In depicting themselves and each other, Downtown artists pursued innovative techniques and new formal possibilities—Chuck Close’s fingerprint portrait of the composer Philip Glass and John Ahearn’s painted plaster casts, to name just two examples. They explored how a sitter’s likeness intersects with perceptions of individuality—as in Richard Prince’s double portrait of himself and Cindy Sherman dressed as twins. Capturing the whirlwind of bars, clubs, and parties in a series of lively, expressive, and often moody shots, Downtown artists harnessed photography’s flexibility and power as a fine-art medium to document the many colorful characters inhabiting the scene. Nan Goldin’s photographs of her Downtown compatriots exemplify this paradoxical contrast of vibrant color and deep melancholia, as does Peter Hujar’s portrait of the Warhol Factory superstar Candy Darling on her deathbed.

Nan Goldin, Cookie at Tin Pan Alley, NYC, 1983. Cibachrome print, 30 x 40 in. Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York

Following her 1970 debut in John Waters’s Multiple Maniacs, Cookie Mueller starred in many underground films. She also penned a column, “Ask Dr. Mueller,” for the East Village Eye. In Goldin’s numerous portraits of Mueller, she strived to capture her flamboyant persona, which the photographer described as “a cross between a Tobacco Road Outlaw and a Hollywood B-Girl.”