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Photographer Offers Inside Look at UES High Society

By DNAinfo Staff on March 3, 2011 7:02am  | Updated on March 3, 2011 7:01am

By Olivia Scheck

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

MANHATTAN — While the lives of celebrities like Donald Trump and Paris Hilton are anything but unexplored, an upcoming photography exhibit promises a novel look at their exclusive Upper East Side social scene.

The show, which opens Thursday at the Leica Gallery in NoHo, features candid photographs from the neighborhood's most coveted soirees, taken by one of its own – lawyer, novelist and photographer Alan Behr.

Behr, an Upper East Side philanthropist, has been snapping photos at balls, benefits and highbrow cocktail parties for more than a decade. He's photographed celebrity subjects like Hilton, Trump and artist Jeff Koons.

Despite the well-known faces that appear in Behr's work, he is eager to distinguish his style, which he calls "documentary photography," from paparazzi or photojournalistic images.

This photo of deceased artists Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat is part of Wolfgang Wesener's upcoming show at the Leica Gallery.
This photo of deceased artists Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat is part of Wolfgang Wesener's upcoming show at the Leica Gallery.
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Courtesy of Wolfgang Wesener

"There are photographers who shoot the uptown scene and do it beautifully but they do it for the purpose of working for a newspaper," Behr explained, noting New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham.

"What I do is a little different … [mine] are the photographs of a guy who's there as a guest."

Behr, who first came to Manhattan as a student at Columbia law school, said he became thoroughly embedded in the Upper East Side social scene after marrying his wife, Julie Hackett Behr, in 1994.

Unlike the photojournalists that typically cover upscale social events, Behr said he does not ask his subjects for permission before he takes their picture; nor does he provide captions for his photographs.

Behr said he hopes his documentary style will provide viewers with a more authentic understanding of the "uptown milieu," which he described as "formal," "mannered" and "centered around a lot of charitable giving."

During its run at the Leica, which ends March 16, Behr's work will be juxtaposed with images of the 1980's downtown club scene taken by German photographer Wolfgang Wesener (a.k.a wowe).

The exhibits, "wowe: Nightclubbing New York Nightlife in the 80's," which features images of downtown culture-makers like Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Julian Schnabel, as well as entertainers Brooke Shields, Matt Dillon and Madonna, and Behr's "Naked at the Ball," will run concurrently but in separate rooms at the gallery, located at 670 Broadway.

While the two shows feature photographs from different periods – Behr's photographs were mostly taken after 2000 – Behr believes that together they capture the cultural divide between uptown (above 59th Street) and downtown Manhattan.

"A downtown party starts at around 11 p.m., at 11 at an uptown party the ice cream is melting in the dishes," he said, explaining the distinction.

In addition to access, Behr said his membership among the uptown elite gave him the ability to document the aesthetic objectively.

"There's a sort of smearing school of photographing affluent people," Behr explained. "I don’t do that."