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Interview: Christopher Makos

This US photographer talks about his friend Andy Warhol and the celebrity culture of '70s New York, as his new show opens tonight.
2013-06-14 12:13:38

Christopher Makos is talking about the time he was leant a Rolls-Royce to drive up to Peter Brant’s house in New York. Brant is a billionaire industrialist and art collector, and Rolls-Royce had arranged for dozens of artists and socialites to drive up to his mansion in brand new Rollers. You know, just for shits and giggles.

“They had all the cars lined up on 54th Street and they just said pick a car and jump in. Real freaky right? Oh, I’ve had a very fun life.” Makos is sitting in his big, baggy checked suit, pointing a huge SLR across the table at me, squeezing off shots as we talk about all the fun he’s had. “I don’t believe anyone should waste time doing anything they don’t want to. I say, just hang around with the people you love. Spend your time around those people and everything will be OK.”

Good advice for anyone, though Makos has been especially lucky with the people he’s known and loved. As a young man he arrived in New York just as the city was waking up from its postwar slump and was transforming into America’s nexus of creativity. He was there for the celebrity-spattered hedonism of Studio 54, then the emergence of punk on the city’s Lower East Side. But most of all, he was there for the Factory years, when Andy Warhol redefined what art meant and what art could be.

Makos was a friend and collaborator of Warhol’s. He captured some of the most recognized portraits of the artist, and was a permanent feature in his social set, shooting the celebrities, artists and musicians who ducked in and out of their world. His first book, White Trash, contains some of the most raw and candid portraits from the early days of punk: images of Debbie Harry, Mick Jagger, David Bowie and more.

“Everyone was just having fun,” he says. “It was just after the birth control pill and so women were liberated and it was a very wild time in American culture. It was like the roaring '20s or something. It was a very special moment. I'm not melancholy or sentimental but I can refer to history in a respectful way, and those were very interesting times.”

Makos is here in China with his collaborator Paul Solberg for an exhibition of work at the Wine Gallery. It opens this weekend, featuring portraits of Warhol, including many taken on their joint trip to China in 1982, plus shots from those glory days in New York. The show is a complementary piece to the huge Warhol exhibition going on at the Power Station of Art, a show Makos says is one of the best retrospectives of the pop artist’s work he’s ever seen.

“I hadn't been to China in four or five years,” he says. “I have a book called Andy Warhol in China, which came out in 2008, but for this trip I also wanted to bring about 15 or 16 other pictures of Andy taken in America, because I thought maybe these people in China hadn't seen any of that.” As well as those, the show, which opens on Saturday and runs until next Tuesday, June 18, features photographs of socialites and stars from the factory days, though for many of us in China, the most intriguing shots are bound to be the portraits of Warhol, wandering around Tiananmen or on the Great Wall, looking a bit vague and lost, as always.

Portraits are still Makos’ favorite commission (he tells me about a quickie he shot for Calvin Klein the day before he left New York for China), but he and Solberg now spend much of their time making books. They recently completed Tattoos, Hornets, Fire, shot in Sweden and based around Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Series (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, et al).

“The way I designed the book was so that you arrive in Stockholm and you see this bright sunshine and then suddenly, like in The Wizard of Oz the pictures become black and white, and that's when we start to explore the Larsson world, because his world was much more black and white. For me, manipulating the viewer through art direction has always been great fun. I've always liked that.”

Makos and Warhol in a boat

Makos’s raw aesthetic — shooting from the hip with often unexpected results — that’s mainly gone from his current work, but he says the advent of digital photography has opened new areas of creativity.

“Now there's no lag time, the time of reflection has gone, but the creativity level is much higher because you can see exactly what you've got as soon as you take it. You can see when you’ve got a completely clear, perfectly in-focus picture, so it lets you go beyond that. I've almost said everything I've got to say with in-focus pictures, so now I’ve started taking photos out of focus. Life isn't in focus, there are so many ups and downs, though you only realize that when you get older.”

Makos is indeed older, and the New York of his youth has gone. But he is not one to dwell in the past. “New York is still a great city and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. It's the port of entry for everyone in the world and there's still this energy. New York nurtured me, it's been so kind to me, it gave me a career. All my friends live there and it's where we became successful, or should I say it's where we became ourselves. But I'm very much in-the-moment and to me this is the most interesting time to be back in China."

Makkos has been here all week, giving a couple of talks and meeting collectors and artists in Shanghai. He says he's already planning to come back, maybe to shoot pictures for a new project.

“I know my story in New York City, I know what that is. Here it's always unexpected and new and different. That's what keeps people fresh and that's what keeps me taking pictures and making books.”


Makos’s show “Warhol in China” opens tonight by invitation at the Wine Gallery by ASC Wines, 41 Hengshan Lu, near Wulumuqi Lu. The show’s open to the public from tomorrow until Tuesday, June 18.

Makos’s portraits of Warhol and others are for sale at the show in limited-edition prints of one, signed by the artist. The prints are around 15,000-25,000rmb. Ten percent of the proceeds from all sales will go to Roots & Shoots and other charities. More info on the show here.

All images by Christopher Makos.