Photographer Marcia Resnick was fully embedded in the Downtown NYC scenes of the 1970s and 1980s. Her “Resnick’s Believe It” feature in the Soho Weekly News (1979-82) was essential viewing, as she specialized in the ‘Bad Boys’ of the city, from Johnny Thunders to Roy Cohn. Sandra Hale Schulman met Resnick as a young curator in 1984, assisting with a wild show that featured her controversial John Belushi photographs. She shares some memories of that time and flashes forward to celebrate a new retrospective of Marcia Resnick’s finest work, As It Is Or Could Be, traveling to three venues over the next year.
With her ruffled skirts and combat boots, Downtown darling Marcia Resnick is a New Yawk City contradiction: a bold, girly girl photographer who braved the gritty trenches of New York City’s rough-and-tumble Downtown underground in the 1970s and ’80s and emerged with hundreds of remarkable photographs of the baddest of the “Bad Boys” – Johnny Thunders, Joey Ramone, Steve Rubell, Roy Cohn, Iggy Pop, and Mick Jagger; as well as Beat writers William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, and artists, filmmakers, authors and entertainers along with self-portraits, and cheeky studio set ups.
Born in Brooklyn, she earned her MFA at California Institute of the Arts in 1973, then she returned to New York City and began to take photos. Traveling to Egypt and other countries brought out the feminist in her, as she saw how women were so subdued and controlled by men.
In the years 1979-1982, Marcia had a regular photo feature in the SoHo Weekly News, called “Resnick’s Believe-It-or-Not.” When the real Ripley’s-Believe-It-Or-Not, unbelievably, sent a cease-and-desist order, she changed the name to “Resnick’s Believe It.” By then, she was well on her way to completing the “Bad Boys” project.
“I wanted to confront bad boys of every type, you know, really bad boys, the bad boys of The Wild One. . . . I wanted to look beneath the word bad, its veneer, and everything that was there. I wanted to consider what kind of exchanges I could have,” she says of the series in the exhibit catalog.
“I loved going to hear the music, and most of the punk bands were comprised of men. . . . People thought that these guys were evil and self-involved, and obstructionist bad boys. I knew that behind the evilness of that scene was a very warm, collaborative scene where people were doing things together.”
Burnout, resurrection and teaching at Queens College and NYU filled in much of the next few decades.
And now, at age 71, Resnick is finally getting a full retrospective, Marcia Resnick: As It Is Or Could Be. From now through June 5, the exhibition is on view at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, after which it will travel to the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Aug. 13 through Dec. 11) and, finally, to the George Eastman Museum, in Rochester, N.Y. (Feb. 10-June 18, 2023). The exhibition includes the artists’ less-known experimental and conceptual photographs, highlighting Resnick’s overlooked role in the history of American photography while emphasizing the continued relevance of the aesthetic, social, and political issues explored through her lens.
The retrospective was co- curated by Frank Goodyear, co-director of BCMA; Casey Riley, Chair of Global Contemporary Art and Curator of Photography & New Media at Mia; and Lisa Hostetler, former Curator in Charge, Department of Photographs at the Eastman Museum.
I met Marcia Resnick in 1984 when I was fresh out of college and hitting the Downtown clubs. At a club called Area one late night—at 3 a.m., to be precise—I ran into club creator Frank Roccio, best known for his Peppermint Lounge, who told me he was starting a new two-story space called Night Gallery on lower West Broadway to showcase art, video, and small club performances. I told him I had just had to close a small gallery on Rivington Street called Spiritual America (we showed Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman and Jeff Koons and sold nothing) and was open to doing another one. Despite that late hour, I was relatively sober, and Frank Roccio hired me on the spot.
The next day, I was working as a curator at The Night Gallery. Frank said the next show could be with photographer Marcia Resnick. Marcia was already Downtown rock royalty, having photographed all the main people on the scene in her studio, and she had married Wayne Kramer of the MC5, with Warhol “superstar” Tom Baker serving as best man.
Marcia wanted to show something really unusual: an entire roll of film from the photo shoot she did with John Belushi six months before he died of an overdose. This was the shoot that infamously happened around 5 a.m. after she ran into Belushi at the AM/PM club and his limo was later waiting at her studio when she got home. The photos are improvised with props – ski masks, bottles – and Belushi was a late night, and late career, mess. Afterward, he fell asleep on her bed. Six months later, he was dead.
I met up with Marcia at her cavernous 5th floor Canal Street loft with a view of the river. After a few hours of examining and organizing the raw photographs of a stoned and sweaty John Belushi, we spent a wild night clubbing with Marcia’s friends. One of her friends that night was model and actress Anita Pallenberg, all fur jackets and blond messy hair, who swept us into her limo and then to a glam townhouse. There may have been drugs involved. This curating gig was getting good.
Resnick had printed every black and white image of John Belushi from her infamous roll, and we nailed each one behind separate pieces of plexiglass to the gallery walls leading up a set of stairs and into the second-floor lounge.
What started as a fun, cool opening soon turned chaotic when clubgoers—riled up Brits who had just been to a Siouxie and the Banshees show—pried the photos off the walls and beat up Rockets Redglare, the obnoxious actor/comedian/drug dealer who Frank had hired to “entertain” the kids. Rockets allegedly supplied drugs to Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen the night she was stabbed to death and may have been involved in both of their deaths. Galleries could be dangerous places back then.
The next day we saw the Belushi photographs being sold on blankets on the sidewalks of St. Marks Place for $5 each.
Flashing forward a few decades, Resnick has published three books, the acclaimed Punks, Poets & Provocateurs: New York City Bad Boys, 1977–1982 (2015); Marcia Resnick: Re-Visions (2019), containing shots of young girls figuring out life in staged photos; and the new retrospective book Marcia Resnick: As It Is or Could Be by Frank H. Goodyear III and Lisa Hostetler. Spanning her career, this most recent, richly illustrated volume explores Resnick’s early influences and education at Cooper Union and CalArts; discusses her series and photobooks, and places her work within the history of contemporary art. An afterword by Laurie Anderson (who bought Resnick’s Canal Street loft/studio) gives a personal vision of Resnick’s photography.
“The people from the extraordinary New York milieu amongst whom I was living and working had no way of knowing that the years between 1977 and 1982 were enchanted, endangered, and unrepeatable,” said Resnick. “In 1976, I totaled my car and woke up in the hospital, my mind streaming with vivid images of my life. I used these images to stage photographs of my adolescence and paired them with short, often humorous written observations.”
She continued, “My book Re-visions was the end product, an attempt to de-mystify my own past. I then traveled to Egypt where the men dominated everything and the women were veiled, hidden and overtly suppressed. I was surrounded by ungovernable maleness.”
“Upon my return to NYC, in an attempt to de-mystify men in general, I began a series of photographic portraits of the ungovernable men, the “enfants terribles” of our culture. These ‘bad boys’ were initially the punk rockers of the downtown scene. My focus soon broadened to include artists, writers, filmmakers, actors, poets, etc. all united in their roots in the counterculture.”
“For some reason I was doing work at the same time as all the photographers of the Pictures Generation and was never included, even though I went to Cal Arts and studied with John Baldessari like some of them did. I was showing shows, but I didn’t have the right gallery and the representation really. That’s what I attribute it to,” she says.
The retrospective Marcia Resnick: As It Is or Could Be came together over the course of two years and many Zoom meetings during the pandemic. Regardless of the difficulty of the logistics, Resnick is pleased to be finally getting the serious museum treatment, having just returned from the first museum show in Maine where she was on a panel with the curators.
“Resnick’s ambition and innovation were unparalleled among American photographers of the 1970s,” said Frank Goodyear. “In just over a decade, she produced a body of work that spanned experimental, conceptual, documentary, and editorial photographic practices, as well as four distinctive photographic artist’s books.”
“Despite her role in expanding our contemporary view of photography, and although her work has been collected by many museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and the National Portrait Gallery, it has never been the focus of a retrospective exhibition,” Goodyear continued. “Casey, Lisa, and I are thrilled to have the opportunity to research, exhibit, and publish Resnick’s work comprehensively for the first time, and to do so with the artist’s input and enthusiasm.”