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New York nightclub, Studio 54, may have been legendary for its celebrity guests – everyone from Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger and Jerry Hall to Truman Capote, Dolly Parton and Michael Jackson – but for young photographer Bill Bernstein, they weren’t the real draw. 

“I wasn’t that interested in the celebrities – I found the average people to be so much more interesting, y’know?” he says. Bernstein had been turned away from the Seventies disco hotspot once, thanks to founder Steve Rubell’s famously strict admissions policy – but he got his “in” while on a photographic assignment for The Village Voice: he was asked to take pictures of an awards presentation for Lillian Carter, President Jimmy’s mother, bizarrely held at the nightclub in December 1977.

But it was later that night, as the regulars started filling the dancefloor, that he became truly dazzled by the crowd; Bernstein borrowed rolls of film from another snapper and shot away. It sparked a project that would see Bernstein become completely immersed in the disco scene; 38 years on, a new book and exhibition of his photos are set to plunge us back into the epicentre of that heady musical epoch. 

“It was different from the scene that I was used to – I was more a Sixties, rock’n’roll kinda person,” explains Bernstein. “This caught me by surprise: people were dressed up, people were seriously dancing, there was a lot of visual stuff going on. It was something between the pre-war Berlin cabaret and a strip show … But really, that first night, I would say I was just hooked in by the mix of the crowd.”

Studio 54’s door policy may have been furiously selective, but Rubell’s curatorial approach ensured that – once you got inside – the joint jumped with a genuinely diverse crowd. “There was an acceptance and inclusion: the straight crowd dancing next to the transgender crowd. He didn’t want a gay club and he didn’t want a straight club and he didn’t want just celebrities. He’d cast the evening: if it needed straight people, he’d go out and find the ones that he wanted – and it wasn’t always the best looking.”

Bernstein’s disco documenting really took off in 1979, and went far beyond just Studio 54 – he was soon a regular at Paradise Garage, Mudd Club, Hurrah and GG’s Barnum Room, his trusty Canon F1 and a Vivatar 273 flash in hand

Although he never drank, it was still a heady experience. “There was always the smell of some drug in the air, poppers or marijuana. I always left feeling high – I can’t tell if it was just the pounding music for seven hours, or the light show, or the smell, or the contact high I was getting just from being there. Usually when I left the sun was shining, and I was tired, but very juiced up!” He recalls going home and, still buzzing, setting straight to work processing his film.

Even if the atmosphere was intoxicating, disco music never entirely won him over. “I wasn’t really a fan of the music – if anything, it was more about the technology [for me]: there would be 20 giant speakers around the dance floor, and some of the clubs had these extravagant sets that would be lowered and raised.” Much attention was also lavished on performance; Barnum’s, for example, had “Disco Bats”, scantily clad figures swinging from trapezes over the heads of the crowd, with a giant net in place to break their fall. 

This fabulousness extended to the fashion – hems were high, Vs were deep, satin was tight, and shoes optional. But even if disco was a definable “scene”, the appeal for Bernstein was the absence of a codified look that accompanies so many other pin-pointable crazes. It was the diversity of age, race and gender identity, and the celebration of individual personal style, which attracted him. “It was a safe haven – when you walked in that door you weren’t a minority anymore, you were a star.”

Studio 54 and its ilk have a reputation for hedonism – they bloomed between the advent of the pill and the arrival of Aids. For Bernstein, the public displays of sexual freedom were all part of this wild moment of liberation. “There are a couple of pictures in the book that are pretty debauched, pretty risqué …. But I look at them and think about the inclusiveness. They’re not exploitative pictures, they’re not putting anybody down, they’re really celebrating it.”

Yet these black and white photographs are tinged with nostalgia too, for the party was not to last long. Disco was at its zenith in 1979, “in terms of popularity, and in terms of controversy,” suggests Bernstein, who points out that the cultural backlash had already begun – disco being denounced as corny and over-exposed by angry rock and punk fans. Meanwhile, the owners of Studio 54 were arrested for tax evasion, hosting a final party in February 1980 before doing time in jail. But the real death knell for the debauched scene was the arrival of Aids in the early Eighties. “People were very afraid. Disco was really dead. [The music] did continue underground, but the craze and the wildness and all of that acceptance … all that died.”

And yet … some might say disco is back, with the music recently receiving a reboot, a revival of interest in the whole edgy New York queer scene, and Seventies fashion stomping down the catwalks and on to the highstreet. Bernstein laughingly admits his hitting the zeitgeist is purely coincidental. “These pictures were sitting in a box in my studio, and my wife said to me, you should do something with them! This was about 10 years ago … I totally stumbled into this as the perfect time for the book to come out.”

Selecting the images took a while – Bernstein had shot a whopping 420 rolls of film. How was it, looking back through all that long-neglected work? Bernstein bashfully points out that he was only a rookie photographer at the time. “[Clubs] were a very difficult place to shoot in – there was very little light, and if there was, it was for a 60th of a second, a flashing light. And people were moving … I shot a lot of film, because I knew a lot of it wasn’t going to work. So I’m just happy to see what I got.”

The Independent

03 Nov, 2015

Holly Williams