.” So that’s how I started becoming friends with Andy, meeting him professionally in his world of business and art – that was more of a benefit to me than just hanging out at a club.
JLS: I heard you introduced Andy to the work of Basquiat and Haring?
CM: Keith Haring was one that I brought over and same with Basquiat – and it’s pretty well documented in the diaries. Andy and myself and a lot of the people, we were all about either sharing context, sharing experiences or sharing creativity, and that period especially was all about shared experience. It almost turned out to be a win-win situation no matter what.
JLS: What can you share about Keith Haring and the impression he made?
CM: I was so impressed because here was this kid, this farm boy from Pennsylvania who had this dream of coming to the city, and then did these crazy things like pins and drawings on subways walls and things like that. I was like, “This guy knows what he’s doing.” I thought “This is somebody Andy needs to meet.” That sort of energy and creativity was so evident with Keith and I loved being around that – Warhol did too. When you see something like that, you can’t just keep it for yourself.
JLS: As we seem to be entering a new era, what does New York mean to you now? Do you think it has maintained its unique draw?
CM: It’s a two-part answer. When I got my first [Covid] shot it was like, “Wow. I can feel that things are better.” A weight was lifted off me, and then when they started to ease the restrictions in New York City and they took the mask off, it felt like things can get better and things will get better. Before the pandemic, so many stores were shut down because they were asking for too much rent, but now some of those stores are starting to re-emerge. It’s had a complete rebirth and it’s thrilling. Young people can come back into the city, they can afford it. I love the idea that recently they talked about bringing 24-hour clubs back, and I remember it that way. Not that I’m into going to clubs, but I’m thrilled it’s going to be back. Also, I was watching the 4th July fireworks on TV because I wasn’t in town. They had the fireworks going off from the Empire State Building, which is unbelievable to look at. I said to myself and some friends I was with that this is going to bring so many people back into the city. They’re gonna want to see the Empire State Building, they’re going to want to be a part of this stuff. So New York is here. It’s bigger and better than ever.