Tony Notarberardino’s Decade-Spanning Portrait of the Chelsea Hotel Crowd

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Chelsea Hotel Portraits by Tony Notarberardino
Tony Notarberardino, Debbie Harry, 2005© Tony Notarberardino. Courtesy the artist and ACA Galleries, New York

As his new exhibition opens in New York, Tony Notarberardino talks about living in the Chelsea Hotel for three decades, and the host of eccentric characters he met and photographed there

There is a red and yellow door with chipped paint on the sixth floor at the Chelsea Hotel. When the Australian photographer Tony Notarberardino walked through this door in 1994, he could hardly imagine that he would live for three decades in the same apartment in downtown Manhattan’s most famed building. More so, little did he know that his resident life around the Victorian Gothic-style hotel’s creative circle of artists, musicians, performers, circus daredevils, and vagabonds would yield his magnum opus. Chelsea Hotel Portraits is a photographic series featuring over 100 images of people Notarberardino crossed paths with on 23rd Street under the massive 140-year-old Chelsea Hotel sign. Debbie Harry, Susanne Bartsch, Dee Dee Ramone, Amanda Lepore, Violet Chachki, Sam Shepard, Grace Jones, and Edward Enninful are among the posers, as well as the hotel staff, delivery people, and anonymous passersby around Chelsea.

ACA Galleries has devoted its new exhibition of around 35 portraits from Notarberardino’s large collection, which offers an ambitious look at the vibrancy that made Chelsea Hotel such an institution. The project is ambitious also because of the artist’s singular approach to his subjects: each poser stands on the same red-coloured, curved corner that leads to Notarberardino’s living room. They pose, standing without any additional props and in effortless connection with his camera. “I photographed Arthur C Clarke who wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey and a random guy staying in the next apartment on the same day,” says Notarberardino.

Below, Tony Notarberardino shares his 30-year relationship with Chelsea Hotel.

“A former assistant of mine who worked for Mario Testino was already living in the Chelsea Hotel and he told me I could crash with him for a few days. I arrived from Sydney on a one-way ticket in 1994 and I realised he was living in a room with a shared bathroom. There were people sleeping on the floor. I told him I slept on beaches and park benches before but this was too much. I thought about leaving but my friend took me to a fashion week party right after dropping off my luggage. We partied until the morning with people like Kate Moss which was fascinating, and I made the decision that I could stay. When I talked with the hotel management about getting my own apartment, they asked me to choose between overnight or long-term rooms. I had to talk to the hotel owner David’s son, Stanley, for a long-term stay.

“Stanley, who died in 2002, had made the hotel what it was because he loved the artists, he understood them. When I walked into his office, he didn’t ask many questions and said he had a room available on the sixth floor. Another Australian artist, Vali Myers, had lived there before and painted all the murals that are still on the walls. I will never forget that he turned back to me while opening the door and said: ‘You know you might never leave this place.’ I think he knew that people either vibe with the energy here or not.

“I started seeing nightlife people like Susanne Bartsch or Rose Wood around the building, but the first person I invited to my apartment for a shoot was a drag queen in 1997. We met at the elevator around 4 am when I was a little drunk. I told her about my photographic series and she agreed to come in. These portraits took 25 years to make because I had to respect people’s privacy and have them trust me without intruding on them. I occasionally sat in the lobby to catch a club kid coming in. I used to explain to them that I had been doing this for years and most people agreed. Most of them didn’t expect to see this type of camera for a photo shoot but they eventually understood the technique.

“A lot of my friends have been performers, sex workers, or burlesque dancers, so, of course, I want them to come in with all of their authenticity. I ask them to be honest and direct, never influenced by the environment. There are many amazing apartments in Chelsea Hotel, but I want to take the residents out of that context and just focus on them.

“I grew up with parents who always watched Italian neo-realist cinema of the 1940s and 50s. Images from the films of Pasolini, Rossellini, and De Sica stuck with me, and I always associated realism with black and white. I also grew up with black and white television, and studied black and white photography in Australia, so my sense of aesthetic has always been these two colours.

“Celebrity has never been the main drive for how I choose my subjects. I can be photographing Sam Shepard or the hotel’s cleaning guy, and they have the same importance as subjects. In fact, I have gotten more interesting shots from people nobody knew. I have always been on an observing search, such as the pest control guy who one day came to my door for cockroaches. He looked fantastic and agreed to pose. You just have to pay people a little bit more attention.”

Chelsea Hotel Portraits by Tony Notarberardino is on show at ACA Galleries in New York from 9 March – 13 April 2024.