LONDON — The portrait photographer Jeannette Montgomery Barron has always had a knack for stealing moments with famous subjects, and doing it all with a light touch.
In the ’80s, she was used to slipping in and out of downtown New York City studios and other private places, taking pictures of Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, Bianca Jagger and other denizens of underground New York.
Then, and now, she doesn’t work with assistants and uses minimal props. She has always searched for the “soul” in her subjects. People trusted her — and still do. She doesn’t waste anyone’s time.
A selection of those soul-focused images will come to light for the first time on Saturday with the release of Barron’s limited-edition book, “JMB,” from the London-based publisher NJG Studio.
The book features images of fast friends and artistic collaborators Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat from 1984 and 1985 — before the two fell out.
The pictures are darkly glamorous and intimate, two pop culture figures whose fame — and mystique — has lasted far longer than Warhol’s predicted 15 minutes, and flourished since their deaths, which happened within a year of each other, in 1987 and 1988, respectively.
It may have been decades since she sat with the artists, but Barron said she can recall the two photo sessions in detail. There were no tantrums, or diva behavior.
“They were just starting to work together, and you could tell they adored each other, as friends and as collaborators,” said the softly spoken Barron in a telephone interview.
“Andy was getting a lot of wind in his sails at the time. He was riding high and always looking for new inspiration, new young people from out of town or from Europe. That’s where he got a lot of ideas and inspiration,” the photographer added.
Barron had been invited to shoot the artists by the Swiss art dealer and collector Bruno Bischofberger, who was close to both.
She photographed Basquiat in December 1984 at the artist’s Great Jones Street studio in New York City. Her only props were a birdcage, a chair and an unfinished painting. She shot three rolls of 120 film — 36 images — layering light and shadows in her signature black-and-white.
“It was early evening, in the winter, so it was dark already. And I was the only one there — no one else was in the studio. I’m pretty minimal, too. I don’t bring a lot of equipment, or work with assistants. I feel that just messes up my correspondence with the subject. I want to be the only one” interacting with them, she said.
Basquiat, whose star was still on the rise, “was really sweet and very accommodating. I don’t think we talked much at all. He liked the images, and so did Bruno,” she said.
Warhol was a slightly different story.
Barron knew him already and had photographed him before.
“I knew the Factory very well so for me it was just like, ‘I’m going in, I’m going to photograph these two people, and then I’m going to leave.’ People knew I was OK, that I wasn’t going to take advantage of them, or take up their whole day, so I was allowed in.”
Barron said her approach to portrait-taking hasn’t changed.
“I’m not interested in a superficial, setup photo. Somebody else can do that better. I’m always trying to get some inner, spiritual feeling and to [discover] what these people’s souls are about. That’s what I try, although I can’t always do it,” she said.
The book features an introductory essay by Francesco Clemente, who had collaborated with Basquiat and Warhol on paintings, and was also close to Bischofberger.
In the essay, Clemente describes Barron as “an elegant woman, and an elegant photographer. She conveys the widest range of expressivity (sic.) with the minimum amount of means. The secret of her good luck is that she travels light.”
The 64-page book comes as a signed, limited edition, and is for sale on njgstudio.com, priced at 45 pounds. It features the complete sittings from 1984 and 1985, and also includes six contact sheets with 24 large-format images, plus a previously unseen artwork by Basquiat.
True to her low-key style, Barron isn’t planning a splashy launch, and instead will be celebrating the book’s release — and other photography projects — at a party in Rome, where she used to live part-time.
The launch event will take place in early June at Chez Dédé, a multibrand luxury store on Via di Monserrato, not far from Campo de’Fiori, followed by a dinner at Ian Schrager’s Rome Edition hotel.
The store will also be showcasing other work by Barron, including her photographs of tabletops and mirrors, and her hand drawings.
The book’s release happens to coincide with the show “Basquiat x Warhol À Quatre Mains,” which is taking place at Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. The show, which runs until Aug. 28, examines the paintings the two artists created together between 1984 and 1985, and includes the portraits they made of each other.
Barron has been prolific throughout her career and her many books include “My Mother’s Clothes,” a record of her late mother’s couture wardrobe, and collections of her work with Keith Haring and Cindy Sherman. She’s long been at home in Italy.
In 2014, her portraits of Robert Mapplethorpe, Bianca Jagger, Basquiat, Haring and other ’80s influencers went on display at the Collezione Maramotti, in Reggio Emilia, Italy. The show was called “Scene: Photographs of the 1980s New York Art Scene.”
Although she now lives permanently in Connecticut with her art dealer husband, she’s often in Rome, a city whose skies she finds hard to resist.
“There’s no place else in the world that has that light. It’s what heaven must be like,” said Barron.