Raped at knifepoint on a rooftop, held-up at gunpoint, repeatedly burgled… a recent account of Madonna’s early days as a struggling artist in New York made for harrowing reading.
The Michigan-born singer moved to the Big Apple in 1978 at the age of 19 and found it a daunting place. ‘New York wasn’t everything I thought it would be,’ she wrote in October’s Harper’s Bazaar. ‘It did not welcome me with open arms.’
But Madonna NYC 83, a new book by iconic photographer Richard Corman, shows the singer soon put that rocky start behind her.
By 1983, she was firmly ingratiated as part of New York’s bustling Lower East Side collective of artists and creatives, casting herself as a Downtown deity with the talent and ruthless ambition to become the most successful female pop artist of all time.
Corman’s book is a captivating portrait of Madonna on the cusp of fame. He photographed the singer on the recommendation of his mother, a casting director who had seen her audition for a film role.
‘I had just done an apprenticeship with [photographer] Richard Avedon and was always looking for interesting subjects to photograph,’ says Corman. ‘At the time, my mother was casting Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ, and was considering Madonna to play the Virgin Mary. She called me and described Madonna as “an absolute original” whom I had to meet and photograph. After being given her contact info, I called and suggested we meet and take photos. She agreed and the rest is as you see it in the book.’
Corman met Madonna at her loft apartment immediately to discuss what they were going to do and, despite the fact she had yet to create any impact outside of the New York nightclubs she frequented, he was struck by the potent star quality she emanated, describing their first meeting as ‘magical’.
‘I heard her yelling when I got there and as soon as she leaned over the banister of her Lower East Side walk-up building and I saw those remarkable eyes, I knew at that moment she was special,’ he recalls. ‘She was charismatic and unlike anyone I had seen at the time. In my mind, she was definitely on her way to greatness.’
Corman began taking candid photographs of Madonna in her apartment and around the neighbourhood with local street kids. It quickly became apparent that she was a natural in front of the camera.
‘She was always completely herself during our shoots together,’ he says. ‘Whether I was photographing her in her apartment, walking the streets of the Lower East Side or on the set of her first movie, Madonna was always comfortable in her own skin and consistently conveyed an attitude of fierce determination. Her humour, sexuality, style and beauty were entirely her own and, more often than not, the photographs were simple and non-prescriptive.’
As one of the most photographed women in history, Madonna has subsequently succumbed to the lenses of some of the world’s greatest image-makers for countless hyper-stylised portraits and portfolios. However, few capture the essence of her in the way Corman’s portraits do, depicting a wide-eyed girl at the beginning of a journey that would completely transform her life within months.
‘It all came from her unique sensibility,’ says Corman. ‘She always had a style of her own. Whether doing her own make-up, hair and wardrobe, everything was entirely her and that later became a pop cultural sensation.’
Corman is, of course, referring to the infamous sexy street-urchin style that Madonna pioneered and was emulated by teenage girls worldwide: all ripped denim, lace, layered jewellery and a bare midriff. Very much back in vogue, the look is an obvious reference point for artists such as Rihanna, Miley Cyrus and Sky Ferreira.
‘These photographs are more relevant today than ever,’ Corman laughs. ‘Madonna’s sensibility, her style and fashion from the past is raging today. Some of the photographs would have looked dated 20 years ago but today they are totally relevant. The energy that pulsed back then, that Madonna represents so well, is alive today with renewed vigour.’
One of the best examples of this energy is a series of pictures of Madonna on the streets of New York with a group of breakdancing street kids. ‘Those shots are my favourites,’ Corman says. ‘They capture her perfectly. Those kids adored her. She really was like the Pied Piper. The kids would dance, sing and laugh with Madonna as she and her boombox exuded joy!’
Madonna NYC 83 by Richard Corman (Damiani) is published today, £35.