Review: ‘Chelsea Hotel Portraits’ expertly reveals humanity in the Chelsea Hotel

Six black and white portraits on a wall.

The Chelsea Hotel could, at one point, have been a little bohemian city all on its own. Originally established as an apartment cooperative in 1884, the red-bricked 23rd Street dwelling was more than just a temporary stay for starry-eyed New York visitors — it was a creative refuge for the artists, writers, musicians and performers who have come to define 20th-century pop culture, like Madonna and Patti Smith. In 1994, Australian photographer Tony Notarberardino unintentionally joined the hotel’s roster of artistic tenants, and his portraits of others who lived there are on view in the exhibition “Chelsea Hotel Portraits” at the American Contemporary Art Gallery. 

Having originally planned to crash with a friend for just a couple days, Notarberardino ended up inhabiting a room on the sixth floor — previously owned by fellow Australian artist Vali Myers — and has been living there for many years. During the first three years of his residency, the photographer observed the hotel’s eccentric residents and visitors with fascination and an unshakeable urge to document them in all their authentic glory. Armed with his vintage 1960s Toyo-View camera, he began shooting black-and-white photographs of the individuals who both ran the hotel’s daily operations and upheld its creative legacy. 

“Chelsea Hotel Portraits” displays 35 portraits of residents and hotel regulars who epitomize the dwelling’s rich, artistic history. The gallery’s rooms feature portraits ranging from cultural icons like Grace Jones to employees like the late hotel manager Stanley Bard, revealing the faces of the people who have encapsulated the hotel’s vibrant spirit and allowed its magical charm to live on. 

The exhibition does a great job at portraying the array of personalities that the hotel attracts, from portraits of dazzling showgirls to unassuming writers or workers. “Trash Man Elias Jose Reramos,” a portrait of a man carrying two large plastic bags ready for disposal, sits next to “Rose Wood,” a portrait of a performance artist with a face powdered white standing fully naked. “Waiters El Quijote,” displaying servers from the neighboring Spanish restaurant in blazers and bowties, is adjacent to a portrait of Mexican actress “Selene Luna” posed bare-chested in a corset, balancing on a stool. These juxtapositions illuminate the colorful array of faces that were vital to establishing the hotel’s culture of expressive freedom.  

Notarberardino not only consistently employed black-and-white photography for the entire photo series, but strategically placed all of his subjects in front of a blank wall outside of his apartment. Cultural icons like “Susanne Bartsch,” clad in a one-piece Thierry Mugler suit, “Amanda Lepore,” with her legendary protruding lips, and “Debbie Harry,” fiercely striking a pose while wearing a trucker hat graffitied with her own name, all of a sudden are just normal people in their homes, removed from their element. They become deglamorized and humanized, an intentional strategy Notarberardino employed to viewers’ advantage. 

By blowing up their portraits, the exhibition also destigmatizes sex workers and nude performance artists, instead, celebrating them as lively hotel community members. “Franco and Manuela,” for example, welcomes visitors to the exhibition. The life-sized portrait depicts a woman wearing glittery nipple coverings and a pair of shiny panties with cash peeking out from its seams, while the man beside her glares into the camera. 

In the same vein, the “Porcelain Twinz” — featuring two identical, nude women chained together by neck collars — are the first subjects viewers see as they enter the third room. Stormé DeLarverie, a gay rights activist rumored to have thrown the first punch during the 1969 Stonewall riots, smirks and crosses her arms in the adjacent portrait like a proud guardian of sexual liberation. By putting these portraits front and center, Notarberardino spotlights the untold stories of New York’s citizens, who are often kept hidden from the public consciousness.

Notarberardino’s “Chelsea Hotel Portraits” visually tells a story of this iconic landmark, but instead of focusing on its architecture, its origins or neighborhood, he highlights what really cemented its legacy into New York City history: the residents. Notarberardino’s portraits find beauty in the mundane and normal amid New York’s glitz and glamor. It’s a showcase of the hotel, but perhaps more importantly, a showcase of humanity. 

“Chelsea Hotel Portraits” is on view at ACA until April 27.

Contact Sofi Cisneros at

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