How Tony Notarberardino’s ‘Chelsea Hotel Portraits’ Captured the End of an Era

At ACA Galleries, the photographer documents twenty-five years at the iconic hotel in portraits of the bohemian landmark's tenants and guests.

Photo of Hotel Chelsea's neon sign
Haunted Hotel Sign (August 11, 2004). Tiffany Del Valle

Manhattan’s trendy Chelsea neighborhood has a rich and established arts and culture scene with an array of galleries, the High Line and the unique urban oasis that is Little Island. One relic of the artistic history of the area can be found on West 23rd Street: a 12-story Queen Anne Revival and Gothic building with Victorian dollhouse rooms. The large neon sign reads “HOTEL CHELSEA” in white and red. 

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The Chelsea Hotel, a famed bohemian landmark that opened its doors in 1888, is known for its long, star-studded list of artists, writers, musicians and other creatives who stayed temporarily or moved into apartments thanks to the low rents that attracted young and emerging talents starting in the early 1960s. Many decades later, there are still tenants who called Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Charles Bukowski, Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, William S. Burroughs, Jimi Hendrix and Madonna their neighbors. 

Portrait of twins in bonded leather collars
Porcelain Twinz (December 16, 2007). Tiffany Del Valle

Among these seasoned Hotel Chelsea inhabitants is New York-based photographer Tony Notarberardino, who was raised in Melbourne by Italian parents. His striking black and white portraits have captured the many notable faces seen in the halls of the Chelsea Hotel as well as lesser-known, but no less interesting, subjects who added to its romance and mystique.

Notarberardino, who arrived at the hotel in 1994 and has lived there for thirty years, says that the series came to life in September of 1997. He was in the Chelsea Hotel elevator, having returned home at 4 a.m. “In walked an aged drag queen carrying more bags than she could manage while holding the hand of a six-year-old boy,” he told me when we met up earlier this month. “After four years of letting these moments pass by, I introduced myself and asked if I could photograph her.”

Photo of previous Hotel Chelsea Owner, Stanley Bard
Notarberardino’s portrait of previous Chelsea Hotel owner Stanley Bard (2008). Tiffany Del Valle

His “Chelsea Hotel Portraits” taken between 1997 and 2023 on a vintage 1960s Toyo-View 810GII in the hallway of his apartment are on view for the first time in his neighborhood at ACA Galleries. Notarberardino walked me through the gallery to tell me more about life in the Chelsea and his breathtaking portrayals of the hotel’s visitors and residents. 

Observer: There is such power in these portraits. What can you tell us about the collection as a whole?

Tony Notarberardino: The Chelsea has some of the greatest stories and some that were never told. My collection [at ACA] encompasses only thirty-five portraits, but I think I have shot about 1,500 portraits over the years, so there are so many stories.

The photos capture great shadows and textures—why shoot solely in black and white?

I love black and white; it’s all I shoot. I used a large format view camera, and that’s why the quality looks so good. The more you enlarge them, the better they become. This is the first time I am seeing them this big myself, and they have such a unique quality to me. 

Four framed pictures: three portraits and a photograph of room 627
The ‘Chelsea Hotel Portraits’ at ACA Galleries. Tiffany Del Valle

Can you describe what it is like living at the Chelsea?

It is such a unique place visually and it has a great community—once you are in there, you always feel supported. This is why the collection of portraits grew. Because one person would recommend coming to see me, and another says, ‘So and so is coming down next week and staying here’ so I can photograph them. 

What’s it like living there now?

It’s this new incarnation; it is certainly not this era that I captured as it’s more expensive and it’s corporate. The rooms are $600 right now—before they were $60 a night so they had a different clientele. There were more long-term tenants before; now there are twenty-five or so tenants left, and at one point it was half tenants and half guests. 

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Tell us about some intentional choices you made with regard to the display.

Initially, I thought maybe your phone could scan a code next to each individual subject, and it would take you to a website or app that would tell you who they are. After a lot of thought, I just wanted the pictures to do the talking. I guess I didn’t want people to be distracted. For instance, you probably wouldn’t be as familiar with what Arthur C. Clark looks like, but everyone knows 2001: A Space Odyssey and the impact he had in science fiction writing. His photograph is right here. 

Black-and-white portrait of God Complex and Veronica Viper
Portrait of God Complex and Veronica Viper, (March 26, 2023). Tiffany Del Valle

What is one of your favorite portraits that you have taken?

I really like God Complex and Veronica Viper. God Complex actually came down to the gallery to see his portrait and was pleased to see such unique characters be photographed.

How do you feel about the neighborhood then as opposed to now?

Back in ’94, the Chelsea Hotel was a dive, and I found it to be cinematic. The neighborhood had its reputation, but it was photogenic to me. My place is pretty magical, and it captures this fantasy world we live in. I am never leaving; why would I? I love this place.

Chelsea Hotel Portraits” is on view at ACA Galleries through April 27.

How Tony Notarberardino’s ‘Chelsea Hotel Portraits’ Captured the End of an Era