The Photographers Who Captured the Flashy, Feverish Nights of Disco
When Studio 54 opened in Manhattan in 1977, disco was in its heyday, having emerged at the beginning of the decade in New York City’s gay and black clubs, and permeated the mainstream with movies like Saturday Night Fever. The music style and accompanying club scene embraced participants of diverse racial backgrounds, ages, sexual orientations, and gender identities. It was the product of a unique moment in time: Minorities such as women, African-Americans, and a post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS LGBT community were empowered in unprecedented ways; meanwhile, New York was plagued by economic decline and high crime rates. Against this background, disco arose as both a site of celebration and a form of escapism. From the sheened-up, rollicking clubs of Manhattan to the more down-to-earth roller discos of Brooklyn and beyond, the following six photographers captured disco’s inclusivity, unfettered joy, and wild bacchanalia.
In the 1960s, English photographer David Redfern got his start shooting legends like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk in London’s jazz clubs, with pioneering color photos that upended the genre’s traditional black-and-white, film-noirish aesthetic. Becoming a huge name in jazz and pop music photography, Redfern also applied his love of color to images of the disco scene. His luminous action shots, which are, in fact, stock photos, capture the diversity of the disco movement, as young people of different races dance with abandon on mirrored dance floors, with multicolored lights and disco balls overhead. With their vivid colors, modest outfits, and staged smiles, Redfern’s images read as a wholesome counterpoint to the drug-fueled, nudity-filled romps that other photographers captured during the era.
A 1977 assignment from the Village Voice to photograph President Carter’s mother first brought Bill Bernstein to Studio 54. But while at the famed Manhattan disco club, he became fascinated with its ordinary, rather than celebrity, patrons. From 1977 to ’79, Bernstein photographed Studio 54 along with the city’s other disco clubs, like Le Clique, Xenon, and Paradise Garage, as well as Brooklyn’s Empire Roller Skating Center. In his images—some of which are currently in a solo show at New York’s Museum of Sex—a naked man wanders around Studio 54 after failing to leave the club at closing time; the near-octogenarian Disco Sally, who was well-known in disco circles, confronts the camera; and a couple in a lamé speedo and bikini frolic on a rope swing at the LGBT club GG’s Barnum Room.
Bernstein refers to the disco scene as a “bubble of inclusiveness,” describing an “atmosphere of celebration…an open, judgment-free environment [where] being free to be who you are was encouraged.” More interested in the clubs’ cultural diversity than in their glamour, and inspired by Diane Arbus, he aimed to “show the human side” of his often-marginalized subjects, who found a safe space on the dance floor. When Bernstein’s monograph Disco: The Bill Bernstein Photographs was being published in 2015, gay marriage had just become legal in all 50 U.S. states, transgender soldiers could soon serve openly for the first time, and the Charleston church shooting made headlines; for Bernstein, disco’s tone of inclusion and acceptance was highly relevant.
Fittingly, this year he will open a solo show at Berlin’s Galerie für Moderne Fotografie, and several of his pieces are included in the Vitra Design Museum’s exhibition “Night Fever: Designing Club Culture 1960–Today,” which opens this Friday.
Once a student of Lisette Model, New York-born Meryl Meisler snapped photos on the streets of then-seedy Bushwick in the early 1980s. At the time, she was an art teacher at a public school in the Brooklyn neighborhood. After she retired from her three-decade-long teaching career in 2010, she unearthed a more glamorous past series of work: images of famed Manhattan disco clubs like Studio 54 and Paradise Garage, which she’d shot with her medium-format camera in the late ’70s before becoming a teacher. In these photos, singer and model Grace Jones strikes a regal pose; scantily clad men partake in a Star Wars Party on Fire Island; and The Village People exit a club in iconic leather and feathered garb. The photos capture exuberant, sexually fueled reveling and were first shown in Meisler’s book A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick (2014), where they are thoughtfully juxtaposed one-to-one with the gritty Bushwick scenes.
Helping to launch the paparazzi genre, Gene Spatz captured celebrities from Sophia Loren and Lauren Bacall to John Lennon and Andy Warhol, often as they intermingled with everyday people in New York City’s disco clubs. Unlike most contemporary paparazzi shots, snapped surreptitiously and unwelcomed, Spatz’s close-up, intimate images speak to the rapport he established with his subjects during a bygone, pre-digital era. In one photo, Diana Ross and Jon Voight dance the night away in 1978, Voight’s butterfly collar shirt and patterned scarf exuding late-’70s style. In another shot from Studio 54, a drag queen in a sequined dress, butterfly wings, and sparkly, swirling antennae playfully squeezes a woman’s exposed breasts. During the ’70s and ’80s, Spatz shot some 50,000 images, which his sister discovered five years after his death and worked with the nonprofit POBA to curate and exhibit them online.
Bell-bottoms, floral-patterned shirts, and long-flowing hair dominate Bill Yates’s photographs of Sweetheart Roller Skating, a skating rink in rural Central Florida that the Floridian photographer shot in the early ’70s. From autumn 1972 to spring 1973, Yates, fresh from a workshop with street photographer Garry Winogrand, produced over 800 images of the working-class teenagers who came to skate at the rink. A relationship of mutual respect allowed him to capture candid moments, including kissing couples, a girl writing in her diary, and people joyfully dancing on skates.
Although his teachers at the Rhode Island School of Design later encouraged him to shift his focus, Yates returned to the Sweetheart images in recent years—digitizing most of the collection, printing a smaller selection, and exhibiting them several times, most recently in a 2015 solo show at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans. A contrast to the glitzy and hedonistic disco clubs that ruled New York City later that decade, the roller disco of the rural South reveals a part of the country in transition, just one year after Disney World opened in Orlando.
Richard E. Aaron
Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns/Getty Images.
Music photographer Richard E. Aaron has shot some 4,000 musicians—from Bruce Springsteen to Diana Ross—and his work has appeared in over 45,000 publications across the world. He shot the album cover for Peter Frampton’s 1976 hit Frampton Comes Alive, and is the photographer behind Time magazine’s first-ever rock cover, featuring Paul McCartney. Primarily known for his images of rock musicians, he dabbled in disco as well, shooting some of the genre’s greats. He captured the “Queen of Disco,” Donna Summer, throughout the 1970s, as well as artists like Michael Jackson and Prince, who glided from disco into pop as the ’80s began. His images read as a history of genre evolution and intersection, as the big hair, wide pants, and flashy outfits of the disco era appear as a similar, albeit less polished, iteration in photos of earlier rock and later pop performers.