In 1984 I ended up living in New York. I didn’t have a plan. I was an artist and I had a show at P.S. 1, and when the show moved on, I stayed. I didn’t have anywhere to live, and this photographer I knew had a basement darkroom in the East Village, so I crashed there for a couple months until I found a place in Brooklyn.
Then that winter I started working as a bike messenger, and after five road-rashing months I got a job with an art mover from Queens. Four days before I was to start my new gig I was blindsided by a car while on a messenger run and I woke up in Bellevue ER. My face was a mess and I was missing a tooth and a half.
When I showed up at the new job, I was a big hit. Everyone thought it was funny, including the photographer, who took some headshots of me, and now when I look at them it reminds me of the good old days.
That photographer -- Dona Ann McAdams -- is having a long-overdue exhibition in New York at the Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center on Manhattan’s West Side. Her photo of me didn’t make the cut, but I think you should check out the show all the same.
Going up to the library is a trip in itself -- acres of plaza crawling with tourists, with the Opera, the Philharmonic, the Ballet, the other Opera, the giant Theater, the other Ballet and still more under construction. It’s Super Culture Mall. The library itself turns out to be a very good venue to unleash your peepers, because it’s comfortably nestled so deep into farthest Lincoln Center’s crotch that you feel positively triumphant just getting there.
Though it emphasizes photographs of the downtown New York performance art scene in the 1980s and ‘90s -- Dona Ann’s specialty -- the show also includes pictures that have nothing to do with staged performances. In fact, McAdams’ best work is the street stuff, the part of real life where the staging has to do with how the shooter frames the action.
The studious hush of the library lends itself to easy looking. The show includes 30 photographs on two floors, dating from 1975 to 2005. The action taking begins when Dona Ann was attending the San Francisco Art Institute and running all over California shutterbugging that wacked-out decade. McAdams’ pictures from the ‘70s are old school black-and-white American cultural landscape, with the usual subjects from the history of photography, but McAdams’ shots are seriously wry, postmodern, bisexual and feline.
Dona’s pictures are full of quirks, framed with humor and pathos. I’m fascinated with the UCLA Cheerleader (1976) because it’s sexy, and the crowd is vast and all over the frame. I know I’m not alone in liking a good cheerleader picture.
When Dona Ann returned to her hometown of New York at the end of the ‘70s and into the ‘80s, she shot the mean streets of Loisaida’s Alphabet City, patients in a mental ward, the Hasidim in Williamsburg, Barcelona before the Olympics and more. But especially she more or less became the top photographer of downtown performance art.
Now when anyone needs pictures of the outrageous talents moshing the club scene and PS 122 in the East Village, Eric Bogosian, Holly Hughes, Ann Magnuson, Meredith Monk, Ethyl Eichelberger, David Wojnarowicz, etc., McAdams is the one they go to. That work became Caught in the Act, published by Aperture in 1996.
One sharp picture in the show is the now-classic 1987 photo of Karen Finley, her topless bod covered in raw egg and glitter, shoveling handfuls of Easter candy at the frightened but excited audience at PS 122. Dona Ann was and is the only shooter to capture Finley’s infamous early performances. Senator Jesse Helms waved Dona’s photos of Karen around on the Senate floor in an apoplectic rant about the NEA 4 (and then no doubt used them to fan himself later in the Senate toilet). Look at the pictures and you understand how much Dona and her Leica quietly collaborated with artists performing live and with the extreme power of youth.
The performance photographs capture stage scenes that were notably stellar, and often excruciatingly politically and sexually indulgent. Attending art performances back then was a dicey undertaking, but McAdams photos are symbiotic with their subjects, and convey the passion and beauty of the best and most outrageous talents that did their thing during that turbulent Reagan era. Not to mention the flopping dicks and hairy pussies flaunted in stark defiance of good Christian morals. You had to be there.
Dona Ann has continued to hone her art and move into new things, quite under the radar. Of late she has been focusing on animals, running a goat ranch and photographing the fading track life of horse racing in Saratoga. Maybe I had to think harder after seeing her pictures crammed together in a linear twilight zone. Seeing her show in the library was good because it’s isolated. The survey is a cool gem in a clear stream and it’s miles from Chelsea. What does come across is an eye for the reality performance of life, and Dona’s buttercup collaboration with performers lucky enough to know her.
"The Performance of Self in Everyday Life: Photographs by Dona Ann McAdams," Mar. 6-May 5, 2007, at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, New York
PAUL HASEGAWA-OVERACKER (H-O) is presently in post-production on the feature documentary, Guest of Cindy Sherman.