Life & Culture

Nude Photographs of 1980s Underground Icons in the Bathtub

Robert Mapplethorpe, Keith Haring, Peter Hujar, Peter Berlin and Cookie Mueller all feature in Don Herron’s seductive Tub Shots series – now on show in New York

  • TextDaisy Woodward

The bathtub is one of life’s most intimate sanctuaries. A unit traditionally designed to hold one person, it is a place for soaking, speculating, reading and revitalising in utter solidarity. Which is why Tub Shots – a series of portraits of New York cultural icons, captured in their baths by late American photographer Don Herron between 1978 and 1993 – makes for particularly compelling viewing. On display at Daniel Cooney gallery in New York from today, the images read like a who’s who of the city’s 80s underground scene, featuring everyone from a 24-year old Keith Haring, against the backdrop of his own tiled mural, to a young, strung-out Robert Mapplethorpe snapped in his hotel room. Photographers Peter Hujar and Peter Berlin, actress and writer Cookie Mueller, and a number of Warhol’s superstars, including the inimitable Holly Woodlawn, also feature, each serving up their own unique take on the tub shot.

Herron’s approach was an entirely collaborative one; his preoccupation was the lighting and composition – he chose the bath as the setting for the series as he liked the way the container’s curvature framed its inhabitants, evoking art historical arches and niches – but he left the posing and presentation up to his subjects. Some opted to keep it simple, lying recumbent and staring up at the photographer perching on the back ledge of their bathtub, occasionally accompanied by props hinting at their personal pursuits. Mueller, for instance, reclines naked in front of a poster of her John Waters-lensed film Desperate Living – tagline: “It isn’t very pretty”. Others, like Woodlawn and performer Phoebe Legere throw textiles, jewels and accessories into the mix to theatrical effect. Some expose themselves freely, while others employ imaginative means of coverage: giant seashells, an anonymous hand, a fake phallus.

Cumulatively, the works offer delightfully eccentric insight into the lives of a tightly-knit group of subcultural luminaries, whose artistic energy burned with increasing urgency as the AIDS crisis cast its dark shadow over their world. As gallerist Daniel Cooney muses, “I’m struck by the multiple subtexts going on in the work: the loss of young life due to AIDS, the perseverance and joy of the creative community and the many intertwined lives — I love that the sense of unity is so strongly prevalent.”

Don Herron: Tub Shots opens today at Daniel Cooney Fine Art, New York and runs until November 3