In 1983, before she became the cultural icon that she is today, Madonna lived in a walk-up on East 4th Street. In between going out almost every night, she was waitressing and posing nude for art students to pay the bills for her aspiring music career.
Photographer Richard Corman was first introduced to the then 24-year-old through his mother Cis, a casting director at the time for Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. When Madonna auditioned for the role of Mary Magdalene (unsuccessfully), Cis saw in her an “absolute original.”
These photographs were taken before the release of Madonna’s debut album, just a month before her unprecedented ascension into stardom. Corman captures the raw beauty of a star teeming with potential, on the verge of becoming pop music’s biggest icon, through 66 previously unpublished polaroids that are seeing the light after having been lost for decades. Madonna 66 will be shown as a book, website, film, installation, and social media project—a “360-degree approach to a raw little polaroid,” in the words of the photographer.
Here, Richard Corman reflects on Madonna’s inimitable style, the art of polaroid photography, and the creative, palpable energy of downtown Manhattan in the ’80s.
Describe your first encounter with Madonna.
Richard Corman Madonna made sure I called her prior to entering the building on East 4th Street because the crew on her stoop would not have let me through without her say so. When I approached the building, I told those outside I was a friend of Madonna and the seas parted. I heard M yelling over the banister from the 4th floor to come on up. When I looked up from the first floor and encountered those piercing cat-like eyes I knew that something special awaited on the 4th floor. Indeed as I walked in, she served me espresso on a silver-plated tray with bazooka bubble gum…so raw, so real, so sexy, so much fun.
What was it about her that attracted you? Could you have predicted then how big she would become?
RC From the moment we met, her charisma was unlike anything I had seen before. Her confidence and determination were so visible! When I asked her over our espresso what her goals were and she blatantly said, ‘to rule the rule’, I was sold! Torn denim jeans with white lace tights underneath, vibrant red lips, a faux mole, dark rooted hair with white/blond highlights, dozens of rubber bangles on her arms, those cat-like eyes made up perfectly, and the sensuality of her aura were all encompassing. One could never predict that M would change the course of pop-culture history as we know it today, but there was no question as she stood in front of my camera in 1983, that her presence was fucking amazing.
This series of photographs seems very raw and natural. How did the stylistic choices come about?
RC Madonna’s sense of style, sensibility, and swag were her own. It was genuine, accessible, and absolutely raw with no pretension attached. Location, clothing, makeup, and hair were all Madonna’s decision and reflected everything that we all loved and everything that made her so original. It was such simple process; Madonna, me, and a camera. Although I directed when needed, I felt as if I was a fly on the wall documenting someone in real time.
RC There was a sense of urgency prior to this shoot. Images needed to be shared immediately and at that time there were no iPhones, thus the brilliance of Polaroids! The polaroids were to be sent to a Hollywood studio along with a modern-version treatment of Cinderella, “Cinde Rella,” to potentially star Madonna as Cinde. The concept of Cinde Rella was all Cis Corman.
What is your favorite photograph from this collection and the story behind it?
RC So many of these polaroids bring me back and resonate with me today. At that time and for years to come, although M was beyond relevant, I never felt the images were until recently. Stylistically, she was a visionary…if she walked out of those polaroids onto the street today, she would be trending heavily in the most modern way. I guess the images of her with her boom box are some of my favorites. She was never without it and became the pied-piper of her Lower East Side hood, inspiring all the kids that would sing and dance with her to that booming box!
Can you talk about how they resurfaced after they had been lost for so long?
RC In my mind these 66 polaroids were lost forever. I was heartbroken over these 33 years as this was the only project I worked on with my Mom and I knew how memorable they were to me and to her. Cis is now 90 and suffering from Alzheimer’s. It was not until a recent move (less than one year ago) that I was moving personal items into my storage facility that I noticed a small box, unlabelled, in the furthest corner of that room. When I opened that box and discovered all the Polaroids and the original treatment for “Cinde Rella” my breath was truly taken aback. I was shocked and excited, to say the least. I had recaptured a memory that I thought never to be seen again.
At around the same time, you also photographed Basquiat and Keith Haring before they became some of the biggest names in the art world. Could you talk about the budding creative energy that existed in downtown Manhattan at the time?
RC NYC in the early ’80s was an absolute creative carnival. I was leaving my apprenticeship with Avedon in 1983, which was life altering in itself, and I was thrown into an arena that I could never have predicted. From Madonna to Basquiat and Haring’s studios to Boy George to Johnny Rotten to CBJB’s and so, so many more. NYC was my studio and the energy that swirled was absolutely contagious and made me fall more and more in love with my beautiful addiction to photography.
How is it different now?
RC NYC and the world is different today, but the inspiration remains fluid for me and young artists of all types continue to vie for creative space in the City. I am moved daily by the diversity, the creativity, and the inclusiveness that makes New York so unique and so great.
What is exciting to you about photography now?
RC Everything about photography remains exciting to me right now. I continue to collaborate with remarkable young and old artists whom you have not heard of and continue to photograph many you have heard of and most importantly I continue to work in the non-for-profit where images and perception is so important and potentially makes such a difference.