"It ended in a real fury," she says now, "for no fault but my own."
A few of those early black-and-white portraits hang in her studio. There's Phoenix getting punched in the face while smoking a cigarette, an image published in Interview magazine late last year. Another shows Sting's daughter, actress Mickey Sumner, a blur in motion. Gradually, Demme started bringing the antique objects into her shoots and the work began to morph into something more emotional and dark, even cinematic.
Obsolete gallery owner Ray Azoulay heard about the portraits through a mutual friend. At first, he was skeptical, but the mystery and timelessness of Demme's portraits intrigued him.
"They're conveying a lot in this very still type of image," he said. "When you see how the work has evolved, it gets more interesting and dynamic."
Demme's evolution from a spirited self-promoter in leather pants with celebrities on speed-dial to a self-conscious Atwater Village artist who hates to have her picture taken and tells a reporter, "I don't care who's hot and who's not," may not be as great a leap as it sounds.
Some mellowing comes with age and Demme is the first to admit the rigors of parenting have shifted her priorities. "I would never ever go back to the nightclub business," she said, particularly now that her daughter is 16 and has "the hustle" that fueled her ambitious parents. Besides, Demme says nightclubs are about selling drinks and she was more invested in the art of the experience.
"Amanda was always an artist," said event producer Bryan Rabin, a longtime friend who's coincidentally part of the team relaunching Teddy's, the club that ended Demme's era at the Roosevelt. Still, he said, her portraits are especially masterful.
As a nightclub entrepreneur, Demme was expert at "building a room," choosing a precise mix of guests, sculpting space with light and shadow, cultivating a mood until the entire experience was something akin to performance. Now, said Rabin, "she's just following her heart and her authentic self."
In her vast work space, Demme is eager to show the corner where she crafts hats, the loft where she paints massive backdrops and builds lights. She explains that her portraits demand 20 pieces of lighting that take two hours to set up, that she often spends an entire day with one subject, occasionally driving them to an emotional breaking point just to get her shot.
"I only want the honesty," she explained. "I want to show people who they really are."
[For the record, May 4, 3:10 p.m.: In the May 4 Calendar section, an article about photographer Amanda Demme said that Demme's work is being shown at the Venice gallery Oblivion. The gallery's name is Obsolete.]