The photos above are from a series of 180 pictures taken of Andy Warhol and Jean Michel Basquiat wearing boxing gloves. The series of portraits have become some of the most recognizable photos of Basquiat, and one of the most iconic of the two artists together. They made Michael Halsband, the photographer who took them, famous. It would take roughly three books this size to list all of the culturally relevant icons that Michael has photographed. From music and art to fashion and film, his extraordinary career includes exquisite portraiture of the best: James Brown, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Fellini, Blur, Bowie, Pacino, Catherine Deneuve, Jarvis Cocker and Yoko Ono. The list goes on.
In his early twenties Michael became the official photographer for The Rolling Stones, living with the band on a farm in Massachusetts, and documenting 1981’s Tattoo You tour at Mick Jagger’s request.
For decades his photography fluctuated from commercial assignments—fashion spreads for Vogue, musicians for Rolling Stone, interiors for Architectural Digest, icons for Vanity Fair—to personal portraits of celebrities, ballet dancers, sex workers and surfers. Throughout his career he has done dozens of album covers, music videos for Frank Black and Malcolm McLaren, a documentary on surf culture, and a random trip to Cuba with Hunter S. Thompson and Johnny Depp, which ended with Michael being written into Thompson’s book “Kingdom of Fear.” With a million questions to ask Michael, and only a few pages for him to answer, we had to strip our curiosity down to the essential question—how did all this happen?
MARC SANTO: How did you get started in photography?
MICHAEL HALSBAND: I went to a liberal arts college and was totally unhappy. I was upstate with my mom and I told her I was going to drop out of school. She asked me what I was going to do and I was like, “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll just move back to New York and start a band.” Of course any mother would’ve been horrified at that prospect, and without missing a beat she said, “Imagine yourself at 55 years old doing whatever it is you think you want to do.” When she said that, I pictured myself in a rumpled tux playing “Hava Nagila” at a bar mitzvah, and was like “OK, what are my other options?” My father was an art director, so my mother suggested I learn to be an art director and go work at an ad agency. I met a family friend who worked at SVA and he introduced me to the head of admissions. I showed up with paintings I did in my childhood, and she was pretty negative about my work. She told me my skills weren’t up to the level for them to admit me, but asked if I had any other work to show. I told her I had been doing photography since I was 10 years old. The next day I went back with my photographs and she accepted me. I was so happy because all I wanted was to be accepted at anything at that point, so I signed up on the spot. By the end of my first year I was hooked, and by the end of my third year I was making enough money doing photography to buy my studio.
MARC SANTO: Your early work is full of iconic portraits of the downtown scene. How did you get access to these people?
MICHAEL HALSBAND: New York in the late ’70s was an interesting place. It was the end of Max’s Kansas City and the beginning of 1 University Place and The Mudd Club. The punk scene was happening at CBGB and Great Gildersleeves, and the music and art scene would congregate at these clubs. People were always out, and it wasn’t uncommon to be walking the streets and see someone with white hair and a crazy costume on. I was doing an assignment for Art News and I ran into Andy Warhol on the street. I asked him if I could photograph him and he was so sweet about the whole thing. After that I was watching “Saturday Night Live” and David Bowie was the musical guest. He had Klaus Nomi on with him, and I always wanted to photograph him. Klaus was still very street level and I would see him out everywhere, but when I saw him on TV, it prompted me to act because I thought he’d become too famous and I’d lose my access to him. My girlfriend at the time was a friend of Joey Arias, who was working at Fiorruci and playing music with Klaus, so they made the introduction and it started there.
MARC SANTO: You’re known for your tour photography, especially your work with The Rolling Stones. How did this happen?
MICHAEL HALSBAND: I’d been going to the Fillmore East since I was 11 years old and would wait around outside to bum tickets for the show. I met these kids whose parents worked for Atlantic Records and we started hanging around there. The Stones were signed to Atlantic and they came to town to do Goats Head Soup, and that’s when I first met them. I became tight with the head of the publicity at Atlantic, who eventually became the head of Rolling Stones Records, which was The Stones’ label. Years later I ran into him and told him I was in art school, and he asked for my number. He called shortly after and offered me a few small jobs shooting musicians like Peter Tosh and Jim Carroll. I shot the back cover for Jim’s album, Catholic Boy, and that was my first big break. Later I got a call from “Rolling Stone” magazine, who wanted me to shoot a cover with Keith Richards. When I accepted they whisked me off to a farm in Massachusetts where The Stones were rehearsing. I spent weeks waiting for Keith to give me the word to shoot, but it never quite happened, so I continued with them through the first couple weeks of their tour. As I was waiting for Keith, I started documenting the tour on the side. The portrait was taking forever and “Rolling Stone” eventually lost faith and killed the assignment. I was so bummed because I spent all this time up there and had nothing to show for it. I felt like I blew it. Mick came to the rescue and asked me to stay on with them to photograph the tour and the next four months were like a dream come true.
MARC SANTO: And then you went on tour with The Who?
MICHAEL HALSBAND: The Stones are just so welcoming and make you a part of their thing, but with The Who, it never felt right. They never gave me the access I needed and made me travel with the opening band, which as it turned out was The Clash. This was before they were huge, and they were quiet and standoffish. They seemed to be taking the whole thing way too seriously. I remember thinking to myself, who the fuck are these guys? Later I realized they were just really focused. This was a hugely important tour for them and they knew they couldn’t blow it. The Who’s fans are not flexible and neither are The Stones’. I mean, I watched them boo Prince off the stage, so these guys had a lot of pressure on them. They needed to make an impact, and obviously they did.
MARC SANTO: Did this lead to AC/DC?
MICHAEL HALSBAND: When AC/DC dropped Back In Black, I was instantly drawn to their music. I wrote their manager for years trying to get on a tour with them. Eventually the relationship with their photographer came to an end and they were looking for someone else. Their manager told them there was this guy in New York who kept bugging him for the job and they said, “Well if he wants it that bad we should give it to him.” They hired me sight unseen, so my persistence paid off. Photography and music have always been equally important to me and I think the excitement of working with people that I admire is what carried me through. Early in my career the most dreaded thing for me was photographing someone who did nothing but act the way they really are. Through my journey I’ve learned to embrace that. The portrait of Mark Gonzalez is the perfect example of how intimate you can get with someone without trying too hard or forcing something that’s unnecessary. The courage to do nothing is the future for me.