Julia Gorton captures the vintage Downtown New York music scene with vivid imagery in new collection

Julia Gorton photographer
Julia Gorton wearing a shirt made by her daughter, at NYU’s Weinstein Hall – where she lost some of her hearing at a Dead Boys concert back in the day
Photo by Bob Krasner

“It’s hard when you start out to know where you’re going,” muses Julia Gorton. Having just released her self-published collection of photos from the Downtown New York music scene spanning the years 1976 to 1981, she has a pretty good idea of where she’s been.

Starting with black-and-white Polaroids and moving onto film as a college student, Gorton set out to document a vibrant scene that was sometimes as much about the look as the music. One of the fascinating aspects of the book is that her bold, high-contrast monochrome images give just as much space — maybe more — to faces with names that were never seen in boldface type.

While anyone the least bit interested in the punk scene knows Debbie Harry and David Byrne, and connoisseurs of the era will instantly recognize James Chance, Lydia Lunch and Glenn Branca, it’s the inclusion of bands like Student Teachers, The Mumps and Beirut Slump that make one wonder what else they may have missed.

“The scene is the story,” Gorton notes. “I wanted to represent it as honestly as I could – I wanted it to be accurate.”

She started working on the book about 10 years ago. Friends lent their opinions as it started to take shape and Gorton considered their various points of view, editing and adding until “it finally got to a point where it flowed.” In addition to her own writing, notable survivors of the era such as Lucy Sante and Thurston Moore lent their reminisces, which add color to the grayscale imagery.

Essays with titles like “It Wasn’t Hip, It Was Chaos,” by Simeon Gallu, give a glimpse into what was happening on any given night. The title of the book, “Nowhere New York: Dark, Insulting and Unmelodic,” describes the music of many of the bands – like Mars and DNA – who found punk music a little too commercial.

Lydia Lunch was at the forefront of the post-punk No Wave movement, an aural experiment surprisingly documented by Brian Eno on his classic “No New York” compilation, which is probably the closest those bands came to mainstream exposure. Lunch served as a muse for Gorton, for obvious reasons, and is the most frequently pictured subject in the book.

Janie Heath and Robert Vickers took home a copy of Nowhere New YorkPhoto by Bob Krasner
Musician Cynthia Ross with her copyPhoto by Bob Krasner
Store owners Moan Elisa ( Night Shift ) and Chuck Bones (The Cast) flank Julia Gorton at her book launch/signingPhoto by Bob Krasner
Photographers with an era in common: Bobby Grossman, Julia Gorton, GodlisPhoto by Bob Krasner

Coming up second is Gorton’s roommate at the time, Amy McMahon. Now known as Amy Rigby, the very notable singer/songwriter and respected author is not surprised about the impact of Gorton’s images.

“I remember ogling Brassai’s images of Paris in the 30s when Julia Gorton and I were suitemates and students at Parsons School of Design in the late 1970s, thinking that the timeless world that he depicted in black and white was more vibrant than color,” says Rigby. “It occurred to me then, and even more as the years have gone by, that Julia was doing the same thing with her photographs of Lower Manhattan faces and musicians in our scene. She was defining the look and style of the era by zeroing in on the most eloquent graphic details. Her photos effortlessly turn humble beginners into superstars and humanize the outrageous.”

The book is an excellent companion to “History Is Made At Night,” Godlis’ great collection of CBGB centered photos that cover the years 1976-1979. While Gorton notes that his book inspired her to forge ahead and self publish her work, Godlis has high praise for her results.

“I’ve always admired Julia’s work since forever,” he admits, adding, “and I’ve been waiting for forever for her to put out a book of it. This one meets and exceeds all my black-and-white expectations. There is no No Wave without Julia’s graphics and visuals.”

In addition to the book, Gorton has various zines and t-shirts available, including an excellent high quality zine that is a combo of her work and a transcription of a recent interview that she gave to Lee Shook titled “Shook Interview Gorton Images.” Her book launch and signing was held at the Lower East Side rock clothing/culture shop The Cast, and owner Chuck Bones felt “fortunate and grateful” that she was having the event there.

“Her book is a perfect addition to our curated selection,” he said, adding, “ I enjoy celebrating all the punks and poets and I don’t know anyone else who has documented that era as well as Julia.”

History LessonPhoto by Bob Krasner
Todd Noaker (left) and Bill Mullen wearing Julia Gorton’s t-shirtsPhoto by Bob Krasner
Julia Gorton signs her book at The Cast as her portrait of Lydia Lunch looks onPhoto by Bob Krasner
Fans signed a birthday card for James Chance, who is dealing with some serious health issues. Julia donated sales of a poster depicting James (bottom right) to Chance to help out with medical expensesPhoto by Bob Krasner

Gorton looks back fondly at the music of the era, summing up it up in a way that could just as easily describe her book: “It was a clusterf–k of a bunch of people getting together in small spaces, figuring out how to play their instruments. When I listen to the music now I think: this is really great music. It’s so atmospheric – to hear Arto Lindsay play guitar, for instance – it’s on fire, it’s electric , it has dissonance – it has an incredible amount of atmosphere and vitality”.

Gorton will be selling and signing her book and various zines at Puma Perl’s “Pandemonium at the Library: An Evening of Poetry, Music, and Art” at the Jefferson Market Library on Monday, May 22, from 6 to 7:30 p.m.

Further info and merch can be found at juliagorton.com and on Instagram at @julia_gorton_nowave.