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Studio 54 Still Looks Like the Best Club of All Time

When you combine an expert, artistically-motivated photographer and late 1970s New York City’s most insanely fucked up, glamorous, hedonistic, and beautiful people, you get some pretty phenomenal photos.

Images from Studio 54 are almost commonplace these days—what with all the articles, documentaries, and biographies of the super club—but something about the pictures Tod Papageorge took there seem to raise the subjects to a new level. They’re not just partygoers, but some sort of weird, artsy, celebrity, cocaine-and-champagne-fueled Dionysian cult clambering around in dinner suits and ball gowns.

Papageorge—who’s perhaps best known for American Sports, 1970: Or How We Spent the War in Vietnam, a piece of searing anti-war commentary—took the time to talk to me about the images in his new book, Studio 54, his motives for taking them, and seeing his work in the club as offering a cohesive view of the world we live in.

VICE: Most biographies of you, or descriptions of your early work, seem to focus on the “street photography” label. Is that a term you’re happy with?
Tod Papageorge: Interesting question. No, it’s not. It was just the work of a photographer, working in New York City. I’m a little less sensitive to the designation now, as I get older and more benign in my temperament. But back then it was a red flag—not just for me, but certainly for Garry Winogrand and the other photographers in our crew. It seemed to be condescending, or at least that was the way we responded to it: that it was a condescending way of describing what we were doing. We thought that what we were doing was making photographs.

It’s what all photographers were doing at that time—going out into the world and capturing some piece of it, whether photographing a mountain like Ansel Adams, or Harry Callahan taking photos of his wife. “Street photography,” it seemed to us, was not a very useful designation. There’s a famous issue of Aperture Magazine called “Snapshot,” which I had some part in putting together. It asked this same question to a lot of photographers and their replies were all negative. Like mine, right now.

Right. So, aside from the unfortunate label that was dropped on you…
Coincidentally, I was looking over some work I did in the 80s, when was making the Studio 54 pictures. I had bought a new medium format camera called a Makina Plaubel 67 that made a slightly squarer negative. Back then, when I was walking in New York I made a study of the debris thrown in the street, and over time accumulated a certain number of pictures. Recently I looked over and edited them, with the idea of doing a book, possibly. The name of the book would be Street Photographs—literally photos of debris on the street. That’s what I think of the designation; that’s how I think it should be properly used.

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Interior of the Studio 54, 1977-81. New York. Interior Design: Ron Doud, lighting design: Brian Thomson. More to see: The Nightclub Years © ian schrager company

Schrager was the co-owner and co-founder of the Studio 54, together with Steve Rubell. It was originally an Opera House, designed by architect Eugene De Rosa in 1927. They used the space’s original theatrical structure to constantly change the look and feel of the club.

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