Ascending the steep wooden staircase to Aaron Cobbett's second-floor studio in lower Manhattan calls to mind the setting for Midnight Cowboy's fanciful Warhol-esque party scene, but that thought ends the moment I walk inside. Headquarters Studio NYC (www.headquartersnyc.com), as Cobbett has christened the space, is his "personal dream factory," but Warhol surely would never have been found as I found Cobbett this day. "Give me a minute," he says from the floor, where he is spraying gold paint over a length of metal chain. It's for an upcoming photo shoot, he explains, along with the glittering crescent moon prop lying against one wall and the starry night sky backdrop hanging from another. As I will discover over the course of the most engaging afternoon that follows, if there were but one snapshot to convey his story as an artist, I had just seen it.
Lean, long-haired, tattooed, and darkly handsome, he strikes quite the figure (a cross between heavy metal rocker and swashbuckling time traveler from decadent times past). As he gets up off his knees he says, "Let me show you around," and it does not take long for that first snapshot to become a portrait.
Best known for his celebrated high-concept portraiture and fashion photography, Cobbett does not just take photos but creates what he calls "happenings," the stuff of which spills gloriously forth on the studio tour. There are bags of autumn leaves gathered from Manhattan's streets, and plastic bins of beads and baubles, and drawers filled with fabric, and a forest of rolled-up backdrops, and much more besides. "You have to hold the viewer's attention long enough to have impact," he says, pointing to an Aztec costume from a past shoot, "and so seduction is the first order of business when bringing images to life."
From sewing the costumes (such as the bellboy's outfit, created for this story) and making the props to painting the backdrops and building the sets, theatrical effects included, Cobbett is a stage master extraordinaire, creating exquisite, emotive "happenings" that are seductive draws indeed. His work has appeared in magazines ranging from Honcho and HX to Vanity Fair and Vogue. Many of his iconic images appear in his books Super Eros and Cobbett, while his visual talent extends to the world of television and music videos.
Our conversation focuses on his artistic influences and the special inspiration of New York City. As a child, he was fascinated by the glittering sets and Bob Mackie gowns on TV variety programs like The Cher Show, Carol Burnett, and Tony Orlando. Adolescence was not as charmed, though, with his creative spirit kicking like a wild stallion and his less-enlightened peers kicking back. "I could not wait to get the hell out of high school and into New York," he says—which is precisely what he did in 1986, straight from graduating high school in suburban Rochester, New York.
"You had to go where your peers were, and for me, that was New York City," continues Cobbett, who started out attending NYU and dressing windows for Henri Bendel and Bergdorf Goodman. At night, he tapped into the "outrageous drag culture and amazing night life" at clubs like Boy Bar and Pyramid, where he was "blown away" by the "glittering black humor and sarcastic glamour of it all." There were myriad other influences besides, forming a potent brew of inspiration. "Music and pop culture have always been obsessions," he says. "Disco, punk, new wave—and yes, heavy metal, all figure prominently in the mix." For the form and composition of his uniquely glamorous portraits of go-go boys, hustlers, drag queens, and stars of screen and stage, Cobbett's repertoire of references derives from a most diverse and eclectic universe. These include the silent movie era, Bollywood, Joan Crawford, Edie Sedgewick, Andy Warhol, and underground film pioneer Jack Smith. Add to this Steve Arnold and his gender-bending theater troupe The Cockettes, and New York's James Bidgood and his seminal 1971 film Pink Narcissus, his dialogue-free study of a naked man in a New York apartment shot over seven years.
It is Gotham that continues to give significant shape to Cobbett's photographic art—his love for the city is as bright today as when he first arrived in 1986. "The freaks who cannot live without dancing, acting, modeling, reaching for the stars…they are the ones who drew me here and the ones who keep me here," muses Cobbett. "Being surrounded by that creative urge is something I couldn't live without."
Cobbett is proactively and energetically embarking on his third decade in the city. "From producing shows and events to creating opportunities for young artists, I am committed to preserving New York's allure and legacy of creativity, possibility, and adventure," he says. "If you are in the mood for a great party, sometimes you have to throw it yourself—it can feel like an uphill battle, but someone has to do it!"