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Photographer Julia Gorton captures Pensacola with 309 Punk Project

The 309 Punk Project welcomed photographer Julia Gorton, known for documenting New York City’s ‘No Wave’ scene of the 1970s and 1980s, as this month’s artist in residence. Capturing a brief era with unique style and avant-garde music, Gorton shot trailblazers of the scene, including Debbie Harry, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, David Byrne, and many others.

Moving to New York City to study design and later working for magazines like National Lampoon and Conde Nast, Gorton found herself in the heart of this new scene.

“I ended up being more of a photographer because it was much more immediate and social, and I could do it while I was studying design,” Gorton said.

During her two-week stay in Pensacola, Gorton turned the 309 headquarters into an open portrait studio. She says that during her residency, she photographed more than 100 individuals over five studio sessions.

“The idea is, for me, to practice engaging with people and photo documenting people,” Gorton said. “This project really is about creating a visual sense of community.”

Julia Gorton
Hunter Morrison
WUWF Public Media
Julia Gorton

Gorton’s first portrait project took place in 2018 at London’s Doomed Gallery in collaboration with photographer Ollie Murphy. Afterward, she wanted to recreate the project but wasn’t sure where to set the scene.

“I came to Pensacola about five years ago and I really adored the people I had met here,” Gorton said. “By keeping up with them through social media, I saw and liked the work that was being done at 309. After they were able to purchase the building and work on becoming a non-profit, they opened up the residency program and I thought ‘I’d love to come back to Pensacola.’ Luckily, Valerie George asked me to.”

“I love that Julia’s art is intuitive, thoughtful, and honest,” George said. “She has a real knack for seeing a kind of beauty in her subjects that most traditional photographers overlook. She seeks the realness and humanity in everyone she meets, which shows in her work. She loves people, and you can feel that when she turns her camera on you.”

The closing exhibition for Gorton’s open studio project showcased about 300 images, covering the walls at 309. Gorton donated all of these photographs to 309’s archive, which will be on display at the Pensacola Museum of Art in March 2023.

“I honestly didn’t know that I could possibly look like that to other people,” said Jocelyn Brown, photographed by Gorton at 309. “Even more than that, I’m amazed by how Julia was able to capture the spirit and humanity of our entire community of people and our totality, and just show the truth of who we are as outsiders.”

“The whole experience was very beautiful,” said Cheraldine Vaurigoud, also photographed by Gorton. “I had not done anything like that before, neither [my partner] and I together like that. It was so intimate, and she was so gentle and loving. I feel like we were seen, and it was beautiful to be seen of our inner being.”

“I love Julia Gorton’s work,” said Nell Arnett, photographed by Gorton. “It’s really cool being able to see these photographs and collages in person, especially as a graphic designer who takes a lot of inspiration from her zines and work. It’s just awesome to be able to meet her in person and see how cool she is.”

Hunter Morrison
WUWF Public Media

“I just don’t think I really could have met nicer, more interesting people than I’ve met in the last week,” Gorton said. “It’s been great.”

Throughout her open studio sessions, Gorton says that she has learned a lot about portrait photography and the objectives that come with photographing new people. She says that people can seem very different talking to you than they are in front of the camera.

“I think of [this project] as really one piece,” Gorton said. “It’s a piece that’s multiple images that work together to tell the story of this engagement.”

Gorton admits that when she began her career in photography in the mid-1970s, it was a way to get herself involved in a musical and cultural scene that she was a fan of. She hopes that when people look at her photographs from this era, they too can experience some of the essence and energy of what it was like to be a part of the No Wave scene.

“While her early work is of artists and musicians that became larger than life, at the time she was documenting them, they were her peers,” George said. “They were young people in the throes of discovering their talents and purpose. We at 309 recognize that our community is chock full of incredibly creative folx who deserve to be seen. We knew Julia would really do that beautiful work of looking at, truly seeing, and documenting all of us.”

“Pensacola doesn’t know what they had in [Gorton] coming here,” Brown said. “Frankly and squarely put, Julia Gorton is a legend. These are photos that I grew up seeing in books about a music subculture that I wanted to be a part of, so to know that she’s here visiting our community and the residency is a mind blower.”

Gorton is optimistic that her open studio session photographs have captured the spirit of Pensacola and its local punk scene. She hopes that it will uplift people who may be overlooked or underrepresented.

Hunter Morrison
WUWF Public Media

“I hope that people felt like they were excited when they stepped out of their comfort zone, and that if they make the effort, they too can be part of this scene,” Gorton said. “Sometimes you can find yourself on the outside looking in, thinking ‘I wish I could be part of that,’ but by coming to this photo studio, you are a part of that.”

To see more of Gorton’s work, click here. You can also follow her on Instagram @julia_gorton_nowave.

To learn more about the 309 Punk Project, click here.

Hunter joined WUWF in 2021 as a student reporter.