In 2011, The Chelsea Hotel underwent a massive 10-year renovation that signified the end of the Bard Era. Named after Stanely Bard, this half-a-century epoch (1957-2007) encompassed the height of artistic talent and residency of numerous musicians, artists, and entertainers who called the legendary hotel home. Known as the “Keeper of The Chelsea Hotel,” Bard worked at the front desk, where he was a connoisseur of artistic talent. During the golden age of the Chelsea, the likes of Cher, Jane Fonda, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Betsey Johnson, Patti Smith, Bob Marley, Janis Joplin, and countless more known and unknown concocted an unconventional artists’ wonderland that left a lasting legacy on our culture today. 

After Bard’s departure in 2007, ownership changed three times until BD Hotels (New York’s largest and most elusive independent hotel owners) took over in 2016. During its major renovation in 2011, hotel owners at that time fired all the staff, asked guests to check out immediately, and tried to kick out permanent tenants. Most of the hotel’s remaining residents left but a precious few fought for their long-time homes in court and were able to stay.

Tony Notarberardino is one of the remaining lucky artists who still live permanently at the hotel. He showed up in 1994 “and never left.” As one of the last to experience Bard’s magnetism, Notarberardino “documented the end of that era” in a photo series he calls The Chelsea Hotel Portraits, which it debuts publicly, for the first time at ACA Galleries now until April 13, 2024. 

During that 10-year renovation, Notarberardino explained how he lived in “an empty hotel for 10 years” and compared it to living in The Shining. At least, Notarberardino noted, “while the hotel was closed, we made a lot of good use out of it” by throwing parties (often filled with burlesque shows and sex) and photographing the oddities of that time. Speaking to him in room #629 was like walking into a time capsule of old New York. Jazz playing, cigarette smoke lingering, and art and costumes hanging off of the walls, light fixtures, and mannequins — this elusive world fit Notarberardino like a glove. 

Living at the Chelsea offered Notarberardino the opportunity to intimately document its eccentric inhabitants from 1994-2010, where viewers get an exclusive look into New York’s dynamic underground counterculture through black and white portraits. “The series isn’t only about the tenants, it’s about whoever’s here,” said Notarberardino. “[I shoot] anyone who catches my eye.”

Using his vintage Toyo Field camera, Notarberardino still shoots his portraits and has shot over 1,500 people. Who immediately stands out among the hundreds of portraits are the women, queer sex workers, burlesque performers, and nude trans bodies he’s captured over the years. Some notable portraits include a topless and stunning Amanda Lepore, a glamorous older woman named Bonnie wearing her original 1950s showgirl costume, sans wig — and tough butch lesbian and LGBTQIA+ icon, Stormé DeLarverie, proudly sporting a shiner. 

Tony Notarberardino, Stormé DeLarverie, 1998. © Tony Notarberardino. Courtesy the artist and ACA Galleries, New York

“All the women [in the series] are heroes of mine, to be honest,” says Notarberardino. “[I’ve shot] Mary Ellen Mark, a portrait photographer, and one of my all-time inspirations, Susanne Bartsch, Debbie Harry, Grace Jones, and lots of performers and sex workers. I admire strong women and I tried to capture that.” 

But it always comes back to the specific intimacy and magic of the Chelsea. “I don’t think you could ever shoot this substance unless you lived here,” said Notarberardino. Each portrait reveals a deeply intimate side of their subjects — Likely because many of his portraits involved years of courting. “The circumstances must be right,” he explains. “It was an evolution of circumstance, you have to get to know these people.”

The series highlights 8×10 and life-sized portraits. When asked why, after a 30+ year career in fashion photography, film, and portraiture, 2024 was the right time to debut his work, Notarberardino answered, relatably, “It’s not easy to get a gallery show in New York, [but] this is the beginning of it all.”

Chelsea Hotel Portraits by Tony Notarberardino is on display for viewing at the ACA Galleries from March 9 – 13 April 2024.

Photography Tony Notarberardino

Editors Savannah Sobrevilla / Lizzy Goodman

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