Halston, 1979, Photograph © Dustin Pittman

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I first met Dustin Pittman when curing an exhibition about New York City in the 1970s. The depth of his archive was so profound, I felt like I traveled back in time. Since then, Dustin has been shooting New York’s never-ending parade of characters unlike anyone else in the world today. Dustin graciously agreed to do an interview showcasing his old and new school CAST OF CHARACTERS.

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WoW! Your perspective on New York nightlife is truly your own and makes me think  “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” Does this ring true or false to you?

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Dustin Pittman: I think that it definitely rings true. As a photographer I am always looking to fill my frame and capture new and fresh thoughts and concepts from my subjects. It doesn’t matter if I stood in the middle of the dance floor at Studio 54, or Paradise Garage in 1978 or backstage shooting fashion in 1976 or working with International designers in their atelier or the Boom Boom Room at the Standard in 2010.  I’m always searching, looking, always ready, on guard to capture the moment. I have been photographing people for over 40 years. In the studio. On the streets. Way Uptown. Way Downtown. New York, Paris, London, Milan, Tokyo, Europe, Africa, India, Middle East, the entire World. Day for Night. Night for Day.

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I love the way people look. It is their individual “look” and they “own it”. They are influenced by their history, their customs, their beliefs. You can’t take that away from them. They are who they are. The way they “carry” themselves. Their body language. The way they stand. Their heads, necks, arms, backs, shoulders, torsos, legs, feet and, of course, their FACES AND EXPRESSIONS.  I love people for that. That’s the difference between the 70’s and now. There were no cell phones, no laptops, facebook or twitter. People connected with other people in “real people time”. They didn’t  need to have their guard up all the time. They never anticipated the “snap of the shutter”. They just went about their business. People being People. Individuals being Individuals

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Now with all the blogs, vlogs and instant street photography people are ready for you. They are waiting for you. They are strategically dressed and screaming “take my picture”.  But, having said. That is the way it is. I accept it. It is not the 1960’s, 1970’s, 1980’s, 1990’s, etc, the time is now. I honor that. We may glamorize the past, but we honor our present. I honor that in people. New technology has ushered in new ideas and tools. People are more willing to explore themselves. They know who they are. They know their culture. I AM A HUGE FAN OF THAT.

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Now I have the opportunity to shoot with traditional cameras as well as the latest digital cameras with HD Video output. More technology, more opportunities. Old School and New School as one.

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Looking through your work, I was overwhelmed by the abundance of style. Everyone you photograph uses their face and body as a canvas. What are your thoughts on such personal expression?

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DP: My style of photographing has always been the “Polaroid School of Photography”  SPONTANEITY. I have always been in the “cinema-verite mode. What does that mean. I leave people alone. I let them “be”. I let them interact . I want them to show me their beautiful hearts and souls. I love their life. Past and Present.  I don’t want to destroy that precious “moment”. I let them perform. I got that from Andy Warhol.

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In the early days we used to go out to dinners, events and parties together with our cameras always “cocked”. I got it from shooting videos of the Warhol Superstars back in the 70’s. I got it from the countless thousands of Fashion Designers, Actors, musicians, and street people that I have photographed throughout my career. I got it from John Fairchild, the head of W. We traveled the around the world photographing inside the fashion ateliers together.  I got it from Anna Wintour. I got it from Gloria Swanson. I got it from Andre Leon Talley. I got it from Carrie Donovan. We would travel Paris, Milan, London and New York together. I got it from Toni Goodman, Vogue’s Creative Director and I got it from the Masters of Street and Portrait Photography way back in the 60’s and 70’s.  Photographers like William Eggelston, Robert Frank, William Klein, Eugene Smith, Larry Clark, Nan Goldin,  Diane Arbus, Helen Levitt, Elliott Erwitt, Danny Lyons, Garry Winogrand, Bill Cunningham, Robert Mapplethorpe Todd Popageorge,  and many more.

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We would work the streets and rooms together all night long and into the next day, and then into the night. There was no sleep for me during those years. Sleep. Who needed it. As long as my cameras were loaded and there was enough film in my pockets, that was my “fix”. My light is always on. When I photograph my subjects I look, think and compose before I snap my shutter. I never “ponce”.. I love to respect the moment, always letting it unfold. I let it happen. Never do I go into the frame and ask my subjects to pose or to “look this way” or stand this way. That is a different photograph. That is a photograph for the “studio”. Or, dare I say the word, the “poparazzi” photographers, who I am not a fan of.

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Mudd Club, 1978, Photograph © Dustin Pittman

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Who is your ideal subject?

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DP: My ideal subjects are the “untouched people on the streets of the world”. People are People and I love them for just being Who They Are.  People are my “Celebration of Life”. Young or Old, To photograph youth, from birth to death at any age. ROCKS.

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When did you move to New York and what was the city like back then? How was it being a photographer, getting access to celebrities of all kinds?

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DP: I moved to New York in 1968 and I was considered “street cool”. What a time it was. Right on the cusp of exploring “free expression” in the arts. Liberation and Hedonism were my themes. Film, photography, dance, performance art, theatre, music, fashion, poetry, etc was flourishing. It was a renaissance again. My renaissance. I spent 3 weeks photographing the happenings and lifesyle at the Woodstock festival before it even started. The  70’s and 80’s was a great time for photographing. Max’s Kansas City, Mudd Club, CBGB’s. I photographed the first Gay Pride parade in Greenwich Village  in 1970 and the 1st Woman’s Rights parade in the early 70’s.

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I was the very first fashion photographer photographing backstage fashion in the 70’s. It was just myself, the designers, hair and makeup and the models. Now there are thousands backstage and thousands trying to get into the tents. In the 70’s and 80’s,  I used to gather bunches of people and we used to spent the rest of the entire night and into the day shooting short films, movies and photographs. It was that easy.  Access to people was easier. You could do what you wanted. You didn’t have to give up your photographic rights in order to capture a person, scene or event.

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Betsy Johnson, 1979, Photograph © Dustin Pittman

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Having been on the scene for three decades, how would you best define the essence of New York’s nightlife?

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DP: I feel that New York nightlife is and always will be the driving force behind discovering and creating new ideas and trends. What propels that is the driving creative energy nightlife sucks in and out of you. Say what you want about “hanging out” at night, but one can always find something special to document happening somewhere. In the 70’s and 80’s, it was unthinkable to leave Manhattan for a party, show or event.  Now the big advantage is that New York nightlife has expanded to the boroughs. Williamsburg, the Bronx, Greenpoint, Bushwick, Gowanas, Richmond Hill, Long Island City. Artists are always looking for cheap workable space for their studios, galleries and performance events and these areas fit the bill. Having said that, because of this change, it has given us more opportunities. Anything and Everything is possible.

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Iris, Photograph © Dustin Pittman

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