Photographer Marcus Leatherdale arrived in New York in 1978 ready to “make his mark” on the city – he did so by creating stunning portraits of the era’s underground luminaries, from Leigh Bowery and Cookie Mueller to Andy Warhol and Tina Chow

Creative revolution has long been a by-product of life in the shadows. It’s seen every decade: the rebellious underground, who exist on the margins of society, so often become those who disrupt and revolutionise the system. 1980s New York and its teeming creative bohemia is one such example – artists, musicians, photographers and nightlife impresarios who lived their lives in opposition to conservative American values, in doing so spurring a cultural revolution which would alter New York’s identity forever. 

The late 1970s and early 1980s were a time when misfits from across America – and indeed, the world – travelled to the city for enlightenment. The best happenings were in the underground scenes which spread across Manhattan: on the Upper East Side, luminaries Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat rattled the art world, while downtown fetishists, drag stars, and sex artists proudly demonstrated a new wave of sexual and queer liberation. 

Somewhere in the middle was Montreal-born photographer Marcus Leatherdale, who moved to New York in 1978 from San Francisco, where he had been part of the West Coast city’s punk scene. After crashing with friend Robert Mapplethorpe until he found his own apartment, Leatherdale moved to a place on the Lower East Side where he set up a home studio that would soon be graced by artists from across the city. “It was the first time that I totally felt in the right place at the right time, where I wanted to be,” says Leatherdale. “I was determined to make my mark in New York City.” 

Over the next decade, Leatherdale did just that: he produced black and white portraiture which captured the pulse of the city. Leatherdale also began a series titled Hidden Identities, in which he asked his various subjects to hide their faces, allowing their style and presence to tell their story; Debbie Harry appears draped in a see-through metal dress, performance artist Leigh Bowery is photographed naked save a beaded mask and a mirkin. These luminaries are joined by members of New York’s then it-crowd, from restaurant owner Tina Chow to drag artist Divine, model Iman, Warhol, Mapplethorpe, and many more. 

Nearly 40 years later, Leatherdale’s images are a vital documentation of life in 1980s New York, and are now published in the photographer’s retrospective photo book Out Of The Shadows (1980–92) – a title which illuminates photography’s role in shedding light on hidden communities, especially those of bygone times. “I never thought of my life in New York City in the 80s as revolutionary,” Leatherdale reflects. “These images were created as a day in my life. Time seems to have focused on the nostalgia of the era – I did not realise that I was archiving a time that would be extinct in 30 years.” Here, Leatherdale recounts memories of seven of his iconic sitters. – Read the full article – Another