If you’re wandering around the New York City’s East Village and suddenly find yourself on the outskirts of Alphabet City, there’s a cool little art gallery I know on Ave. A just off of 2nd St. It’s called Art on A. Go in. Check out the art on the walls. If you’re lucky enough to visit before September 22, what you see will be instantly relatable to anyone who can recognize the beauty of a subculture, its decadent allure, its decaying glamour. But those who know photographer Robert Butcher will know that his latest collection American Madonnas and Liars is based on a story that started long ago, born of a lifetime of rock and roll, drugs, and trouble which led up to a suicide attempt and finally resurrection. I was lucky enough to be able to talk to him about what brought him to his latest artistic venture.
Butcher was born in 1949 in Sheffield, England. “It was after the second world war and everything was depressing,” says Butcher. He was further depressed by the occurrence of an industrial machine accident that rendered his right arm useless. Luckily, there was a turning point with two pivotal life events. The first was his father giving Butcher a camera he could use with his left hand. The second was Elvis Presley. “I heard Elvis Presley and I knew what my life was meant to be,” recalls Butcher.
Unfortunately, Butcher’s life was plagued with an appetite for drugs and trouble which led him on a transcontinental journey. At 20, Butler found himself coming off his first heroin addiction and opening his first photography studio in Australia. Butcher says of that time, “I was very different from most fashion photographers. They used to work in suits and ties. I went to work with long hair and a leather jacket and ended up becoming a fashion photographer. Then I got into more trouble and ended up in NY.”
It was in New York that Butcher’s “definition of beauty changed. The interracial mix and stature of beauty was amazing.” Butcher goes on to talk about working with his favorite modeling agency Voli, who liked to book unusual looking girls. “When you looked at them normally, there looked like there was something a bit wrong with them, noses too long, eyes too deep set, but when you looked at them through the camera they were just stunning.” Unfortunately, Butcher’s stint in high fashion would come to an end when he “nodded out on the Vogue fashion editor’s desk.” She suggested a change of pace and Butcher readily agreed. “I was due for a change, something with more of an edge to it I wasn’t finding in fashion at the time.”
It was then that Butcher decided to immerse himself in the downtown scene, shooting for magazines like Details, Paper, and The Village Voice. He also started photographing tattoos, something that was considered borderline pornographic at the time.
Butcher’s life twisted and turned, with some twists being not for the best. The witnessing of the 9/11 tragedy, a home invasion, and an agoraphobic stint all led to a failed suicide attempt a few years back. Butcher found himself unexpectedly alive with no particular plans. Said Butcher, “I didn’t know what to do so I replied to an email that I got 11 years earlier from a publisher I used to take photographs for.” She’d written “Let’s have lunch” and 11 years later, Butcher said “okay.” It turned out that this publisher was now editing a local magazine called New York Waste and asked Butcher if he’d like to contribute. The therapeutic release of writing was just what Butcher needed.
He decided that the theme of his column would be “to write about all the women who have influenced me, that supported me, all the goddesses I have loved in NY and I want to interview them and do profiles on them.” His subjects included iconic East Village figures like blogger, former Cycle Slut from Hell, and all around East Village socialite, Raffaele, and Nitzin, who Butcher describes as “a beautiful woman who used to be a lesbian, who is now a man called Nitzin, who is looking for a man to settle down with.”
Butcher photographed as he interviewed and ended up with a bunch of black and white photographs and he thought “How can I make these more iconic?” Butcher began “banging around with images of the American flag,” a common theme for him and incorporated multi media aspects a process that involved “a combination of two cameras and hours and hours of work.” The result is what Butcher likes to refer to as “a distressed look.” He further explains, “I would go down to the subways and all the posters were made out of paper and the people would rip the posters and there’d be an eye under an eye. I’ve always liked that look.”
Butcher further goes on to explain some of the thought process behind the works. “I can hide them [his subjects] under flags and exploit them sexually…and as for the liars, as a man and photographer, we constantly lie to women and provoke and seduce them. The pictures are of the women being seduced but also telling the viewer ‘you’re a liar’.” He goes on to say that “I can add this feeling like they’ve always been there on walls deteriorating and their beauty will be there always.”
American Madonnas and Liars will be running at Art on A Gallery through September 22, 2016.
[Images courtesy of Robert Butcher. Used with permission.]
Marissa Bergen is a Los Angeles-based musician and writer. “Spotlight On Local” focuses on independent underground artists in the hard rock, heavy metal, and punk genres.