Chris Stein is probably best known as a founding member of the rock band Blondie. But he’s also an accomplished photographer. His forthcoming book, Point of View: Me, New York City, and the Punk Scene, offers an up-close-and-personal glimpse of 1970s New York. Stein spoke with Explore Parts Unknown‘s Cengiz Yar about his work.
Cengiz Yar: How did you get into photography?
Chris Stein: I was always messing around with little cameras when I was a kid. This one kid, Denis Maguire, was a really brilliant photographer and had a big influence on me. He apprenticed with Diane Arbus and was on the periphery of the Warhol scene. Somewhere around 1968 I started dealing with regular reflex cameras.
I ended up going to school at the School of Visual Arts. I was in the fine arts program but kind of drifted into photography because the fine art scene at that point was consumed by conceptual art, which I found kind of dry. I’m much more of a Romantic.
Yar: What drove you to start photographing on the Lower East Side?
Stein: At the time the Lower East Side was very funky. There were all these empty buildings, people living in squats, and all that kind of stuff. I don’t know exactly where it comes from, but I’ve always been attracted to demolished, broken-down stuff, and that was all around.
Yar: Did this destruction make the LES more visually inspiring?
Stein: This is just where I was. There was more of a connection between New York in the 1970s and a hundred years ago than there is between the 1970s and now. You had TV, phones, and cars, but the city didn’t try to make everything look modern and futuristic the way they do now. Now if you go into a boutique or something, everything looks like it’s a hundred years hence.
Yar: What was the attitude toward photographers back then?
Stein: Maybe there was a little more credibility then because not everybody was taking pictures 24/7. When you walked up to somebody with a camera, they were a tad more impressed. Now cameras are just so ubiquitous. In the intro to the book I write about how nobody—not even the best science fiction writers—saw the cell-phone revolution coming. Everybody’s just staring at these objects in their hands.
Yar: The city has changed a lot. What’s that like for you?
Stein: Places like Times Square are miserable for me. I would much rather see junkies and hookers than f*****g Elmo and Spiderman and all that stuff. It’s kind of absurd. It’s the trade-off for safety or whatever. I didn’t really mind having to watch my back. I have kids now, and they go to school by themselves on the train. I guess to some degree I am appreciative of things being less insane.
Yar: Did you ever have your camera stolen?
Stein: Yeah, absolutely. My friend and I got held up by these two guys in my hallway, and they took his watch and the camera and then they go, “Pull your pants down!”
So we go, “Ah s**t. We’re gonna have to fight if they stab us in the balls.”
But that was actually just to make sure we couldn’t chase them. So they ran out, and we had to pull our pants up to chase them. We chased them around the corner, and there was a housing cop there. He chased them with us and grabbed the guy’s coat and the camera strap, but [the thief] slipped out of his coat and ran off. Then he came back with the camera. It was kind of amazing actually.
Yar: Do you still shoot on film?
Stein: No, I shoot on digital. To me, film is like vinyl. It’s a fetish at this point. Film is such a pain in the ass. When you shoot with digital, you get these clean images, so you don’t have to spot them. You get a thousand images in your camera instead of 30. It’s a big difference.
Yar: What was the transition from film to digital like for you?
Stein: I started getting the s****y little digital cameras right away. One of my favorite things was a Casio camera watch, but it was so f*****g pixilated. It’s like 1 megapixel or something. I still have images floating around from it—that was really fun for its surreptitious quality. I don’t know why the damn Apple Watch doesn’t have a camera on it. I might buy one if it did.
Yar: Do you still shoot a lot?
Stein: Yeah, I always have my phone. I shoot with my phone and get good results with it. I spend a lot of time shooting around the streets. I don’t get out to the clubs much these days. Back in the old days I always had this sort of inner dialogue: Are you going to watch a concert or take a camera and deal with a camera? There’s lots of stuff I wish I had brought cameras to.
Yar: Is there anything about photography today that annoys you?
Stein: I find people taking pictures of their lunch insufferable. I can understand people taking pictures of their pets, but I don’t see how taking pictures of a cup of coffee necessarily is something that you need to put out there.
Yar: Are there any NYC street photographers you’re paying attention to right now?
Stein: This one guy on Instagram, Clay Benskin, is one of my favorites. He is great. I’ve met up with him a couple of times.
Yar: What advice do you have for a young aspiring street photographer?
Stein: Just go for your composition and try to take nice images. I don’t think I ever was thinking about the historical aspects of what I was doing. I was always about trying to make a nice photograph, but at the same time, I didn’t really realize all this stuff was going to happen. So I always tell kids, just take pictures of your friends. You never know what’s going to happen.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.