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No Photographer Captured the Studio 54 Era Quite Like Rose Hartman

If you can conjure up an image of Andy Warhol and co. partying at Studio 54 in your head right now, there’s a good chance that’s thanks, in part, to Rose Hartman. The photographer, native New Yorker, and octogenarian was hardly alone in capturing the debauchery, but the images she took decades ago are like no other—even as we’ve entered an era where “never-before-seen” Studio 54 photos seem to surface every few months. “I didn’t want to be repetitive,” Hartman told W over the phone from her apartment in New York. “I never wanted anyone just standing and posing—that would make me revolted.” She wanted to be so in the moment that she’d only have a chance to take a few shots—or sometimes, even just one.

That spontaneous approach led Hartman to capture some of the era’s most iconic impromptu moments—most famously, the 1977 image of Bianca Jagger atop a white horse at her 30th birthday that somehow doesn’t feel staged. “I’m a documentary photographer,” Hartman continued. “I see somebody like Daphne Guinness at a party for David LaChapelle. I’m at the same event, and I’m standing away from her. I don’t ask her to look in my direction; I take one shot while she’s chatting in her Philip Treacy veil.” The resulting photo is among those on display at TW Fine Art Gallery in Palm Beach, Florida through February 22. Here, Hartman looks back on some of the other throwbacks featured in the exhibition, titled “Femme Fatale,” and shares how she became one of the first fashion week photographers to capture the scene backstage.

Rose Hartman, A Veiled Daphne Guinness, 1991.

Rose Hartman, Feather-capped Angeleen, 1979.

How much of your career would you credit with being in the right place at the right time?

I went to all the fashion shows, and I loved being there. It was very exciting for me. An example would be once, I looked up—and there was J.Lo, just sitting on a seat. Nobody was paying attention to her, because of course nobody knew [who she was]. Part of my research was always reading W and every other fashion paper, so I always knew who was up-and-coming. I took that shot and it landed on the cover of some magazine because [by then] they really liked her. And then all the other photographers would say, Oh, who’s that? Who’s that?, and I would get really annoyed and think they were so lazy. Nobody wanted to do any research, but research was a big part.

But I also like to think I’ve only taken very few images of any subject. Bianca on the horse is my most well-known, most iconic image, and maybe I took two shots. Contrary to what people thought, it wasn’t that she was sitting on that horse for a while. She was on that horse for, like, three seconds, and then they took the horse and went out the back of the studio because it was a bit dangerous to have a horse in the middle of the room.

Rose Hartman, Club Kid with Baby Dolls.

Rose Hartman, Jerry Hall Backstage, Krizia Fashion Show, 1979.

Were you the only photographer present?

No, I’ll give you the backstory: I was a fanatical dancer. I’m not bragging, but it was true. I would be there with this particular guy who was a great dancer all the time and we would dance, dance, dance the night away. And at this juncture, I would hide my camera and flash in a huge speaker and dance near the speaker so that I wouldn’t have the cameras stolen by one of the wild people in the studio.

How common was it for the photographers you shot alongside to be women?

There were about three or four female photographers, but most of the photographers were male. And most of them were very aggressive. It was a very tough business, but I think you can feel this: I’m a pretty tough person. So we could be chatting, and I’d be really enjoying myself chatting with you, but suddenly I see Bianca kissing Mick? Well, I’m not going to talk to you. I’m gonna run over to where they are kissing, take the photograph, and then go back to the conversation. That’s what would happen.

Rose Hartman, Mick & Bianca Jagger Kissing at Studio 54, 1977.

Rose Hartman, Betsey Johnson on a Harley Davidson, early 1990s.

How were you able to just take photos without permission? At celebrity events these days, you have to get clearance and often only have access to the red carpet.

Yes, it’s horrible. It’s a whole different world. And they’re standing in front of these posters that say “buy this” or something…So I stopped doing it. I’m the kind of person who wants to be on her own. I know what I’m doing, and I will just do it. I’m not hanging around waiting, for example, for an embarrassing moment like somebody lying on the floor—and believe me, there were many people on the floor. I’m waiting for something that would reveal the person, would show them probably at their best. Never at their worst—I would never want to embarrass the subjects.

What did you wear when you went there? I’d imagine you’d try not to draw attention, but at the same time, it sounds like you were having a night out while you worked.

That’s a good question. I would always try to be as discreet as possible, so I only wore black. I would basically be in black trousers, a black jacket, maybe a lovely pin. I would be conscious that I was going to go out and look well, but I didn’t ever want to be attracting attention.

Rose Hartman, Grace Jones in a Straw Hat, 1978.

Rose Hartman, Kristen McMenamy Holding a Magazine Cover, Allure Magazine Party, 1990s.

I wanted to ask you about the photo of Kristen McMenamy, which really stands apart. It looks almost like a magazine editorial.

That was at a party for Allure magazine in SoHo. She was on the cover, so she just picked up the magazine. That’s a perfect example: I was next to her and I took the picture. All I’m trying to say is, I never know what’s going to happen. Did I know that she’d pick up the magazine and put it in front of her face? No. I did not. I loved her—I think she’s a great model.

What about the photo of Kate Moss?

That was a [John] Galliano fashion show on the top floor of Bergdorf Goodman. There were a lot of very interesting people—you know, Anna Wintour, André Leon Talley. I was invited and I couldn’t believe the models that were in that show. It was just extraordinary. I think that’s because Anna [Wintour] really loved Galliano, and I’m sure she told those models, “You better be out there promoting him.”

Rose Hartman, Kate Moss in a Galliano Gown, 1996.

Rose Hartman, Basquiat In Front of His Painting, 1980s.

It’s incredible to me that you were among the first photographers to shoot backstage at fashion shows. How did you get started with that?

Really simple: I had relationships with the PR people for the fashion designers, so they would give me an invitation or pass that would allow me to go backstage. I was interested in doing that, and most photographers were not. They were all in the front of the house. I remember eating sandwiches and being very happy, because I’d be shooting all day and it was really exhausting.

You were also early in photographing Jean-Michel Basquiat.

I didn’t know him, or of him, at all. I always went to gallery openings in SoHo, and he was having a show with Warhol. I knew this woman, a female artist, who said, “You should take a picture of that guy. He’s going to be famous, I swear to you.” So I said, “Okay,” and I took one shot. And then Sotheby’s used it in the catalog, because if you look behind him, the image behind is his famous painting that probably sold for, like, $50 million. It was just by chance, honestly. I never would have taken the picture because I had no idea who he was—he was just a kid standing there.

Rose Hartman, A Stylish Warhol at Studio 54, 1974.

Last thing: What’s the story behind the Andy Warhol photo?

He was just standing there, supposedly drinking milk. I thought he was really well dressed for a change, and that of course attracted me, because he was also a fantastic artist.

Do you think he was really drinking milk out of a wine glass?

Well, many people have said to me that he never drank alcohol, and it was white. It’s something that I’ll never find out for sure.