By J. SCOTT ORR January 15, 2024
One evening in 1984 Jean-Michel Basquiat was huddled in a corner of his live-in studio in New York’s East Village, seemingly oblivious to the maelstrom of stoned humanity bustling about him. That's when the tweed jacket made its appearance.
This particular jacket came from Italian Vogue, but on this night, a party night like most at the young artist’s studio, its handler was Richard Corman, a New York photographer fresh from an apprenticeship working for portrait and fashion photography legend Richard Avedon. Corman was under strict orders from Vogue to make sure Basquiat wore the jacket during a photoshoot that was to take place that evening. After a greeting and a gentle handshake, the two removed themselves from the crowd and got down to work. And Basquiat obliged, wearing the tweed sport coat throughout the shoot.
The result was 79 images including some of the most interesting and intensely revealing photographs of the artist at the height of his creative prowess and in the midst of his meteoric ascent to the heights of art superstardom. In 2023, at a time when interest in Basquiat is at an all-time high, Corman reprised the 1984 photo shoot, this time with Jeremy Pope, who starred as Basquat in the Broadway run of The Collaboration and a coming film of the same subject and title. And, yes, Pope wore an identical tweed sport coat.
That Corman was able to coax images of such calm self-possession from an artist as guarded and mercurial as Basquiat is a skill that would serve him well as he fashioned a career around the creation of iconic fine-art portraits in subsequent decades. Corman’s work has been praised for the simplicity with which it exposes the humanity, emotional depth and passion of his subjects.
Corman’s subjects have included world-renowned and historically important artists, entertainers, athletes and statesmen. His iconic shots of Nelson Mandela, taken in 2001 when the South African statesman returned to Robben Island where he had been imprisoned for 18 years, reveal Mandela’s strength and optimism through his upward gaze and trademark smile. Portraits of Muhammad Ali, taken in 1998 a few years after the boxing legend and activist had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, show him smiling, holding his fists up, but also posing with a stern look and searing eyes, his fingers caressing his temples to suggest the athlete’s formidable mental prowess.
Just a year before the Basquiat shoot, Corman made some photographs that were not particularly significant at the time, but later became some of his best-known work: pre-stardom photographs of Madonna in her unassuming East Village digs. He said he knew that day in 1983 that Madonna was destined for greatness based on her “swag attitude, makeup, styling, humor, sensuality. She was so beautiful and just a badass.”
During a recent interview at his gallery on Amsterdam Avenue in New York’s Upper West Side, Corman said he took from his mentor Avedon the importance of letting the subject’s presence emerge organically during the course of a shoot. In the case of the Basquiat photos, that happened with ease.
“I was trying to see behind the eye of someone who was angry, a certain sadness but there was tremendous charisma and youth. He was incredibly present and engaging in this very quiet way,” Corman said. “I was a voyeur more than anything else. I watched him move, his body language, his eyes, his hands...There was a strength, but also a softness,” he added.
Working this year with Pope, Corman again brought a tweed sport coat, this one made by Savile Row tailoring company Cad & The Dandy to match exactly the one Basquiat had worn almost 40 years before. Posing as Basquiat, Pope wore the tweed jacket for a photo shoot that yielded a stunning series of photographs that captured elements of both the late artist and his on-stage portrayer.
“It was really kind of a charmed moment that worked,” Corman said of his replay of the Basquiat shoot with Pope. “It was really cool to relive that through this young artist who was really thoughtful and introspective and portrayed that complicated person.”
Corman’s creation of the Pope portraits comes at a time of renewed public interest in Basquiat and his relationship with Warhol, including their unprecedented 1980s artistic collaboration that yielded over 160 works. In addition to the Broadway show and coming movie, major exhibitions of the collaborative works created by Basquiat and Warhol have been staged at Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris and currently at the Brant Foundation in the East Village.
Corman recently photographed Al Diaz, who co-founded the SAMO© graffiti writing duo in the late-1970s with Basquiat, his schoolmate and friend.
“He worked with Avedon, he’s one of those guys,” Diaz said of Corman. “Avedon had a bunch of photographers who worked for him that became important in their own right and he’s one of them,” Diaz said of Corman. “He’s not a narcissist like a lot of people that have risen to that level of success. He’s very poised and he’s committed. And he’s a gentleman, a very cool guy,” he added.
Another of Avedon’s photographers was Ruedi Hofmann, the photographer and master printer, who remembers meeting the young Corman in 1982, when he applied to work with Avedon.
“I was running the studio. He came in, we sat on the couch underneath Dovema (the model Avedon shot in a celebrated series of photographs in an evening gown with live elephants) and talked a little bit and it was like, ‘you’re hired,’” Hofman said.
But first Corman had to gain Avedon’s approval: “I had to go up and meet Mr. Avedon. Dick was in his bathroom shaving because he was going out to the theater that night. So he interviewed me while he was shaving…And he hired me. And from that moment on my life changed,” he said.
“I really had no experience, literally none. No education in photography except that I had been self-taught,” Corman said. He did everything for Avedon, who was already a photography legend at the time, working his way up from cleaning toilets, to dark room work, to lighting. “And then I was traveling with him and it was an education in life...You heard his stories and you shared the process and you saw the brilliance of him and you saw more than anything the passion and the love for what he was doing. I understand that now because I’m as passionate about what I’m doing today,” he said.
In addition to his portraits of the famous, Corman has also taken on a variety of projects that center on wider topics, including one that yielded the book “I Am Proud: The Athletes of the Special Olympics.” He is currently working on a photo collection of transgender people in the U.S. military.
But it is undoubtedly the fine-art portraits for which Corman is best known and he is particularly satisfied by the Basquiat photographs and his recent reprisal of that eventful shoot with Pope. He is proud, of course, of his earlier work, but he is hardly about to stop feeding his legacy.
“As a photographer, as an artist, it is so important to remain relevant. I could show these older pictures and people love them, blah, blah, blah, but I’m into other things now and I must remain, you know, of the moment as hard as that can be at times,” he said. WM