Marcus Leatherdale, Downtown Manhattan Portrait Artist, Dies at 69


Marcus Leatherdale, who made classic portraits of the Manhattan half-world in the 1980s – Keith Haring, Andy Warhol and Sydney Biddle Barrows, otherwise known as the Mayflower Madam, all visited his Lower East Side studio – died on April 22 at his home in the state of Jharkhand, India. He was 69 years old.

The cause was suicide, said Claudia Summers, his ex-wife. Her partner of two decades, Jorge Serio, died in July and Mr Leatherdale suffered a stroke shortly afterwards, Ms Summers said, adding that he also mourned the death of the couple’s dog and his mother Last year.

Mr. Leatherdale was the Cecil Beaton of midtown Manhattan. He photographed a not-yet-famous club kid named Madonna in her ripped jeans and denim vest. Performance artist Leigh Bowery looked regal in a garland-adorned mask, corset and merkin. Andy Warhol was a Hamlet in a black turtleneck. Susanne Bartsch, the nightlife impressaria, was a towering presence in red leather.

Born in Montreal, Mr. Leatherdale had previously traveled through India and Afghanistan in a van and attended art school in San Francisco before landing in New York in 1978, settling in the Wild West. of the Lower East Side. He and Mrs. Summers shared a loft on Grand Street, where Mr. Leatherdale set up his studio.

Their marriage wasn’t traditional, but they were best friends, and he was Canadian, so it made life easier if they got married. Her boyfriend for a time was Robert Mapplethorpe, whose photography studio he also ran. Mr. Leatherdale and Mapplethorpe were a striking couple, dressed as twins in leather and jeans, their faces as painted by Caravaggio, and they often photographed each other.

The Grand Street loft was an unusual household. Mrs. Summers was a dominatrix working under the name Mistress Juliette; one of his clients cleaned the place for free. Mapplethorpe helped Mrs. Summers with her job by giving her a pair of leather pants, a rubber suspender belt and S&M advice. Mr. Leatherdale, sober, tidy and decidedly not tough despite his leather uniform, was annoyed one morning when he awoke to find an English muffin tossed across the kitchen table with one of the stilettos of Mrs Summers. “What did you do last night?” ” he asked him.

Jean-Michel Basquiat often hung out there, playing his bongo drums; so were friends like Cookie Mueller, the beady-eyed convicted author and Details magazine contributor who was for a time Mapplethorpe and Mrs. Summers’ drug dealer, and Kathy Acker, the performance artist and novelist. But most of the time what happened in the attic was Mr. Leatherdale’s job.

For Details magazine, a chronicle of downtown Manhattan’s creative communities — its galleries, clubs and boutiques — Mr. Leatherdale had a regular column called Hidden Identities, for which he contributed veiled portraits of his friends.

He photographed Joey Arias, the raspy-voiced drag performer, as the Japanese Snow Princess. Keith Haring was a cheeky Santa Claus. Robin Byrd, the lovable stripper and cable TV host, wore nothing but her cowboy boots and a thong. Ms Barrows, christened Mayflower Madam for her lineage as head of a high-powered escort service in Manhattan, wore a ball gown.

When Annie Flanders, editor of Details (who died in March), pushed Mr Leatherdale to include those whose fame extended above 14th Street, he photographed subjects like Jodie Foster, dressing the actress a satin corset with a pouf skirt, one arm draped over her face — an atypical costume for someone more comfortable in bluejeans.

He photographed Ms. Summers, often in a dominatrix costume, hundreds of times.

“Her photographs were a celebration of why we moved to New York in the first place,” she said, “which had to be in the middle of this kind of creativity and breaking boundaries in terms of gender and of sexuality. Not that we think of it that way or that we speak in those terms. Marcus photographed the best of who we were, those idealized versions.

Marcus Andrew Leatherdale was born on September 18, 1952 in Montreal. Her father, Jack, was a veterinarian; his mother, Grace Leatherdale, was a homemaker. He attended the San Francisco Art Institute and, once in New York, the School of Visual Arts.

Unlike Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1989, and to whom he was often compared, and unlike many of his subjects, Mr Leatherdale seemed less focused on his own fame.

“He didn’t seem to be aiming for fame the way Robert did,” said David Hershkovits, co-founder of Paper magazine. “He was more low key. I don’t feel like he was ever distracted by what anyone else was doing. Shiny objects weren’t his thing.

“Robert was determined to be a star, whatever the cost,” Mr Leatherdale told ID magazine in 2017. “So when I started to be known for my photography, the tensions grew.”

He added, “We were artistic comrades, at first, until I got recognition. But in all honesty, NYC is a place where everyone is very career-focused. I too was very ambitious, but not competitive.

Yet Mr Leatherdale, with typical self-derision, said he considered Mapplethorpe ‘the most accomplished artist’.

Critics have often lumped the two together, even years after Mapplethorpe’s death.

“Marcus Leatherdale’s work has remained somewhat in the shadow of that of his senior colleague, Robert Mapplethorpe,” Holland Cotter wrote in a review of Mr. Leatherdale’s work in 1992. “Both take the nude figure as their image central; both show a penchant for theatrically posed and lit studio setups. While Mapplethorpe opted for a combination of shock and finesse, Mr. Leatherdale’s recent work shows an interest in carefully staged tableaus with symbolic content.

By the 1990s, Mr. Leatherdale photographed almost exclusively in India, capturing portraits of Hindu holy men, temple beggars, fishermen and pilgrims in the same elegant, classic manner he had developed in New York. He was drawn to the brutality of life there and the spirituality, Ms Summers said. Later he began to document the Adivasis tribes, a very remote minority population.

“I want to preserve the tradition of these proud people as best I can, much like Edward Curtis did with the American Indians,” he told an interviewer in 2016. “My work can be considered an anthropological portrait, even the New York City vintage. work of the 1980s.

With his partner, Mr. Serio, a makeup artist, he has made homes in India, New York and Portugal.

Ms Summers and Mr Leatherdale divorced in 2018. He is survived by one brother, Robert. No information on other survivors was available.

In 2019, Mr. Leatherdale collected his work from the 1980s in an exhibition called “Out of the Shadows”, at the Throckmorton Fine Art gallery in Manhattan, and in a book of the same title, written with Ms. Summers. It’s a haunting record of a vanished time and place – collectively a veritable memento mori, as Ms Summers put it, ‘although we didn’t realize it at the time’.

There’s Divine, the star of John Waters’ “Pink Flamingos,” majestic in a satin chemise, crowned in a beehive. There, too, are Mrs. Mueller, Tina Chow, Mapplethorpe and others who will soon die of AIDS. Stephen Reichard, once a handsome art dealer and consultant who liked to dress in sharp, expensive suits, is naked and skeletal from AIDS, a pieta on a hardwood chair. It was his decision to be photographed this way in 1988 and to climb the three floors to Mr. Leatherdale’s loft alone, although he struggled. Mr. Reichard died a few weeks later.

“I didn’t realize I was archiving an era that was going to disappear,” Mr Leatherdale recently said. “I had just got out of it. That’s exactly what we were doing. Of course, you think you’ll be 20 forever.


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