Private Moments: Photographs from Another Era by Bob Colacello

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In the 1970s and 1980s, writer, photographer, and longtime friend and biographer of Andy Warhol, Bob Colacello would frequently accompany Warhol to dinner parties, clubs, and art openings in New York City and cultural capitals around the world. The eclectic gatherings included tycoons, politicians, socialites, fashion designers, writers, movie stars, and other late night revelers. Colacello recorded the scene with his Minox EL, an unobtrusive, 35-millimeter film camera.  “Andy would have convinced me to be on Instagram by now,” Bob notes.

Norah Diedrich, Executive Director of the Newport Art Museum, reviewing a set of Bob’s photographs before they were placed.

His images capture a moment frozen in time, yet they are not completely still. His photographs document people moving through the frame rather than posing for a portrait. You can feel the energy in the room and sense the size of the personalities. One can almost hear former Vogue editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland, with a grand gesture, proclaim, “Style – all who have it share one thing: originality.”

Colacello’s black and white photographs call to mind the work of revered street photographers, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Weegee, Diane Arbus, and in terms of carefully composed and somewhat askew framing choices, Garry Winogrand. Yet Winogrand typically photographed strangers. In most instances, Colacello took pictures of friends and colleagues, in both public and private settings. And Bob is very clear about the fact that he’s “not a photographer.”

His invitation to ‘join the party’ enabled participation as well as observation, presenting a fertile environment to create this personal portrait of high society when networking happened in person, not online.

The Newport Museum of Art is currently running an exhibit of photographs, Private Moments: Photographs from Another Era by Bob Colacello (June 27 – September 27, 2020), taken by Bob in the 1970s and 1980s while he was living in New York City and editing Warhol’s Interview magazine. Today, these pictures take on newfound significance as they remind us of an era rich with the joys of going out at a time when most of us are just beginning to venture out again after having been ordered to stay at home.

NORAH: I remember looking through some of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s proof sheets at his Paris studio on a trip with Dan Hofstadter, who was wrapping up research on HCB for a New Yorker profile. What struck me was that there were so many frames that ever so slightly missed the mark, and then on contact sheet #3 or #5 there it was! The “Decisive Moment” with a circle around the frame. Do you work in a similar vein, or do you capture what you intended with just a few clicks of the shutter?

BOB: I rarely took two or more shots of any subject. Missing the mark — having half of someone’s face on the side of the frame of the person or persons I was aiming at — I came to see that as my “style.” Along those lines, I love the photo of Carmen d’Alessio and Odile Rubirosa with half a million times more famous Pelé on the edge.

Carmen d’Alessio and Odile Rubirosa, Xenon, New York, 1979. © Bob Colacello; Courtesy the artist and Vito Schnabel Projects

SAM: The 1970s were a very prolific time for Diana Vreeland, most especially after joining the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a special consultant to the Costume Institute. She also seemed to be front and center during your years at Interview, describe your relationship with her.

BOB: Mrs. Vreeland was very close to Fred Hughes and through him she and I became good friends too. I loved the dinners for four or six she’d have at her red and purple apartment at 550 Park Avenue. In the 1970s she was in her 70s and the guests would all be in our 20s.

Diana Vreeland and Countess Consuelo Crespi, New York, 1978. © Bob Colacello; Courtesy the artist and Vito Schnabel Projects

NORAH: Many People saw the “public” Andy Warhol, while few saw the “private.” I especially love your photograph, Andy’s Room Service Breakfast, Naples 1976. It epitomizes a memory of a private moment — A beautiful breakfast tray, and Andy in a nightshirt, shorts, and black socks, munching on an Italian pastry. What do you like about these photographs? What did Andy think about them?

BOB: His nightshirt was that day’s shirt, almost always Brooks Brothers blue oxford cloth button down. Yes, the photos of off-the-duty Andy are among my favorites, fairly rare unposed portraits of a man who almost always posed in the same hard, cool way when photographed out and about.

Andy’s Room Service Breakfast, Naples, 1976. © Bob Colacello; Courtesy the artist and Vito Schnabel Projects

SAM: The photo of Fred at the Hotel Excelsior is priceless. In a funny way it captures his essence, however many still don’t understand Fred’s relationship or his contribution to Andy’s life. He’s generally described as Andy’s business manager, but there’s so much more to it.

BOB: Fred was elegant even naked. He was much more than Andy’s business manager. He was president of Andy Warhol Enterprises, involved in all aspects of Factory operations, from art to films to Interview. He started the lucrative commissioned portrait business, expanded Andy’s gallery network in Europe, advised Andy on what to paint and how to paint it, and was overall style setter and social director of the Factory. I learned so much from him.

Fred Hughes, Hotel Excelsior, Naples, 1976. © Bob Colacello; Courtesy the artist and Vito Schnabel Projects

NORAH: What influence, if any did your time as editor of Interview have on your photography?

BOB: Well for starters it gave me incredible broad access to the art, fashion, music, film, society and political elites. Because I covered the Waterfront, to borrow the title of the column, Fran Lebowitz, then a fledging writer driving a taxi to play her bills, started writing for Interview very early on. That was what was most fun about editing the magazine; discovering, promoting, employing young creative talents.

SAM: So that said, after spending 13 years at Interview during its heyday, would you be able to narrow down a few that really stood out?

BOB: All the special theme issues —  the Death in Venice issue very early on, the Millionettes issue, the Is Photography Art? issue. It’s hard to imagine today, but that was still an open question in 1975.

NORAH: Do you think your interest in film and study at Columbia University in that discipline had an effect on your photographs? For me, your images have movement, more like stills from a camera. People seem to be moving through the frame in your photos and not posing for a single image or portrait for the most part.

BOB: I never thought about it much, but your perception of a connection between my film studies and my photos makes sense. I did consciously seek a sense of movement by tilting the camera and going with people half blocking my view of the person I was most interested in because that’s what parties are actually like; they’re not static, they’re fluid, with groups of people forming, dissolving,  constantly changing.

SAM: One wouldn’t think of Fire Island as a place Andy would enjoy on first thought,  but his diary entries from various visits are quite funny.

Rupert Smith and Andy, Fire Island Ferry, 1979. © Bob Colacello; Courtesy the artist and Vito Schnabel Projects

BOB: This photo was taken on the ferry from Sayville to Fire Island Pines, where Steve Rubell had a book party for Andy’s Exposures photo book, which I edited. There were about 50 boys in speedo’s and Victor Hugo in a jockstrap.

SAM:. Another favorite image in the show is of Jane Holzer and D. D. Ryan. Jane never looked lovelier, but D. D. Ryan has always been a bit of an enigma to me.

BOB: D. D. Ryan was born Dorinda Dixon in Bristol, Rhode Island, worked under Diana Vreeland at Bazaar in the 1950s and married John Barry Ryan the 3rd, a grandson of the banker Otto Kahn. After they separated she went to work for Halston as a creative adviser and muse. Everything about her was highly stylized, from the chopsticks in her chignon to her Vreelandesque way of speaking.

Jane Holzer and D. D. Ryan, Acapulco, 1977. © Bob Colacello; Courtesy the artist and Vito Schnabel Projects

NORAH: Of course, you captured the club and party scene of the ’70s and well into the ’80s. Your photograph of Andre Leon Talley, Steve Rubell and Andy represents one of these images. Maybe this was taken at Studio 54 or some other spot, you were definitely part of the scene. Obviously Rubell is in full character, but did your special status as a guest at the party effect how people reacted to you, or better yet, ignored you, while you were taking photographs?

BOB: The Andre-Rubell-Andy photograph was taken at a small birthday dinner the Herreras gave Bianca Jagger at Mortimer’s restaurant on the Upper East Side. Again,  pretty rare to see Andy laughing up a storm when the camera was around. I was one of maybe 14 guests, and a close friend of all of them. No one cared if I took pictures because I took very few now and then, and I wasn’t a working photographer. I was editor of Interview, Andy’s magazine and school newspaper of Studio 54.

André Leon Talley, Steve Rubell, and Andy, Mortimer’s, New York, 1981. © Bob Colacello; Courtesy the artist and Vito Schnabel Projects

NORAH: Who is the Steve Rubell/Ian Schrager of 2020?

BOB: There isn’t, and if there was, this pandemic has put them out of business.

SAM: Another two names that would frequently pop up in your old column OUT were Nan Kempner and Maxime de la Falaise, back in an era where the term ‘Socialite “ actually meant something.

Nan Kempner and Maxime de la Falaise, New York, c. 1978. © Bob Colacello; Courtesy the artist and Vito Schnabel Projects

BOB : Socialite was a complimentary term then, limited to fashionable society women who were active in philanthropy. Along with Pat Buckley, Nan raised tens of million for Sloan Kettering Cancer Hospital, while at the same time acquiring more couture clothes then probably any other women in the country. Maxime was the daughter of the English society portraitist, Sir Oswald Birley, the ex-wife of the Marquis de la Falaise, and mother of YSL collaborator Loulou de la Falaise. In the 1970s she and her second husband, John McKendry, curator of prints and photography at the MET,  gave frequent dinner parties in their Riverside Drive seraglio mixing Haute Bohemia with High Society. Maxime cooked incredible medieval dishes and John rolled the joints.

NORAH: We have the issue of Interview with Nancy Reagan in the exhibition that Michael Walsh kindly loaned us. You authored the book Ronnie and Nancy: Their Path To The White House — 1911 To 1980 and I believe you’re currently working on another chapter of the Reagan’s life story. How did you’re relationship with them evolve?

BOB: I met the Reagans in February 1981, shortly after he was inaugurated. They were dining with their close friends Betsy Bloomingdale and Jerry Zipkin. I was at a nearby table with the Herreras, and we all were introduced to the new President and First Lady. I never really knew Ronald Reagan, but Nancy and I hit it off immediately, and she started calling me at the Factory to ask for advice about handling the press, which was largely out to get her.

I’d hired Ron Reagan’s wife Doria about the same time, so she would urge Ron not to give up his Secret Service protection. Putting Mrs. Reagan on the cover of Interview’s 1981 Christmas issue was very controversial, particularly in the largely liberal New York art world. Helen Marden didn’t speak to me for 10 years. The Village Voice did a parody cover story that had Andy and me interviewing Hitler in his bunker.

I have been working on a second Reagan book for years, and finally going full steam ahead now that the pandemic has removed all distractions other then shopping for masks. It covers the White House and retirement years.

SAM: Our good friend Brigid Berlin recently passed away. She was such a unique and special person,. Tell us a little about your long friendship with her.

BOB: Brigid used to give me evil looks when I started at Interview in 1970, but once she realized I was a fellow Republican we became the closest of friends and remained so until her death this summer. She cried when I left the Factory in 1983, and would call me and whisper that not one real society lady has come to lunch since I’d left. She was extremely judgmental and opinionated, but also creative and hilarious. From the Convent of the Sacred Heart to Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls and beyond, her life was quite a trip, and there was no one like her. Never will be.

Brigid Berlin, Manhasset, 1981. © Bob Colacello; Courtesy the artist and Vito Schnabel Projects

NORAH: Do you take photos on your phone?

BOB: No, I have a flip flop phone, and I’m not a photographer.

SAM: In addition to freelance writing projects you’ve been working with the Vito Schnabel Gallery since 2015 as a director.

BOB: I’m sort of Vito’s ambassador to the Ancien Regime, and he’s my guide to the new avant-garde. Three years ago I had the pleasure of curating my first exhibition ever, in the St Moritz gallery, a group show titled “The Age Ambiguity : Figurative Abstraction and Abstract Figuration,”  for which several of the younger artists that I’ve gotten to know through Vito made works especially for my show — Rashid Johnson, Sterling Ruby, The Bruce High Quality Foundation, Jacquline Humphries, Jonas Wood, Jeff Elrod, Adam McEwen, and Borna Sammak. We also had a great Schnabel “Weather” painting, cool small works by Jeff Koons and Jean Michel Basquiat, and a large and rare orange and yellow Warhol “Camouflage.”

SAM: This upcoming year looks to be a busy one for you with a major exhibition of your photographs and archival material opening through Ivorypress in Madrid in February and a book to accompany the show that will be released in advance this fall. Will the book and show include unseen material?

Bob going through archival material with Elena Foster for his upcoming photography exhibition at Ivorypress in Madrid. Photo by Samantha Grob

BOB: The Ivorypress exhibition and book are both titled “It Just Happened.”

I’m thrilled and honored to be working with Elena Foster, the super creative founder of Ivorypress Gallery and publisher, and her equally superlative team. A large number of the photos in the book and show have never been seen before.

SAM: These are such odd times we’re all living in today, I think finding some kind of inner peace and a solid routine are key. What’s a typical day like for you?

BOB: I’ve been happily hunkered down out on Long Island since mid-March, where I write every morning for five or six hours, mainly on my second book on the Reagans. I’m also a compulsive diary keeper, although there are a lot less glamorous parties and exotic trips to record these days — like zero. People are starting to have little dinners out here again, no more than six or eight, so maybe twice a week I get a really good meal. On my own, I mostly have “antipasto” lunches and dinners — prosciutto, mozzarella, sun dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, and a Dove Bar for dessert.

SAM: Lastly, this isn’t your first foray into Newport, you’ve been coming here for years. Any specific memories you’d like to share?

BOB: Newport is one of my favorite places in the world. I rented a house in nearby Charlestown from the late ’70s to the early ’90s, and got to know it quite well. I actually wrote my Warhol book, Holy Terror, there. Perhaps my fondest memory is more recent, however, of interviewing Oatsie Charles at Lands End with Bruce Weber for his annual All-American limited edition bookazine.

The Newport Art Museum would like to thank the artist for lending his work to this exhibition and also, Madeline Sparer of Vito Schnabel Projects in New York. Special thanks to Curatorial Assistant Alicia Renadette for framing much of the work in the exhibition.

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