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.

Tseng Kwong Chi                                                                       
Self-Portrait with World Trade Center, 1980                       
Gelatin silver print, Courtesy Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc.

For his extensive portfolio of self-portraits, Tseng Kwong Chi (born Joseph Tseng) donned a Communist Chinese official’s suit and visited American and European tourist sites, where he posed alone or with fellow travelers. Here the camera’s low angle lends him a towering presence that echoes the background skyscrapers, and in Puck Ball, on view nearby, he poses with the club kids, smiling gleefully as he clicks his shutter release.