In June of 1983, Madonna was an ambitious 24-year-old (there were and ARE a lot of them in NYC.) Photographer Richard Corman met the young singer in her walkup apartment on East Fourth Street between A and B. It was the moment, as Corman says,
“literally right before she stepped out and ran into the stratosphere.“
The month after they took these casual casting Polaroids, she released her debut album, Madonna, which produced three top-ten hits Holiday, Lucky Star and Borderline. A year later, she was writhing the stage in wedding dress (typed by Maripol) in her career-making MTV VMA performance of Like A Virgin. But when Corman took these Polaroids, she was still just DJ Jellybean Benitez’s girlfriend. As she wrote of that time,
“I felt like a warrior plunging my way through the crowds to survive.”
Corman was pretty well-connected young man in the early 80s. He had assisted Richard Avedon, and his mother Cis was a casting director who worked on films like Raging Bull and The Deer Hunter. (At the time he was also taking pictures of Keith Haring in Soho and Jean-Michel Basquiat at his Great Jones Street studio.) After 30 years 66 polaroids will finally get their due this fall as a book and an exhibit. Corman shared the story of how they came about with i-D magazine.
“These are images that I shot in 1983. What makes them so charming and special to me is actually the connection to my mother. She had introduced me to Madonna in the spring of ’83, when she was casting a movie called The Last Temptation of Christ, with Martin Scorsese. They auditioned Madonna for the Virgin Mary. As it turned out, Madonna never got the part, but she and I met each other at the time when I was working at Avedon Studios. I was looking constantly for interesting people to photograph. I had never met anyone really like her. She was original.
The Polaroid shoot came a bit later, when my mother was developing a niche musical called Cindy Rella. Madonna was actually at her brother’s apartment, and I needed to send [casting] pictures to Warner Bros ASAP. We didn’t do anything digitally or on an iPhone back then, we had Polaroids. So I shot about 66 Polaroids. We put together a book with a script for a treatment, and the casting. Michael Jackson or Prince would play the prince, Aretha Franklin was going to play the wicked stepmother. As it turned out, the movie never got made and the script and the 66 Polaroids were, I thought, lost for 30 years. Recently when I was going through my warehouse, cleaning it out from the farthest corner, my mouth was wide open to find that these images were just sitting there. In perfect condition.
If we did these pictures today there would be 30 people standing in that apartment. But it was just me and her, it was so simple. She was so accessible, funny, and sexy. She was so cool and had such charisma. So we started with the few pictures where she was cleaning the house as Cinderella, and then she’s getting ready for the ball. She went out and I think she took two hours to find that dress at some vintage store. At the time, she was kind of a local phenom.
I’m not necessarily a Madonna fan, but I’m certainly a fan of her determination, her spirit, and her energy. The pictures today feel a lot more relevant than they did back then. She was always relevant, of course. Just the way she was dressed, her hair, her makeup. Everything about her style and her swag was just 21st century. Between the denim and the red lips, and the cat eyes, the dark roots. Everything about her was now.
She knew exactly the way she wanted it to look. That evening, she met me and my mother and father up at this place on the Upper West Side where every New York City actor hung out. She walked in and she just stopped traffic. Nobody looked like her! She was a visionary in life, and she was certainly 100% original.
When I first met her and went to her apartment, she had to show me up the stairs because it was a building that was full of thugs. They protected her. She said,
‘Richard, you can’t come into the building until you tell me you’re here so I can tell the guys downstairs.‘
She was the pied piper of the neighborhood. People would come to her apartment to have pizza, go to the roof to sing and dance. She embraced it, and the city was really rough back then.”
Richard Corman’s 66 Polaroids will be out this fall from NJG, accompanied by an exhibition.