Most photographers only dream of capturing the kind of intimacy that Dutch lensman Ari Marcopoulos achieves in every, seemingly absent-minded, shot. Whether it’s a portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat in the bathtub, or a snapshot of his son Ethan – arms spread like wings and ribs puffed out like a robin – Ari’s images are unflinchingly naked. But, he insists, when the film is hung up to dry, no-one is left more exposed than the man behind the lens.
“It reflects how I look at life more than other people,” admits Ari. “People say, ‘Oh yeah, Ari’s a fly on the wall,’ but I’m a pretty loud fly. I’m animated and I talk. I think a lot of my photos have a natural feeling because people are just doing their own thing and I’m taking pictures. Taking pictures is like texting to me.”
Ari does not like to overthink things. He didn’t give it a second thought when, as a naive twenty-two-year-old in 1979, he left his parochial Holland for the cultural cesspit of downtown New York. Even though, he recalls, it was Holland that first inspired him. “Every window is kind of like a photograph there because people don’t shut their curtains, so you can see right inside their houses,” he recalls. “I think that’s where my interest came from.”
Ari may be best described as a documentarian. His photos of the punk, graffiti and hip hop scenes in New York in the eighties effortlessly capture the spirit of the time from within. A remarkable feat when you consider he was a transatlantic nobody; an outsider, who arrived in the vertiginous city without a single friend. “I was just hanging around downtown, you know – some people became friends and others became acquaintances. It was pretty natural.”
Ari fell in with the downtown scene after he lucked out with a job printing Andy Warhol’s black and white photos. He met many of his subjects through these contacts or, in the case of artist Richard Serra, the phonebook, never hesitating to throw himself, camera first, into unknown territory. After Burton saw a folio of his photographs in a 1995 issue of Transworld Skateboarding, documenting the Brooklyn Banks scene later immortalised in Harmony Korine’s Kids, they contacted him and, thanks to a few white lies on Ari’s part, flew him to the Alps to shoot their new snowboarding catalogue. But Ari did not leave his unique vision behind. “I didn’t approach it as a sport, I approached it as a lifestyle,” he says. “That’s what I liked about snowboarding – a bunch of kids travelling around the world in their own community. They were just living their own life without their parents around – a community of people living and working together and seeing each other in different places. And then, of course, being in the mountains was beautiful. It gave me a whole new sense of nature and terrain.”
Now, having turned his lens inwards to photograph his wife and sons at home in California, after relocating once again in the noughties, Ari’s odyssey of self-expression is nicely tied up. But despite some prestigious tributes, including a recent mid-career survey at the Berkeley Art Museum and an upcoming place in the 2010 Whitney Biennial, he is not ready to stop creating any time soon. “I’m going to keep working, keep progressing, keep making ’zines,” says Ari of his future plans. His is a creative philosophy, summed up best in his advice to other artists: “Just do your own thing. Follow your heart. It’s not always easy to figure out what you want, but that’s kind of what you have to do… Don’t try to emulate what’s around you. Trust your own uniqueness and your own voice because that’s what’s most interesting about anybody. If somebody is imitating another artist or another photographer then it’s just going to look like that. Everybody has an individual voice, and it’s worth listening to. If you’re just boring with nothing to say, then I would say get out of art.”