Tillman's photos preserve gaudy '80s club scene

Counterculture punk life at Fine Print Gallery

Arts: Museums/Literature

October 28, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

During the go-go decade of the '80s in New York, Paula Gately Tillman worked as a switchboard operator by day, then hit the streets at sundown to photograph the dazzling denizens of the city's punk rock community in their lairs on the late-night club scene.

Tillman's photographs from those days, on view at the Fine Print Gallery in Towson through Nov. 4, capture some of the heady thrill of that era, along with its fabulous self-absorption, recklessness and daring.

There's a wonderful image, for example, of "Trish and Snookey," owners of a trendy downtown punk apparel boutique called Manic Panic. The two women, in frilly skirts and form-fitting tank tops, look as if they just stepped off stage to applause from an adoring public.

Some of the pictures were published in New York's alternative press; others were used as publicity shots for the bands whose performances Tillman documented.

Tillman mined much of the same gritty material as celebrity pop culture photographers like Annie Leibovitz, whose work became famous in Rolling Stone and other magazines.

If anything, Tillman's spare technique made her images seem more naturalistic than Leibovitz' mannered portraits and closer in feel to the more intimate approach of photo-diarist Nan Goldin, who also documented the era's Lower East Side club scene.

Later, Tillman moved to Atlanta, where she continued to document musical counterculture. In 1986, she photographed the model RuPaul just before he burst onto the national scene.

One shot shows him as a somewhat vulnerable-looking young man with a Mohawk haircut, big jewelry and a star-struck expression that suggest both his craving for acceptance and his insecurity at the time.

There are more than 60 pictures in the show, many of them of artists who never made it to the big time, which gives Tillman's exquisitely printed black-and-white portraits a certain sad poignancy.

In Tillman's sensitive portrayals, we can empathize with her subjects' dreams without in any way overlooking the steep price they paid for their ambition and the reality of their lost youth and missed opportunities.

The show runs through Nov. 4. The gallery is at 7 Allegheny Ave. in Towson. Hours are Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday noon to 6 p.m. Call 410-847-9774.

For more art events, see Page 36.

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