The smoke filled dance floors of the 70s have long been a source of inspiration for the children who came after it. We all know the iconic photographs of Bianca Jagger arriving at Studio 54 upon a white horse; Andy Warhol, Jerry Hall and Halston huddled around champagne covered tables and a baby Brooke Shields sitting next to a young Mariel Hemingway. The glamour of the 70s has only grown as it faded into memory and photographer Bill Bernstein was there capturing it all.
Introduced to the scene when he was inadvertently sent to cover a night at Studio 54 by the Village Voice, he ended up documenting the scene for several years, often frequenting the city's underground disco clubs and photographing the kids who were infamous on the dance floor. Now the subject of an exhibition in London and accompanying book, New York based Bernstein explains to us the ongoing allure with all things disco and why things were never the same after the AIDS crisis.
How did you get started in photographing New York city nightlife?
I was just starting my freelance photography career at the time and I was doing a lot of freelancing for the Village Voice and there was an assignment for me to go up to Studio 54 one night and it was impossible to get into! You would stand in the street for hours and never get in so I thought this would be a good chance for me to actually get in because I'd have press credentials. So I stayed for the event that I was there to shoot and then after the event was over, I thought 'hey, as long as I'm here I might as well see what all of this chatter is about'. So I just stayed and I became very drawn into the disco scene.
Were you born and raised in New York?
I was born in New York but I was raised in the suburbs. It was a particularly exciting period of time in New York City, it was truly creative, there was a magical but brief moment of time, before the AIDS crisis and people sort of stayed at home. There was about a three year period where disco was a phenomenon, there was a lot of creativity that went into the discos themselves.
What do you remember most about that time?
People would come very dressed up for discos. Not all the discos but for some of the popular ones like Studio 54 and Paradise Garage, people would come in costumes. It was about being outrageous, it was a time of gay liberation, women's liberation and racial equality, all of these movements were expressing themselves on the dance floor together. There was just a lot of openness and acceptance and it was very magical, it manifested itself on the dance floor, that's what I was looking at. All judgements were sort of suspended during that period; it was very inclusive queer peoples, transgender people, that kind of thing, that's what I was drawn to.
All of the documentary photography you associate with the time, feature the same people. The main focus of your photographs are real people inside those nightclubs. Why did you choose to focus the people you did?
Because I thought that was the interesting part of the scene. These people had their day jobs, perhaps they were waiters or waitresses, so they could sleep most of the day but they could party most of the night, it became their lifestyle. They would be the ones there when I left at like six in the morning. As a photographer throughout my career, I've worked with many big celebrities and whilst I enjoyed photographing them back in the disco era, that wasn't the story to me and also the other part, is that everybody was photographing the celebrities. They would swarm a celebrity table and just shoot and I thought, 'well why would I want to shoot that picture because everybody else was getting it.'
What do you think people got from the disco?
I think that when you look back on New York at that time, it was economically tough, the city was almost bankrupt. So I think that people were looking for an escape and the disco was a perfect escape. It was really something to draw yourself into to get away from the economic situation that was happening at that time. You could walk into a disco and become a star, even if you weren't outside.
The AIDS epidemic had a big impact on the scene. What was the mood when the AIDS epidemic was occurring?
We called it the gay cancer. People didn't know what it was but they knew that their friends were dying in droves and dying horrible deaths. There was very little information about what it is or what it could be, so people were sort of partying like there was no tomorrow. I believe when it was like early 1981 when the medical community basically announced that we had discovered this virus called AIDS and that it was spreadable via sex. There was very little information about how you could catch it. People were even worried if saliva hit your face, we didn't know if you could catch it if you touched somebody. People got freaked and gay, straight, everybody get freaked and a lot of people stopped going to clubs and it just all became very different...
Why do you think people are still obsessed with 70s?
I always think after 25 or 30 years pass, all of a sudden people want to look back and kind of try to understand a certain era. You can now look back at it with fresh eyes and really see the whole picture. There are many other parts to it, but disco was such a phenomenon.
What are some of the differences you see in the way youth dressed in the 70s in comparison to now?
I don't really go out to clubs that much anymore, but I do think that the young are more accepting of trans community now. I mean I have a 12-year-old son who talks about transgender people and he doesn't understand why it is such a big deal. Two gay guys get married, or two lesbians get married, what's the deal you know? Back in the disco days, people took a big risk in being gay, you walked outside the door and you could get beat up or killed, even if the discos were a safe haven. Now, even though everybody hasn't changed their attitude, we've seen changes, even five years ago it wasn't that way. It takes a long time for serious changes to happen you know.
What is a photograph you particularly remember taking?
There's one shot in there of a pre-op transgender woman at a party and she was dancing naked but she was covered from the waist down with some sort of like silk cloth or something and she was dancing and I remember shooting her. It was basically a crowd of people sitting, watching her and her uncircumcised male genitalia just peaking out from under the cloth. I just remember being quite shocked because everybody is really smiling and cheering and some woman in the back has fist raised in the air, and to me, it really kind shows a certain acceptance and the crowd saying a real bravo to this person.
Then I also loved shooting at the roller discos, they would break up into little groups and they would have competitions and they would do their best moves and then the next person would get in the middle and do their best move and so that was always fun, it was great exhibition of dance moves. There are some great images in the book, it was really fun going back after so much time of not really looking at them and going through them and finding a lot of things that I didn't even notice before.