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Madonna NYC'83: Richard Corman
“We passed a bodega with this sign on the front. She was laughing, this was her humour. She did it in her way and created something that was poignant”Photos courtesy © Richard Corman/

Candid photos of pre-fame Madonna in 80s New York

In 1983, photographer Richard Corman lensed Madonna just one month before she became the icon that we know today

Just one month before Madonna rose to fame with her eponymous album in 1983, photographer Richard Corman captured her soon to be iconic charm in her quaint, Lower East Side apartment. It was a fleeting moment – the world did not yet know Madonna. But, even then, the 24-year-old was charming, present and powerfully in charge of her dreams: an energy that beams brightly in Corman’s twin-lens Rolleiflex portraits. With leather studded cuffs, double denim, a neck wrapped in pearls and signature red lips, this is Madonna just 30 days before she rose to be one of the world's greatest icons.

Corman met Madonna after his friend, a casting director, was casting for Martin Scorcese‘s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), which Madonna auditioned for. Even though she didn't get the role, Corman's friend knew there was something incredibly unique about Madonna and urged Corman to photograph her. Before the shoot, Madonna already had a cult following in New York by spending her days producing her demo and performing from club to club. “The first question I asked her, naively, was ‘what are your goals?’...she said: to rule the world”, recalls Corman. It’s this exact conviction that also flowed through the veins of 1983 in underground New York, as the city was crawling with soon to be famous artists. Corman, one of these creatives, would spend his days bouncing from Keith Haring’s studio, to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s house and Madonna’s apartment to shoot the faces that would soon rise to fame across music and art. It’s for this oeuvre that Cormon’s work has contributed to defining an early era of portrait photography that has become synonymous with understanding the art itself.

Ahead of his Madonna NYC’83 show at Weiss Katz Gallery (an online exclusive running until 7 July), Corman tells the story of what it was like to shoot pre-fame Madonna.

“I never thought of her as pre-fame Madonna when I shot her in 1983. I was introduced to her by a casting director who told me she had just met this incredible young woman. ‘I have never seen, or been in the presence of anyone like her’, she told me. ‘She is an absolute original. You need to call her and go down and photograph her.’

“At the time I was working for Richard Avedon and I was always looking for interesting people to photograph so I called her immediately. I went down the next day to meet her and get a sense of what this fuss was all about. At the time she really had a cult following in New York. She was travelling to clubs all over the city: clubs you would want to go to, clubs you wouldn't want to go to. She was fiercely determined to get to where she wanted to go to.

“One of the first things she said was when you get to my street, it was East 4th street between Avenue A and B, you have to call me from across the street. I said ‘Why?’ She said ‘You'll understand when you get there.’ When I got there, I saw a gang of kids sitting on the stoop and they were not going to let me in unless I was allowed. And Madonna was like the pied piper of the neighbourhood, and she then yelled downstairs and told them I have a friend coming over, let him in. So when I walked up to the stoop and said I am here to see Madonna – it's as if the seas parted. Once I walked in, I heard someone over the bannister on the fourth floor of a walk up, saying come on up. I looked up and I saw these incredible cat-like eyes, and I knew I was ultimately going to be in the presence of something special, even from four floors below, you could just feel it.

“The first question I asked her, naively, was ‘what are your goals?’...She said 'to rule the world'. And she said it without a smile on her face, she was dead serious. And I took it as her word” – Richard Corman

“She was funny, sexy, smart. It was just a different time. I went down there alone with a little twin-lens Rolleiflex camera and I knew nothing. I think that's why I decided to show these photographs now because even though she's been relevant for thirty years, I feel the photos are more relevant today than ever.

“You look at her swag, her confidence, her fashion. Look at the denim, the make-up, the red lips, the heavy eye shadow, the blonde streaks in her hair, the dark roots – everything about her is everything I see today walking the streets. The visionaries of the world were always years ahead, whether it was science, music, literature. She was in her own world.

“When I walked up there, she lived in a tiny little flat with a little kitchenette, with a little dining table, a bedroom and a small bathroom. She served me espresso on a silver-plated tray with Bazooka bubblegum on the tray. That was her humour. And it was contrived, charming, funny and it was really cool. And she was clearly charismatic and engaging.

“The first question I asked her, naively, was ‘what are your goals?’ – I felt like a nerd asking her that – but she said 'to rule the world'. And she said it without a smile on her face, she was dead serious. And I took it as her word. She let me know she had just put a demo tape together, she was hustling all over the city. She certainly didn't tell me her story, but she certainly let me in to see behind her eyes a little bit, to show a little bit of her soul.

“At that time, New York city was a creative carnival. In 1983, I was running from Basquiat's studio to Keith Haring's studio, to Madonna's apartment and photographing all these young artists who were super connected. That whole world inspired each other, and it was cool to be a voyeur and to look in through my camera. It was so exciting. I really didn't know it at the time, I didn't realise till much later that I was tapping into a piece of pop culture history. Whether you like these artists or not, they are iconic and they are iconic for a reason and I was just fortunate to be there, that's all.

“The context was the Lower East Side. There was just such a creative exuberance going on. These young artists were fearless. And they just were so passionate about what they were doing. Madonna was just doing everything and anything she could to promote, to experience the city and to share it with her following. It was only a few weeks after I photographed her that her album hit and blew up. I photographed her a number of times that year, but ultimately, she was just on her way.

“If I were to shoot Madonna today, there would be 40 people on the street, ten bodyguards, I would have five assistants and it would be a whole another scenario. It was just so simple. This is why I love shooting young artists because there is no pretence, there's no preconceived image, we are helping to create a sensibility, a portrait of the person as opposed to what they think that person should be. Back then, knowing less was knowing more because I was kind of clueless, but I was eager and I was determined to do whatever it took to find people who inspired me in some level.”

Madonna NYC'83 by Richard Corman is on show online at Weiss Katz gallery until 7 July 2018. You can find out more here