In June 1983, Madonna was an ambitious 24-year-old getting some heat on the club charts. When photographer Richard Corman met the young singer, she served him bubblegum and espresso on a silver tray at her beyond-bohemian walkup on East Fourth Street between A and B. It was, as he puts it, “literally right before she stepped out and ran into the stratosphere.” The month after they took some casual casting Polaroids, she released her debut album, Madonna, which produced three top-ten hits (“Holiday”, “Lucky Star”, “Borderline”).
One year later, she was writhing around a wedding cake in her career-making MTV VMA performance of ‘Like A Virgin.’ But when Corman took these gorgeous, stripped-down SX-70 Polaroids, she was still DJ Jellybean Benitez’s girlfriend, the good dancer from Funhouse and Danceteria, and a hustler who paid the rent by waitressing and posing nude for art students. As she wrote of that time, “I felt like a warrior plunging my way through the crowds to survive.”
Richard Corman was well-connected in the early 80s. He had assisted Avedon, and his mother Cis was a casting director who worked on films like Raging Bull and The Deer Hunter. When Corman photographed Madonna, he was also taking pictures of Keith Haring in Soho and Jean-Michel Basquiat at his Great Jones Street studio. But nothing prepared him for the young woman who looked to him like she “was going to rule the world.”
How did these polaroids come about?
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.
So she styled herself and did her own hair and makeup?
Totally. She was always in control. 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.
And your mom, Cis Corman, was a casting director?
Yes, she was a casting director and she later became a producer at Barbra Streisand’s company. The thing that makes this really special for me is that she’s suffering terribly with Alzheimer’s now. She’s 90. This is really an homage to her. None of this would have happened without our collaboration.
When did you start taking pictures?
I started taking pictures shortly after I was with Avedon in ’83. I never studied it, I was prepared to go into graduate school for psychology. I took a year off and photography kind of fell into my lap, just because I needed a break. Then I fell in love with it, and took a shot with it and decided that this is where my heart was. The experience at Avedon certainly changed my life.
What was it like working with Avedon?
Life-altering in the best way. You were around someone who was just incredibly passionate, smart, and his entire life revolves around his work. He was brilliant, he was generous, selfish, but I spent a lot of time traveling with him. One of the projects I worked closely with him on was In The American West. So I spent two summers with him traveling out there. It was just kind of mind-altering. We talked about photography and art.
How do you think Avedon’s work has influenced your own?
The most important thing about Dick’s work was the eyes of his subjects, and the ability to see behind their eyes. He allowed them to tell their own stories. For me, the pictures that mean the most are the ones where I see something behind people’s eyes. Where they’re allowed to tell their own story.
So what’s Madonna’s story from these images?
“I will be on top of the world. I will rule the world. Nothing will stop me, and I will go through anybody to get to where I’m going.” That was absolutely the language. It was so real and so natural. Nothing seemed pretentious. 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.
Text Rory Satran
All images courtesy and copyright Richard Corman