“Dear so and so. I’m a young photographer shooting a series of portraits of celebrated New Yorkers. If you could spare a few minutes of your time I would very much like to photograph you.”
So began the three-sentence letter with the modest request that would launch the 30-year career of Michael Tighe as the enviable celebrity photographer of New York’s art and literary scene. For over 30 years, Tighe photographed a veritable who’s who of the New York art world: famed author and editor Helen Gurley Brown, beat poet Allen Ginsberg, ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, designers Bill Blass and Ralph Lauren, artist Andy Warhol, journalist Mike Wallace, acting teacher Lee Strasberg, Michael Stipe of REM…the list goes on. And then, in the midst of his illustrious career, things fell apart. Tighe’s vision in capturing a generation of iconic artists would all but disappeared for nearly two decades because of his career-long struggle with drug addiction.
It would be a long road to redemption for Tighe, sober and drug-free now for six years. He has distanced himself from the world of celebrity, re-inventing himself as a documentary photographer today. Tighe shares his story and his archive of seminal artists with In Sight.
Tighe began his career by writing and mailing letters to New York artists and entertainers in 1974. He sent out between 30 and 40 letters a week, hearing back initially from two or three people over the course of two years who, to his surprise, all said yes: Al Hirschfield (New York Times cartoonist), Frank Stella (artist), Allen Funt (Mr. Candid Camera).
Having come up through the ranks as an assistant to studio photographers throughout the city, Tighe landed his first assignment for New York magazine’s “Best Bets” section at just 19. Right after that, he had an opportunity to photograph Andy Warhol for Warhol’s Interview Magazine, a move that would subsequently lead to him photographing regularly for the publication. One of his early shoots for the publication was of Baryshnikov getting a massage. “That was the photograph that really launched my career,” Tighe tells In Sight.
Tighe was a trusted staple in the arts community, invited to nearly every party from uptown to downtown New York throughout the 1970s. But the temptation of drugs and alcohol in the art world had already began damaging Tighe’s productivity. He was just 27 when he checked himself into rehab for heroin addiction. His reputation among the publications he worked for was shattered. For much of his professional life Tighe has battled openly with drug addiction, telling In Sight that addiction “is probably what has most kept me from attaining the kind notoriety that might come my way if I were sober.”
A chance viewing of “Raging Bull” in 1980–its black-and-white cinematography juxtaposed with DeNiro’s Academy Award winning performance–would be the catalyst that re-inspired Tighe. He moved from seeking artists and painters to seeking movie stars, starting back up with writing his three-sentence letters all over again. But ultimately Tighe’s desire to be in the inner circle of celebrity culture would fade, and over the next several years he turned his attention to everyday people through street photography, writing plays, and painting; work he finds much more fulfilling today.
“The celebrity thing worked out so fast and quickly when he was a kid. I did that for 30 years and I think I was afraid to explore anything else because I knew my photography was as good as it was because there was a famous person in it. That aura that comes with a famous person gives those photos a lot of weight.”