A portrait of the artist is always his subject. We know the photographer through the scenes they frame, capture, and keep like butterflies pinned inside a shadow box for eternity. The photographs of Christopher Makos capture a time and place that is always now, forever the present, the moment as it passes before his lens. Makos’ work keeps to the cutting edge, much like the photograph of a punk rock girl with a razor by Gillette dangling precariously beside her neck.
That photograph appears in White Trash Uncut, the stellar republication of Makos seminal 1977 paperback book. Where the 70s original was as Pop as Warhol himself, the deluxe Glitterati edition is New York City in the new millennium. As Debbie Harry aptly notes, Makos was the first photographer to record the convergence of the uptown and downtown worlds, and his book figuratively represents these ideals.
White Trash Uncut is printed in five colors—the fifth being silver—recalling nothing so brilliantly as Warhol’s Factory. The two artists are kindred spirits, both sharing a flair for the sensuous. Sex, drugs, and rock & roll—that’s just the tip of things to come. In Makos’ world, everything is beautiful, be it the filthy butts of half-smoked cigarettes strung on a necklace sold at Bergdorf Goodman or a photograph of a man’s crotch that has been captioned, “Hustler in a professional pose. Jeans by Fiorucci. Milan."
“White Trash” is an essence, an eau, an ode, a distinct perfume, a scent that is at once as distinctive as it is exquisite. It is the smell of the gutter after a long night, as the sun begins to break over the horizon. It is in the tatters, tears, and shreds of Richard Hell backstage, or piercing gaze of Man Ray through one eye of his glasses. It is the blood and flesh, fashion and sex. It takes immediate effect, holding you in its gaze, its grasp, its grip. It is neither sentimental nor melancholy. It is as though all tomorrow’s parties live on in the world, in Makos’ photographs of the iconic New York underground.
As Makos notes in the book’s new afterword, “I never really intended to do a book about Punk. As the light on the disco ball at Studio 54, and the last refrains of Donna Summers’ ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’ started to fade in the distance, the lexicon of Punk was starting to make some noise with its two- and three-chord musical impressions. And I was there merely to record that moment, without thinking much about the future of that moment as I recorded it.
“During the seven-day period in 1976 that I started documenting my friends, I realized I was documenting the personal style I was trying to identify; it was what the media of the time was calling Punk; today it’s called Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. With the flamboyance and excesses of the disco years, I, along with Debbie Harry, Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine, among others, found my way into the scene of ‘simple,' where less is more."
And, indeed it is, as White Trash Uncut is a precise 112 pages in length, a sharply defined look at a place and a time that has come into its own. Makos observes, “If you take pictures, after you publish them, they start to take on a life of their own. I have been this way with all my photographs. It’s the life that I have lived. It’s the people I have known. It all contributes to the body of work that one collects as you develop your career. I have always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. White Trash is an example of this tenant in my life.”
He continues, “The ultimate inspiration of Uncut, was the new interest in the fashion aspect of that time period. It became clear after the Metropolitan Museum in New York did a fashion retrospective of the cultural aspects of Punk, it was time to re-examine my photographs from the original White Trash, and then I took the opportunity to publish additional pictures that were not in the original.”
It is by virtue of going back to the past that we can examine where we have been and how we arrived at our place in the world today, on either side of the camera. The detritus of yesteryear has aged with the patina of chic, and what we once took for granted becomes all the more valuable as time marches forth.
As Peter Wise notes in the book’s new afterword, “Most trash, white or otherwise, is just trash, fit for the trash heap. Good riddance to bad rubbish. Yet great cities are built on heaps of trash. Uncovering an ancient dump is usually the first step that leads archaeologists to the important find. What survives burial to be recovered centuries later is assigned new value and meaning by contemporary eyes, and ends up in museums and private collections as trophy masterworks.”
And what has survived is reborn again, and so it is that we consider the past with fresh eyes as it lives in the now. “I’m always a little into the future,” Makos reveals, and indeed it may be that eye to the portending that makes his work so prescient after all these years, so able to speak to the present be reminding us that what was continues to exist in these photographs. Perhaps because it was all rather incidental that the book came to exist in the first place.
“The scene is always about people, and people, in the end, are what in inhabit the urban landscape. Its how we live, its how experience our landscape, and for me, New York has been that vital place, where things actually happen. It has always been that place where people feel free to be themselves, so of course, I have always enjoyed that process, and thru my photographs have been able to document my life, and the lives of others. As I often say, I take pictures to prove that I actually did these things, that I actually had a life. That's why, the pictures serve as a document to my life. An autobiography in pictures.”