Photographer Rose Hartman Talks Studio 54, Celebrities, and What It Means to Be Incomparable

What does it mean to be incomparable? The official definition elucidates that it means to be “without an equal in quality or extent; matchless.” Although the word reflects an extremely high standard of originality and taste, it is nonetheless a favorite of the iconic photographer Rose Hartman, who has used it in the titles of her books, Incomparable Women of Style and Incomparable Couples. However, in experience, insight, and drive, it’s fair to say that Hartman herself is incomparable as well. Over the course of her 46-year career, she has, truly, seen it all. With her candid photos taken of celebrities at Studio 54 during at the height of the club’s popularity in the 1970s, as well as her raw backstage images of runway shows, Hartman has solidified herself as a legend of both New York pop culture and the fashion industry.

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Rose Hartman: Femme Fatale will run through February 12th at the TW Fine Art gallery in Palm Beach

ORIOL TARRIDAS

Now, at the TW Fine Art gallery in Palm Beach, Hartman is showcasing some of her most legendary shots from her time at Studio 54. Dubbed, Rose Hartman: Femme Fatale, the exhibition will be open to the public through February 12th. A collaboration between Hartman and curator Ty Cooperman, who worked closely with the artist to comb through her immense archives, it features a small collection of never-before-exhibited images, alongside some of her most notable photos. Highlights include candid shots of fashion mainstays and Studio regulars such as Andy Warhol, Kate Moss, Grace Jones, Mick Jagger, and Liza Minelli. Thus, Hartman’s exhibition not only emphasizes her unique ability to capture beautifully natural moments, but also her striking fearlessness and tenacity as a woman making a name for herself in the “man’s world” of professional photography.

rose hartman

Rose Hartman: Femme Fatale will run through February 12th at the TW Fine Art gallery in Palm Beach

ORIOL TARRIDAS

CR sat down with Hartman to reflect not only on her current exhibition, but also her impressive career thus far, most memorable celebrity encounters, and what it means to be incomparable.

rose hartman

Iconic New York-based photographer Rose Hartman

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CR: As a living legend and an icon of New York popular culture, what would you say first attracted you to this glamorous world and drove you to Studio 54 and these various events to capture these celebrities?

For me, in terms of Studio, I had met Steve Rubell, the co-owner, in Florida. For some reason, we started chatting in an elevator, and I didn’t even know him, and he said, “I’m opening this club on 54th Street.” After that conversation, that’s how I got to be at Studio. All I had to do was walk in, I never waited even five seconds in line. So, that made my work even more attractive to me because I was a welcome guest and I went to the early parties there before they raised the curtain that separated the VIPs from everyone else. I would be there and see, for example, Diane Von Furstenberg, sitting with Barry Diller. You would see some very interesting things going on and I had total freedom. That made the experience even more exciting for me because I was able to photograph whomever I chose to. Also, at that time, it was free and all of the people who attended just wanted to have a good time. So, there was this extraordinary energy there. Also, I used to be a high school English teacher, so you answer the question of what would be more exciting: to be at Studio or to be at a high school on Grand Street?

CR: Along those same lines, what initially inspired you to ditch the hordes of photographers around the runways and go behind the scenes of fashion shows and too more intimate spaces like the ateliers to capture scenes in the world of fashion?

Most photographers were lined up along the runway and I would be there with all of them, which I disliked very much because I wanted to capture an intimate moment. Because I had relationships with certain people within the PR industry, they would give me a special pass and invite me to go backstage. I then, of course, had to go back out to photograph the actual show. So, it was a two-part situation, and it was very exhausting because the shows at that time were only twelve to fifteen minutes. You had to capture the models, which included Naomi, Linda, and all of the top girls, passing by. But, these models were so fantastic, it was like going to the theatre. The runways were also done up to simulate an ice-skating rink or a night club and it was very exciting for me to do this.

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CR: Your photographs are timeless but, have found new popularity in the fashion community and pop culture, most notably on social media. What about your photos or today’s culture do you think has caused this renewed obsession with them?

Well, they say that after “X” number of years pass by, people look to the past. Everyone wants to know what happened then. But at Studio in particular, there was this incredible energy and immediately, when you entered, it was just vibrating because of the music. So, you were instantly turned on by the sound as well as the people, which included Farrah Fawcett, Calvin Klein, and Truman Capote. Name anybody. Anybody who was anybody would be there. That was very exciting and still is.

CR: Famously, all of your photos are candid. What sparked your interest in capturing these raw moments and what would you say makes candid images more impactful to viewers than staged ones?

Well, ten photographers will take the same photo if its staged. It’s boring and I can’t stand boring, it just makes me scream. The beauty of being able to take a documentary or candid shot would be that, I would just watch the subject that I was interested in. Let’s just say, again for example, Diane von Furstenberg sitting with Barry Diller: she was throwing her hand up and her hair was wild. I was very appealing to me, superficially, because they were doing what they were doing and I was really a fly on the wall. I would never ask a very famous person to look at me or to pose. That would be against everything that I believed in. Another example would be when Lou Reed and Andy Warhol were chatting. I was told that they never spoke, as they had had a fight. But this one evening, for some reason, they were very friendly with one another. That’s one of my most famous pictures because you see two extraordinary individuals just engaged in conversation. You can look at thousands of pictures that are “set up,” but candid ones are really hard to find. Also, I would never know that I would be able to get such an image, so it was a surprise.

CR: I imagine it was much more satisfactory to get an image out of a surprising moment, as opposed to something posed.

Yes, satisfactory, that’s the perfect word. There was no comparison.

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Andy Warhol at Studio 54, 1977, Rose Hartman

Rose Hartman

CR: Your pictures feature some of the most prominent celebrities of our time in some of the most notable settings. What are some of your favorite moments behind some of your most iconic images?

I feel like I’ve seen everything. It’s been so long and I feel like so many things have happened where I’ve been there. But, the picture I have the fondest memory of taking would have to be Bianca Jagger on the white horse in the middle of Studio. That night was her birthday and I had no idea that this was going to happen, nor did I think that anyone else, except for maybe Halston, knew that this was going to be happening. Suddenly, that night, I looked up and there was this white horse and this woman, who they called Lady Godiva, who was covered in body paint and long blond hair, on the horse. She got off the horse and Bianca, who loved horses because of her Nicaraguan heritage, sat on the horse for maybe two minutes. And I was right there in front of the horse and Bianca. I couldn’t believe it. So, I grabbed my camera, which I used to hide in the speakers because I was quite the dancer and didn’t want to carry it all night. I took maybe two shots, which was important because I just wanted to capture that moment of candidness. The next morning, I went to my agency, took a look at the pictures, and thought, this is pretty fabulous. But, I never thought that it would be published all over the world and would continue to be published.

CR: With the rise of social media, there has also been a rise in the importance of photography in our everyday lives. In your view, has social media been helpful to the field of photography as a democratizing force, or has it been harmful, as a delegitimizing force?

I definitely think it’s been harmful, without a doubt. First of all, I don’t understand all of these people who are taking pictures of a plate of eggs. Are you joking? Just enjoy the eggs. I mean, if there is someone fabulous who walks by, I would understand taking a photograph of them and wanting to capture the movement of the subject. That would be beautiful. Also harmful are those photographers that hide in restaurants, for example, to get shots of world famous subjects. That’s not the thing to do, it’s very invasive. You know, I live on Charles Street in the Village and across the street is Sarah Jessica Parker. Someone once asked me, “why aren’t you there when she comes home with her little children?” And I said, “are you joking? You think I’m going to stalk my neighbor?” I said that very bluntly and I meant it. There were photographers who would sleep in their cars, waiting for her to show up with her children. But, that was very common. Photographers would be very tough in pursuing their subjects.

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CR: Your latest show Rose Hartman: Femme Fatale highlights not only your trailblazing place as a woman in the “man’s world” of photography, but also your powerful depictions of female subjects. What attracted you to the women you shot and what image did you hope to convey of them to your viewers?

I’ve used the word “incomparable” in two of my book titles, Incomparable Women of Style and Incomparable Couples. So, the women have to be incomparable. She has to have a presence, she enters a room and she has to make you want to look at her. You might not know her name and you may never have seen her in your life, but there would be something about the woman, the subject that would be very visually enticing. Carine [Roitfeld] would be one. I always saw her at fashion shows and thought she had such personal style that was really very special. You just feel that. And it’s not necessarily beauty that attracts me to a subject. I would say that its more so originality and style. I love Diana Vreeland and I photographed her a few times. She would say, “style is how you get up in the morning and go to sleep at night. You either have it or you don’t.” For example, I have photographed many jet-set women and they’re all wearing spectacular designer clothes. But, they don’t really have that personal style that makes them stand out.

CR: As previously stated, the field of photography has and still is dominated by men. From your experience, what advice would you have for young women looking to begin a career in the field of photography today?

My one suggestion would be to have passion about something and follow your passion. Whether it’s photographing dogs in the park, or going to old bakeries in Manhattan and capturing the people who work behind the counter, it doesn’t matter what the subject is. What matters is what you’re going to put into it and your passion. And, also, do your best when you’re doing it. For example, I do a lot of reading of other photographers who I’m fascinated by and they would always say, “we would never leave home without our cameras,” because they would never know what would be in front of them. They would be ready. So, speaking to young female photographers, I would say always be ready. Also, always look at photography. In New York, especially, there are so many important galleries, as well as museum exhibitions to look at and learn from.

Rose Hartman: Femme Fatale will be open to the public through February 12th at TW Fine Arts in Palm Beach. Details can be found here.

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