Uniquely, the 250-room Chelsea Hotel was and remains a combination of hotel rooms and rent-protected apartments. While travellers from all over the globe could pay to stay, it was the many famous and infamous names who lived and died at the Chelsea who crafted its story.
The hotel was home to William Burroughs, Jackson Pollock, Nico and Dee Dee Ramone. In 1978 Nancy Spungen, the girlfriend of Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious, bled to death in the Chelsea Hotel – an event depicted in the 1986 cult film Sid & Nancy starring Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb. It was also home to Melbourne-born Vali Myers, the opium-addicted, flame-haired dancer and artist who checked into the Chelsea in 1971 and remained there for 43 years before returning to Melbourne.
Myers was not the only long-term Chelsea resident to have hailed from Melbourne. One of the few residents still at the Chelsea, Tony Notarberardino, arrived in 1994 and has lived and worked there since. His apartment, combining the previous residences of Myers and Dee Dee Ramone (of the riotous punk band The Ramones), is still a bohemian sanctuary. Its deep-red walls and ceiling, eclectic mish-mash of collected objects, murals, animal print and mannequins all speak to a bygone era of Biba fashion, ’70s glam and bordello luxe.
For the past two decades he’s dedicated his time – 365 days a year – to his Chelsea Hotel Portraits project. “I set out to document the extraordinary cross-section of people who lived at or came to the hotel for one reason or another: tenants, transient hotel guests, staff, actors, writers, circus performers, drug dealers, drifters, porn stars, show girls, musicians and pretty much anyone I found in the lobby or the hallways late at night,” say Notarberardino.
Notarberardino set up an old-fashioned large-format 8×10 camera in the hallway of his apartment. “I wanted to be ready 24 hours a day,” he says.
While the project captures the essence of the Chelsea Hotel, both the romantic idealism of those who have only seen photos or heard stories and the true, larger-than-life reality of the place, Notarberardino’s intention was to capture the people. “I wasn’t interested in the building or the rooms, just the people.”
His subjects have included Deborah Harry, Warren Ellis, Dee Dee Ramone (who died in 2002) and Stanley Bard, as well as a flamboyant parade of lesser-known models, actors, musicians, artists and performers spotted in the corridors of the Chelsea. The photographs are highly detailed black and white portraits, many of them nudes, with the models looking directly, even defiantly, at the camera. The images are striking, candid and beautiful.
Notarberardino has photographed burlesque performers the Porcelain Twinz numerous times over the years. In his portraits, their androgynous bodies, pale and ghostly, are clad in thigh-high, glossy black boots, black nipple pasties, and leather chokers connect them by a metal chain from throat to throat. Their gaze is direct but disengaged. Like many of the subjects in the series, they seem both complicit and detached from their role as models – as if it is perfectly expected that they will be photographed at 3am, naked, in New York City.
One of his favourite portraits is of Stanley Bard, who transitioned from the plumber’s assistant at the hotel to manager and part owner in 1964 upon his father’s death. While the hotel fell into a decrepit state, where plumbing and cleaning were addressed only when they reached emergency status, Bard fostered the Fourier vision of communal living as a buttress for creativity.
“There were two original Brett Whiteleys hanging in the lobby when I arrived,” recalls Notarberardino. “Stanley had Andy Warhols because so many of the Factory people lived here, Nico and all the Chelsea girls. The whole collection was auctioned off a couple of years ago. Stanley’s contribution to the arts scene in New York has never been acknowledged or documented like it should. He just loved artists.”
‘The whole Chelsea is built on a portal, there’s something supernatural about this place. It has such a creative energy.’
A selection of Notarberardino’s work has been compiled into proof format, awaiting publication, although he doesn’t yet have a publisher. The book, when it is released, will be the last of the great works defined by and depicting the Chelsea Hotel as it was, the Chelsea where Bob Dylan wrote Sara, where Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe worked and lived in the 1970s, where Leonard Cohen wrote Chelsea Hotel #2 and where Arthur C. Clarke penned 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“The whole Chelsea is built on a portal, there’s something supernatural about this place,” says Notarberardino. “It has such a creative energy.”
He’s been able to dedicate time and money to Chelsea Portraits through his work in advertising for high-end department stores such as Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Ave, Bergdorf Goodman, and campaigns for major beauty companies. He also shoots for Vanity Fair magazine and Vogue.
His work in fashion and media began in Sydney more than 40 years ago. Born and raised in Melbourne to Italian migrant parents, Notarberardino attributes his career and passion for art to his childhood.
”My early influences came from my parents’ obsession with Italian neo-realist films. They used to take my sisters and I to a cinema in Sydney Road, Brunswick that screened Italian movies on a Saturday night. The power of those black and white films really shaped my vision.”
In Sydney, he worked for Vogue and various fashion clients before moving to the major fashion capitals of London, Milan and Paris. Frustrated by his inability to communicate easily and fluently in the French capital, he moved to New York.
“Within hours of arriving at the Chelsea, where my assistant had offered me space on the floor shared with three others, I went to ask for a room,” he recalls. “They asked if I wanted overnight or long term, which I didn’t even know was possible. That’s how I met Stanley Bard. It was Stanley who supported all the artists. Ten minutes later, he walked me into Vali Myers’ old apartment and all these years later I’m still here.”
Colin Miller, a New York-based photographer, together with writer Ray Mock released Hotel Chelsea: Living in the Last Bohemian Haven last year, a glossy tome that has documented the rooms and interiors of the Chelsea Hotel.
“The original idea was to try to document the homes of the people who lived there before all the renovations took place,” he says. It would take him four years owing to the challenge of trying to get residents who kept nocturnal hours, wary of outsiders, to agree to open their doors to him.
“My wife and I met Tony pretty early on. His apartment almost exists on another plane. His bedroom is my favourite place to be, actually. Tony’s created his own world there. He’s at the end of the hall on the sixth floor. The walls are vibrant red with yellow flowers over the doorway. Inside, it’s like a circus. On the left, the room that used to be Vali Myers’ has a ceiling painted in a starburst of yellow flowers and her murals all remain as she left them. It’s like a burlesque netherworld with candles, costumes and religious icons everywhere you look.”
‘It’s like a burlesque netherworld with candles, costumes and religious icons everywhere you look.’
Colin Miller on Tony Notarberardino’s apartment
Notarberardino’s main living room is the only one with a working fireplace, in front of which a chandelier sits on the floor studded with candles and light bulbs. A full wall is dedicated to a tableau of family portraits including Notarberardino’s two daughters, Venus, 24 and Persia, 20, who are living with their mother in Byron Bay.
“My daughters were here when 9/11 happened, but after that they moved back to Australia. They lived here for years, though. When I came to New York, it felt like a fantasy land. I felt at home so quickly, though.
When I’m done, it’s my hope that my daughters move in and live here under the grandfathering laws, which enable me to pass the apartment on to them.”
For now, Notarberardino can’t fathom living anywhere else. He continues to take portraits on the old-fashioned 8×10 Large Format Camera that is, in itself, a piece of art.
Chelsea Portraits is scheduled to exhibit at ACA Galleries in New York City next year. Notarberardino plans to travel the exhibition to London, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Tokyo and, he hopes, Australian galleries thereafter.