Growing up amid the verdant splendor of New York’s Adirondack Mountains, Dustin Pittman recalls the day Hollywood came to town. A young ingénue named Liza Minnelli had been cast in her first major role, a quirky college girl named “Pookie” who falls in love, then falls apart after her boyfriend finds her “too much.”
Seeking the quintessential New England backdrop for the 1969 coming of age film, The Sterile Cuckoo, the cast and crew descended upon Hamilton College in Clinton, New York — a twist of fate that would transform Pittman’s life forevermore.
“It was like the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus coming through the tunnel in Manhattan, and then setting up the big tents,” Pittman says. “It was unbelievably spectacular. I got a production job, and what made it really special was there were no boundaries.”
Blessed with the perfect blend of curiosity and charm, Pittman became friends with Minnelli and her then-husband, Peter Allen, who encouraged the young photographer to move to New York. Pittman did just this in 1968, enrolling in School of Visual Arts and getting an apartment on 14th Street between Avenues C and D for a mere $12.50 a month, utilities included.
Pittman enrolled in the School of Visual Arts where studied photography and film just as the downtown scene exploded. For a brief sparkling moment between the 1967 Summer of Love and the 1981 outbreak of AIDS, New York was a veritable playground of sex, drugs, and rock & roll, with Pittman in the middle of it all, camera in hand.
“It was wonderful,” he remembers. “New York in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was a different time. People were less guard and the gates were open. You had the luxury of being able to work on your art.”
Whether hanging out with the latest crop of Factory Superstars like Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis, and Holly Woodlawn or photographing the very first Gay Pride Parade in 1970, Pittman quickly became the quintessential insider whose work helped to define the gritty glamour of New York music, fashion, art, and nightlife.
Over the past five decades, Pittman has amassed a singular archive of style and substance that is a veritable repository of late 20th century history. In the new exhibition, Dustin Pittman, he looks back at his extraordinary journey chronicling a cast of characters whose contributions have changed the world.
The Glamorous Life
When Dustin Pittman arrived in New York, the city was a bohemian wonderland where artists, musicians, filmmakers, designers, and writers enjoyed the freedom to experiment and create without undue stress to build a career and make rent. He took a job working at the 8th Street Bookshop in Greenwich Village, where he got to mix and mingle with painters, photographers, and poets like Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Diane Arbus, and Robert Frank.
On Sundays, Pittman and his friends would head over to the outdoor café at Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. “Everybody would parade around the fountain in their fashions; it was almost like Kings Road,” he remembers. “Everyone dressed to the nines, and they all had their own style. It wasn’t what you wore, but how you wore it.”
During the late 1960s, the fashion industry was undergoing a revolution of its own, as couture designers began introducing ready to wear lines. Pittman, who had worked as a model, began his freelance photography career traveling around the world on assignment for Vogue, The New York Times, and Women’s Wear Daily.
But the glamorous life came up short. “I was shooting in Paris, London, Japan, the Caribbean, and making a lot of money but I wasn’t doing what I loved,” he says. “I only wanted to photograph what I was passionate about; to me that’s success.”
Rather than follow the trends, Pittman seeks out innovators whose creations subvert the status quo, reimagining new ideas and forging spaces for stories untold. Adopting a cinema-verite approach, Pittman draws inspiration from the limitless possibilities of life itself.
Whether on the dance floor with cult film star Divine at Studio 54, at a far flung locale photographing groundbreaking Somali model Iman, or ensconced in the private home of 1920s silent film star Gloria Swanson, Pittman drew inspiration from those who created life on their own terms.
“Stay the Path”
During the 1970s, the New York nightlife scene experienced a seismic shit as a new generation of upstarts smashed through the increasingly corporate façade of rock and roll. While big ’60s bands jetted around the globe playing sold-out arena tours, grittier artists like Iggy Pop, David Bowie, and Lou Reed played local stages at Max’s Kansas City, CBGB, and the Mudd Club.
“During that time, there were no god and demigods. There was no stardom in the way we have celebrity now. We respected each other’s creativity, and that became the start of a friendship,” Pittman says. “I would go over to [Iggy Pop’s manager] Danny Field’s house, we would smoke a joint, and then walk over to Max’s. Danny had just one rule. If a photographer got too close to Iggy, he would break their camera. But we had a bond where he wouldn’t break my camera, so I have images shot under Iggy’s crotch with a wide angle lens. You can’t get closer than that!”
For every photograph in his archive, Pittman has a fabulous tale that comes from mutual respect, trust, and collaborative spirit. “They all had their own unique personality and sense of style, and that’s what I loved,” he remembers.
Looking back at the icons he photographed, Pittman reflects on what makes a legend most. “Survival,” he says. “I really respect survivors. If you get knocked down — which you will — you have got to get back up, dust yourself off, and keep going. It’s tough out there. For me the secret of survival is to stay true to your soul. Stay the path and stay true to your vision.”
Dustin Pittman is on view through December 20, 2023, at the Roxy Hotel in New York.