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An interview with photographer Tony Notarberardino

Photo of the Hotel Chelsea neon sign
Haunted Hotel sign (August 11, 2004). Tiffany Del Valle

Manhattan’s trendy Chelsea neighborhood has a rich and established arts and culture scene with an array of galleries, the High Line and the unique urban oasis of Little Island. A remnant of the area’s artistic history can be found on West 23rd Street: a 12-story Queen Anne Revival and Gothic building with Victorian dollhouse rooms. The large neon sign reads “HOTEL CHELSEA” in white and red.

A famous bohemian landmark that opened in 1888, the Chelsea Hotel is known for its long, star-studded list of artists, writers, musicians and other creatives who stayed temporarily or moved into apartments thanks to the low rents that young and emerging talents from the early 1960s. Many decades later, there are still tenants who called Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Charles Bukowski, Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, William S. Burroughs, Jimi Hendrix and Madonna their neighbors.

Portrait of twins with leather collarsPortrait of twins with leather collars
Porcelain Twinz (December 16, 2007). Tiffany Del Valle

Among these seasoned residents of Hotel Chelsea is New York-based photographer Tony Notarberardino, who was raised in Melbourne by Italian parents. His striking black and white portraits have captured the many remarkable faces seen in the corridors of the Chelsea Hotel, as well as lesser known, but no less interesting subjects that added to the romance and mystique.

Notarberardino, who arrived at the hotel in 1994 and lived there for 30 years, says the series came to life in September 1997. He was in the elevator at the Chelsea Hotel and had returned home at four in the morning. she was carrying more bags than she could handle while holding the hand of a six-year-old boy,” he told me when we met earlier this month. “After four years of letting these moments pass, I introduced myself and asked if I could photograph her.”

Photo of Hotel Chelsea's previous owner, Stanley BardPhoto of Hotel Chelsea's previous owner, Stanley Bard
Notarberardino’s portrait of former Chelsea Hotel owner Stanley Bard (2008). Tiffany Del Valle

His “Chelsea Hotel Portraits,” taken between 1997 and 2023 on a vintage 1960s Toyo-View 810GII in the hallway of his apartment, are on view for the first time in his neighborhood at ACA Galleries. Notarberardino guided me through the gallery to tell me more about life in Chelsea and his breathtaking portraits of the hotel’s visitors and residents.

Observer: There is so much power in these portraits. What can you tell us about the collection as a whole?

Tony Notarberardino: Chelsea has some of the greatest stories, but some have never been told. My collection (at ACA) is only thirty-five portraits, but I think I’ve done about 1,500 portraits over the years, so there are so many stories.

The photos capture beautiful shadows and textures. Why would you only photograph in black and white?

I like black and white; it’s all I photograph. I used a large format camera and that is why the quality looks so good. The more you enlarge them, the better they become. This is the first time I’ve seen them this big myself, and they have such a unique quality for me.

Four framed photos: three portraits and a photo of room 627Four framed photos: three portraits and a photo of room 627
The ‘Chelsea Hotel Portraits’ at ACA Galleries. Tiffany Del Valle

Can you describe what it’s like to live in Chelsea?

It’s such a unique place visually and it has a great community. Once you are there, you always feel supported. This caused the collection of portraits to grow. Because one person would suggest coming to me, and another would say, “So and so is coming over next week and staying here,” so I can photograph them.

What is it like to live there now?

It is this new incarnation; It’s definitely not this era that I captured because it’s more expensive and businesslike. The rooms are now $600, they used to be $60 a night, so they had a different clientele. There used to be more long-term tenants; now there are about twenty-five tenants left, and at one point they were half tenants and half guests.

Tell us about some conscious choices you’ve made regarding the display.

Initially, I thought maybe your phone could scan a code next to each individual subject, and it would take you to a website or app that would tell you who they are. After much thought, I just wanted the photos to speak. I guess I didn’t want people to be distracted. For example, you’re probably not that familiar with what Arthur C. Clark looks like, but everyone knows it 2001: A space odyssey and the impact he had on science fiction writing. His photo is here.

Black and white portrait of God Complex and Veronica ViperBlack and white portrait of God Complex and Veronica Viper
Portrait of God Complex and Veronica Viper, (March 26, 2023). Tiffany Del Valle

What is one of your favorite portraits you have taken?

I really love God complex and Veronica Viper. God Complex actually came to the gallery to see his portrait and was happy to see such unique characters being photographed.

What do you think about the neighborhood then and now?

In ’94, the Chelsea Hotel was a dive, and I thought it was cinematic. The neighborhood had its reputation, but for me it was photogenic. My place is quite magical and reflects the fantasy world we live in. I’m never leaving; why would I? I like this place.

‘Chelsea Hotel Portraits’ is on view at ACA Galleries until April 27.

How Tony Notarberardino's 'Chelsea Hotel Portraits' captured the end of an era