Tony Notarberardino and Susanne Bartsch on the Glamorous Lore of the Chelsea Hotel

Tony Notarberardino

Photo courtesy of Susanne Bartsch and Tony Notarberardino.

When the photographer Tony Notarberardino moved from Melbourne to New York City in 1994, he took up residence in The Chelsea Hotel alongside a rogue’s gallery of characters and creatives. Rather quickly, it became clear he had to get his camera out. “I really didn’t come with the intention of taking pictures,” he told the grand dame of New York nightlife, Susanne Bartsch, who’s lived in the hotel since 1981. “But when I saw so many interesting people coming in every day that I thought, I have to document these people.” Now, the fruits of 25 years of labor are being exhibited in the ACA Galleries’ Chelsea Hotel Portraits, the first ever presentation of the dozens of black and white portraits Notarberardino took of the hotel’s residents over the years, from Debbie Harry to owner Stanley Bard to Bartsch herself, clad in a black Thierry Mugler one-piece. Just before the show opened this week, Notarberardino visited Bartsch at her apartment to reminisce on the hotel’s halcyon days and their respective journeys to New York. As Bartsch says, “I came for a love affair and I never left.”


TONY NOTARBERARDINO: Okay, it’s February 26th, 7:00 pm. I’m sitting here with the fabulous Susanne Bartsch in her apartment and we’re going to discuss my upcoming exhibition, Chelsea Hotel Portraits. Hi, Susanne.


NOTARBERARDINO: Hey, neighbor.

BARTSCH: We’re neighbors.

NOTARBERARDINO: Yeah, we’ve been neighbors for a long time. 

BARTSCH: I’m the top. I’m a boss.

NOTARBERARDINO: Well, I’ve been living here since ’94. I guess that’s a lot…

BARTSCH: Me, ’81. So I’m on top.

NOTARBERARDINO: You’re definitely on top. You’ve always been on top, anyway.

BARTSCH: So you have an exhibition coming up?


BARTSCH: So exciting.

NOTARBERARDINO: I’m very excited about it. 

BARTSCH: I love your work and I’ve seen quite a lot of it. And the ACA Galleries is doing your show?


BARTSCH: Am I in it? If not, I’m not talking anymore.

NOTARBERARDINO: You’re 100% in it, absolutely. You’re the star.

BARTSCH: I’ll never forget it. I didn’t want to do it because of whatever. But you’re a good salesman.

Tony Notarberardino

Susanne Bartsch, photographed by Tony Notarberardino.

NOTARBERARDINO: It took like, five years to talk you into it. You had a lot going on.

BARTSCH: It’s been a lot. Talk to me about this exhibition you’re having.

NOTARBERARDINO: Basically, it’s been 25 years in the making and finally the gallery was interested in showing it, so I’m really excited about it. There’s going to be 35 pictures, some life-size images.


NOTARBERARDINO: It’s been a journey. It’s a real documentation of the hotel, because I don’t think anyone’s really documented it like this. I’ve seen books on the hotel, but no one’s really shot or documented the people.

BARTSCH: You mean people coming and going?

NOTARBERARDINO: People coming and going, yeah.

BARTSCH: I loved how you have Stanley [Bard], the owner, and some older musicians. I’m very excited for you.

Tony Notarberardino

Stanley Bard, photographed by Tony Notarberardino.

NOTARBERARDINO: I hope you can come. It’s March 9th.

BARTSCH: Oh, shit. Really? I was thinking it was September.

NOTARBERARDINO: No, it’s in two weeks.

BARTSCH: Tony! Champagne. Let’s celebrate. So it’s the first time these portraits are being shown, right?

NOTARBERARDINO: 100%. I’ve never had an exhibition. No one’s seen them. I just have it on Instagram. But I mean, on Instagram, I can’t really put my best pictures.

BARTSCH: The energy is not there. You lose everything on social media. They need big, gorgeous homes.

NOTARBERARDINO: I’m going to do your print, for sure. But you don’t have much room left here…

BARTSCH: I know. I’ll sleep on it, my duvet. So how did the Chelsea Hotel influence your photography?

NOTARBERARDINO: When I first moved in here, I really didn’t come with the intention of taking pictures. But when I saw so many interesting people coming in every day that I thought, “I have to document these people.” I’m sure a lot of your crowd was coming in, too. It really opened my eyes.

BARTSCH: It was like Grand Central Station. Drag [queens], before anybody wanted them around.

Tony Notarberardino

Veronica Viper and God Complex, photographed by Tony Notarberardino.

NOTARBERARDINO: I saw you in the hotel and then, one night I was sitting in the lobby and you came out with an entourage of people and I was like, “Oh my god.” You were all dressed up. It was the first time I saw you like that. And I asked the receptionist, “Who is that?”

BARTSCH: Oh my god, you didn’t recognize me.

NOTARBERARDINO: I didn’t recognize you. And they said, “That’s Susanne.” I’m like, “What?” I’d seen you with Bailey and you just had a baby, so you were in home mode.

BARTSCH: I was doing things still.

NOTARBERARDINO: You were still doing things.

BARTSCH: But not regular club stuff. When was that? 


BARTSCH: When I came back to Happy Valley. 

NOTARBERARDINO: Well that was a big influence on me to start photographing, because I was seeing all these incredible people, a lot of them connected to you. You were part of my inspiration.

BARTSCH: The Bartschland Evolution. It left its mark, right? 


BARTSCH: What initially struck you most about the city when you arrived? For me, I came for a love affair and I never left.

NOTARBERARDINO: I didn’t come for a love affair, but I was in love with the city. I came because I just wanted to get out. This was going to be my home. I made up my mind.

BARTSCH: Where were you coming from?

NOTARBERARDINO: I was living in Paris and London at the time. I went back to Australia and then came to New York and packed up everything. I came on a one-way ticket.

BARTSCH: You just decided to go to New York from London or from Paris?


BARTSCH: And is it love that drove you out of Paris?

NOTARBERARDINO: You know what? It’s a long story, but I came here because a friend of mine was staying here and I didn’t know anything about the hotel. I walk in and I’m like, “Wow.” And I met Stanley [Bard]. He showed me my room and, like you, I never left.

BARTSCH: As you know, I have now a whole wing here, but this particular room has had the same owner since ’76.

NOTARBERARDINO: Wow. And who was that?

BARTSCH: Patrick Hughes, my boyfriend, the one I came here for. He has a painting in the lobby, the rainbow painting. I fell in love and he gave me the space. I asked Stanley, “Give me a better rent.” He wanted $1,900. So I said, “That’s too high” and I didn’t take it. Then a year later he said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” And then he said, “No, no, I can’t.” I guess they were getting ready to sell or something.

NOTARBERARDINO: But also they were losing the hotel. People who were moving in didn’t even want to move out.

BARTSCH: And people didn’t pay rent. I mean, Shih Tzu was on my floor. Also, Viva used to be on this floor. Viva and her two kids lived over here on the other side of my wing and I used to have to sing with her. The garbage can was outside her apartment.

NOTARBERARDINO: The garbage wing, yeah.

BARTSCH: Did you notice she pushed it all the way down the hallway to my side?

NOTARBERARDINO: Oh, you were fighting.

Tony Notarberardino

Debbie Harry, photographed by Tony Notarberardino.

BARTSCH: Every time she had a menopausal flush, she was pushing the garbage can to my side and I didn’t want it here. But luckily the hotel dealt with it. I didn’t have to deal with it. Stanley wouldn’t develop anything. He was too cheap or not business-oriented [enough] to do that.

NOTARBERARDINO: But that’s what gave it its charm, don’t you think? He just left everything like it was.

BARTSCH: Yeah, but he lost the hotel because he was not good with business.

NOTARBERARDINO: No, he wasn’t a businessman. Exactly.

BARTSCH: He did have some good artworks, though. So, when did you decide to start this series? 

NOTARBERARDINO: I started this series in ‘96 just because I felt compelled. Like, I’m seeing all these people and I need to document it.

BARTSCH: It’s very modern film noir.

NOTARBERARDINO: Yeah, it was like that.

BARTSCH: So tell me about one of the images from the series and the circumstances that made you want to take that picture. It’s clear that there’s so much life and context.

NOTARBERARDINO: The one of Arthur C. Clarke, for example, is one of the most important pictures I’ve got because he’s such a legend. He lived in the 60s, wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stanley called me one day and he’s like, “Tony, Arthur C. Clarke’s coming next week. I want you to take a picture of me and him out front.” One shot, that’s it. And then we ended up spending the whole day together. It was one of the best days I’ve ever had.

BARTSCH: Wow. An inspiration.

NOTARBERARDINO: He asked me to take him in a wheelchair up and down 8th Avenue and we went to a bookshop.

BARTSCH: Check out the hood.

NOTARBERARDINO: Check out the hood with Arthur C. Clarke.

BARTSCH: We both share a love for nightlife. What’s been one of your favorite memories of gatherings or parties here at the hotel? Surely, our Zoom party.

NOTARBERARDINO: Yeah. So during lockdown, me and Susanne used to have Zoom parties because there were only a handful of us quarantined together. And every Thursday night I would come up and help out. It was fun.

Tony Notarberardino

Porcelain Twinz, photographed by Tony Notarberardino.

BARTSCH: We had your room downstairs open.

NOTARBERARDINO: We both opened our apartments.

BARTSCH: I got a letter from the hotel saying that some people were complaining about not following the rules. And it was on Page Six that I had been reprimanded because I’m having parties. I had one every week. I wanted to feel good myself and have a reason to do looks because I was Zooming with 1,000 people. I was able to give people Amanda Lepore. I paid everybody.

NOTARBERARDINO: Oh, did you really?

BARTSCH: Oh, yeah. All those hosts were paid, and the DJs.

NOTARBERARDINO: I think it also lifted their spirits because people would be at home and they’d dress up just for a Zoom party and put as much effort into it as if they were coming to one of your events.

BARTSCH: So, what’s your process like?

NOTARBERARDINO: Well, basically I shoot on a large-format camera, so it’s film. I don’t shoot digital.

BARTSCH: And all photos are taken here, right?

NOTARBERARDINO: They’re all taken in my apartment against the same wall. And it’s an old process. 

BARTSCH: It’s smart to have that. Everyone has the same backdrop.

NOTARBERARDINO: You know why? Because I wanted to make it about the people.

BARTSCH: Exactly.

NOTARBERARDINO: I wanted to take it out of context and focus more on the people. If I have to run around and shoot everyone in their rooms, it’s been done before. This was a different approach.

BARTSCH: It’s much more striking.

NOTARBERARDINO: Yeah, I think so too.

Abel Ferrara, photographed by Tony Notarberardino.

BARTSCH: Is this the camera you bring when you have a party?

NOTARBERARDINO: Yeah, I brought it here.

BARTSCH: When Tony has a party it’s, “Hello, can I bring my chandelier and my camera?” He comes up with a chandelier, a big huge camera, some church pews, and a couple of scarves and a chair.

NOTARBERARDINO: Yeah, I don’t have any space. That camera, I’m telling you, people don’t understand it. And that’s what I like about it. People are used to iPhones, right? So when they see this camera, they get confused.

BARTSCH: No selfies with that camera.

NOTARBERARDINO: But when you get the picture, it’s really good.

BARTSCH: It’s a real event when you take a picture with a camera like that.

NOTARBERARDINO: Yeah, it’s real. It’s an experience. 

BARTSCH: A whole six course meal.

NOTARBERARDINO: That picture of you, you had Thierry Mugler on. 

BARTSCH: Yeah. That was Mugler. What year was it?

NOTARBERARDINO: March 1st, 2007. It was a Thursday night.

BARTSCH: A Thursday night? It might have been the Seoul Grand party I had. Or it could have been the Happy Valley.

NOTARBERARDINO: Where was that?

BARTSCH: That was on 27th Street between 5th and Broadway. Jeremy Scott designed the club. The DJ booth was a massive, huge disco ball that could fit 30 people inside.


BARTSCH: We used to have pizza parties in the disco ball. It was really amazing. It was fucking brilliant. And the stage was like a tiered wedding cake. You never went there, no?

NOTARBERARDINO: No, I never went there. So that Mugler outfit that you had on, did he design that for you?

BARTSCH: No, that was one of his pieces he gave me.

NOTARBERARDINO: He gave it to you?

BARTSCH: Yeah. I was one of his muses so he gave me stuff.

NOTARBERARDINO: I remember seeing this in the exhibition.

Bonnie, photographed by Tony Notarberardino.

BARTSCH: So I hear that even your spare bathroom doubles as a dark room? Is that true?

NOTARBERARDINO: Well, yeah. That’s where I load the film. When you shoot with this camera, it has to be completely dark. 

BARTSCH: My spare bathroom is a closet full of drag. I took out the toilet and put in shoes and dresses and the bathtub is full of boas. I have storage in Brooklyn.

NOTARBERARDINO: It never ends.

BARTSCH: Do you have any projects on the horizon that you’re working on now?

NOTARBERARDINO: I do. My next book is going to be Las Vegas portraits. I’m going to Las Vegas for a year.

BARTSCH: Oh, wow. That sounds fabulous.

NOTARBERARDINO: I went there a couple of times already to test it out. I went when they had the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend and I shot all the legends of burlesque. I looked around and I thought, “Wow, this place attracts the craziest people in the world. It’s fucking nuts.” 

BARTSCH: I hate Vegas.

NOTARBERARDINO: To me, it’s such a crazy mix of America and everything that I need to go and document, just like I documented this. I’m not going to get much sleep. I might not come back alive. So we’re going to see what happens.

BARTSCH: Oh my god.

NOTARBERARDINO: How often do you go to Vegas? 

BARTSCH: Never. I mean, I’ve done events there but I haven’t been in ages. I did a huge event at Hard Rock. When did you say you’re going to go?

NOTARBERARDINO: Probably at the end of the year. But I’ll go back and forth because I’ve got my cat here I have to look after.

BARTSCH: Oh, I could look after the cat. My pussy can play with your pussy.

NOTARBERARDINO: Yeah, let’s do that. We’ll get our pussies together.

Franco and Manuela, photographed by Tony Notarberardino.