In the early 1980s, Bristol-born photographer Alastair Thain made a phone call that would change the entire course of his artistry. With a penny in the phonebox, the then young student called British icons Gilbert & George to ask if he could take their portrait. “When I started the world was an enormously more open place,” Thain reflects. “It was before cell phones, and computers, so if you wanted to see someone, you probably rang their bell, or tried their landline. I was nervous about calling Gilbert & George, and when I did George answered. I told him I’m a young student photographer and asked to take their photo. His response to if I could take his picture was ‘Would Thursday afternoon two o’clock, be of convenience?’, asking me nothing about myself. The human connections back then tended to be more intimate.”
It is this exact human intimacy that defines Thain’s entire oeuvre photographing deeply psychological and emotional portraits of famed artists. Either doused in black and white, or sharp colourful tones, the psyche and emotions of Thain’s sitters seep vividly through his images, as if Thain’s camera is some kind of mind reader. With a special focus on New York’s wild and thriving 1980s art world, Thain’s portraits take us deeper into artists’ psyches than most portraits ever have.
One of Thain’s most unique photos is a 1986 Dali-esque, black and white portrait of Andy Warhol, which forms part of a set of the last formal portraits ever taken of the artist. A day later, Warhol went to hospital and never came back out. Alongside this image is an endless bank of artist portraits with the same psychological depth, showing artists like Joseph Beuys (right before his death), Jean Michel-Basquiat, Leigh Bowery, Tilda Swinton, Vivienne Westwood, John Waters, and many more in emotional vulnerability.
Currently, a selection of Thain’s portraits are on show at London’s Hempstead May gallery whose Thain retrospective, Deeper, runs until 31 March. In light of the show, below Thain gives us a first-hand account on what it was like to live in and photograph New York’s subcultural 1980s art scene, including the personal story of photographing Warhol for the very last time, and the innovative photographic processes that allow Thain to create such vivid imagery.