These Photographers Captured the Fearless Youth of the 1970s
The youth of the 1970s came of age amid powerful countercultural movements that took root during the previous decade and then blossomed internationally. In the ’70s, political upheaval and social change continued its immutable course: Americans against the Vietnam War were further disillusioned by the Watergate scandal; the U.K. fell into a deep recession and was debilitated by IRA bombings; Africans faced all of the rapid changes of a newly decolonized continent; and Japan continued to rebuild and find its identity in the wake of World War II.
Amid all of these shifts, youth culture flourished in skate parks, dark discotheques, and other communal spaces that young people made their own. The LGBTQ community began organizing in earnest in Washington, D.C., while punk bands shouted for anarchy across the pond. Below, we share nine photographers who captured the bold generation of youth who defined the era.
During its three-year heyday, nightclub Studio 54 ignited New York’s nightlife in the late 1970s. The disco sanctuary became known for its red-velvet-rope exclusivity and anything-goes atmosphere as the chosen watering hole for the glittering elite of gritty Manhattan.
“This was post-‘Saturday Night Fever,’ post-Stonewall, and pre-AIDS; disco, which hadn’t yet succumbed to punk rock’s counterpunch, was at its glorious height,” wroteTheNew Yorker’s Lauretta Charlton, setting the stage for one of the acclaimed photographers of the era, Bill Bernstein.
In 1977, Bernstein was a fledgling photographer at the Village Voice when an assignment brought him to Studio 54 to photograph a UNICEF event for President Jimmy Carter’s mother, Lillian (whose date for the night was
The photographer then made regular pilgrimages to the legendary dance floor, photographing at Studio 54, as well as Paradise Garage in Greenwich Village and 2001 Odyssey in Bay Ridge—the hallowed Brooklyn club where iconic scenes from Saturday Night Fever (1977) were filmed.
Bernstein’s black-and-white images capture the spirit of the era: bodies moving under neon lights, or over 2001 Odyssey’s illuminated floor; leather-clad limbs sprawled across couches; jubilant friends forming a line at the roller disco. But they don’t picture the celebrities of the era, like Warhol’s nightly coterie, or Bianca Jagger entering the club on a white horse. Instead, Bernstein understood that everyone on the dance floor was a famous face—if only for just that night.
Chances are, if you’ve sought out images of American skateboarding culture, you’ve come across the work of Hugh Holland. An autodidact who picked up a camera in 1968 and worked out of a makeshift darkroom, he went on to capture the quintessential spirit of skaters in Southern California during the second half of the 1970s. His sundrenched color photographs—which were an inspiration for the 2005 Heath Ledger flick Lords of Dogtown—have been exhibited since 2006, but in 2017, Holland unveiled a never-before-seen collection of black-and-white images of the same subject.
In 1975, Holland, then 32, began training his lens on young skaters in the city after an encounter with a group of skateboarders riding the drainage ditches in Los Angeles’s Laurel Canyon Boulevard. The following year, he captured the rise of bowl skateboarding, wherein riders would drop into drained outdoor swimming pools, which were ubiquitous during the drought that plagued California from 1976 to ’77.
Holland only spent three years photographing skate culture, but during that period, he traveled around Los Angeles and San Francisco; Reno, Nevada; and Baja California, Mexico, in search of the adrenaline-fueled camaraderie that underpins the community. He immortalized the riders in their chosen uniforms—long, tousled hair; striped tube socks; light-wash denim; and colorful knee pads—and their natural habitat of sun and concrete.
On the night of the 1968 Miss America pageant, entrepreneur J. Morris Anderson staged the first Miss Black America pageant to contest the white beauty standards that dominated the country. Though Miss America officially allowed women of color to enter after 1940, it was still a climate where the idea of a black woman winning was unthinkable (it wasn’t until 1983 that Vanessa Williams would finally do so). And as the “Black is Beautiful” movement took root in Civil Rights–era America, its effects could be seen in the U.K., as well. There, photographer Raphael Albert documented and organized pageants that celebrated black female beauty.
Albert was born and raised in Grenada, and moved to London in 1953, photographing for British newspapers like the Caribbean Times. In 1970, he began organizing and promoting a host of contests for black women, including Miss Black and Beautiful, Miss West Indies in Great Britain, and Miss Grenada. His images from the pageants throughout the 1970s and ’80s show elated contestants exchanging kisses on one another’s cheeks, or posing confidently, crowned and robed with sashes.
In 2007, two years before his death, Albert co-curated an exhibition for Black History Month of the pageant images that he and his peers had taken. However, Albert’s photographs were largely unseen until 2015, when London’s Autograph ABP began managing his archive and opened his first major solo exhibition, “Miss Black and Beautiful.” The curator, Renée Mussai, told the New York Times Lens blog that Albert’s images are “imbued with an exquisite, revolutionary sensuality and a certain joie de vivre,” showing a new generation of black women coming of age in Britain.
Joan E. Biren and Donna Gottschalk
New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.
Though they never photographed together, Joan E. Biren (or JEB) and Donna Gottschalk are inextricably linked through their work. Biren—a renowned documentary photographer and filmmaker—first met Gottschalk—whose photography was only recently uncovered—in New York City around 1969 as young artists and activists for lesbian rights and representation.
Biren, who is originally from Washington, D.C., moved back there to begin organizing in earnest, and Gottschalk, enamored with her peer, followed. But Gottschalk grew tired of D.C. politics, and left for San Francisco in 1971, around the time that Biren co-founded The Furies, a lesbian-feminist collective. In 1979, Biren debuted her photography with the book Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lebsians, which focused on the daily lives, love, and rituals of queer women. It was the type of imagery that Biren never had access to when she was growing up.
“I couldn’t picture being a lesbian, life as a lesbian, because there were no lesbians living out lives to see,” she told Vogue in a 2017 interview.
Meanwhile, Gottschalk established a life for herself and her siblings in San Francisco. She joined a lesbian-feminist activist group and sometimes hosted their East Coast counterparts. During her time in New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., Gottschalk amassed an archive of black-and-white portraits she took of the women in her life—her friends and lovers—as well as a body of work on her transgender sister, Myla, who passed away in 2013.
But Gottschalk didn’t take photos to exhibit them; they were meant for herself. She told CNN last year that she explained to her sitters: “If I get to be old, I want to remember you. I want to remember you just the way you are now.”
Too many people in Gottschalk’s life died young: They were poor, living on the fringes of society, and dealing with realities such as drug addiction, prostitution, and illness. As more people in her life passed away, Gottschalk became reticent to share her negatives; she kept them private until recently, when Biren asked to introduce them to New York’s Leslie-Lohman Museum. Last summer, Gottschalk debuted her work there in the solo exhibition “Brave, Beautiful Outlaws.” It is a remarkable and highly personal archive of the lives of young lesbians in the late 1960s and ’70s, kept secret for decades.
In 1960, the year that Sanlé Sory began apprenticing in photography, 17 African nations decolonized, including his native Burkina Faso. That decade, photo studios sprung up around Africa, and within a few years, Sory opened up his own, Volta Photo, in the cultural capital Bobo-Dioulasso.
For more than two decades, Sory framed the youth of the newly independent nation through tens of thousands of 6x6 black-and-white photographs. In his studio, he strung up cloth backdrops to offset his subjects, such as two women in matching Ghanaian nsu bura prints; or a young man in head-to-toe paisley, cigarette in mouth and a framed picture of French singer Eddy Mitchell in hand.
At night, Sory used high flash to capture the city’s revelrous youth, wearing cowboy hats, halter tops, or white bootcut slacks, and exuding playful confidence in front of his lens. Sory became more entrenched in the music scene and began shooting album covers for artists like Volta Jazz and Echo del Africa; it was those images that finally elevated his international profile—but not until this decade.
At nearly 70 years old, Sory was contacted by French record producer and writer Florent Mazzoleni, who discovered the photographer’s album covers in his research. The photographer was in the process of burning his negatives when he invited Mazzoleni to his studio; the producer recalled to the New York Times Lens blog last year that Sory was convinced that nobody cared about his old work. Mazzoleni looked through Sory’s archives and asked if he could have a box of negatives. That relationship blossomed: Mazzoleni helped the photographer preserve his archive and curated his first solo exhibition, leading to wider recognition of Sory’s work later in his life. Today, he is represented by Yossi Milo Gallery in New York and David Hill Gallery in London.
In the aftermath of World War II, much of central Tokyo had to be rebuilt due to the United States’s firebombing air raids. The residential neighborhood Tsunohazu was one of them, and it was eventually re-christened Kabukicho—the city planned to turn it into a kabuki theater hotspot. Though that proposal never came to fruition, discotheques and red-light attractions set up shop instead (that area of Shinjuku is still known for its love hotels and adult-entertainment venues).
Photographer Katsumi Watanabe was born in 1941 in Morioka City, Iwate, a northeastern prefecture. In 1962, he moved to Tokyo, where he apprenticed in a portrait studio by day and sought out Shinjuku’s most compelling faces at night. Prostitutes, drag queens, and young revelers populate his frames, as well as members of the yakuza, Japan’s organized crime gangs. Watanabe deftly cracked the exteriors of his subjects to reveal their interior lives under the bright flash of his strobe.
The photographer garnered recognition in the 1970s and released his first monograph, The Gangs of Shinjuku, in 1973, but his work was not widely known during his lifetime. (Watanabe passed away in 2006.) His Japanese peers, however, such as the photographers
Though Watanabe is often described as an “itinerant photographer,” a drifter who captured the people and moments who passed by his lens, Shinjuku was his true north, his fixed subject even as it changed through the decades. His practice was not always lucrative—at one point he sold sweet potatoes on Tokyo’s sidewalks to support himself—but he never lost interest in the eccentricities of Kabukicho.
The end of the U.K.’s Swinging Sixties was a hopeful period; the country’s teens and twentysomethings had catalyzed a fruitful era of music, fashion, and art. But in 1973, a deep recession hit, leading to continual strikes, high youth-unemployment rates, and IRA bombings. The unrest and anger in the U.K. called for a new type of rock and roll to match it, and amplify it.
John Ingham was a journalist for the weekly magazine Sounds when he first heard about a new band called the Sex Pistols. “When I saw the name ‘Sex Pistols’ in the press I was electrified—it was the best band name in ages,” he told Dazed in a 2017 interview. “When I saw them I was convinced.” He felt like British rock and roll had lost its energy, but here was a band with an unlimited supply and a frontman, Johnny Rotten, whose charisma lit up the stage.
As a writer, Ingham attended gigs for the Pistols, followed by the Clash. But he didn’t see photographers present, so he picked up a camera to document the emergence of a new era of music. In 2017, he released the aptly titled book Spirit of 76: London Punk Eyewitness, which features early images from 1976 of punk’s visionaries, including the Pistols and the Clash, as well as Billy Idol, the Damned, and Subway Sect.
But punk was more than just a music movement—it changed the mindset of U.K. youth. “Punk was started by misfits who created an opportunity to carve out the future they wanted to have and by sheer force of will made it happen,” Ingham added. “Its success gave us the confidence to do what we wanted and be successful at it.”
Before Susan Meiselas left the United States at the end of the 1970s to create a seminal body of work on Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolution, she photographed a topic much closer to home, at the corner of Mott and Prince Streets in New York’s Little Italy.
For “Prince Street Girls” (1976–79), Meiselas befriended a group of Italian-American preteens who spent their afternoons and weekends hanging out together on the block where the photographer lived. “I was fascinated by their relationships with each other. They simply liked to hang out together,” Meiselas wrote in her book On the Frontline (2017). “There was no story, no narrative. We didn’t plan our encounters. If we met in the market or at the pizza parlor, they would reluctantly introduce me to their parents but I was never invited into any of their homes. I was their secret friend, and my loft became a kind of hideaway when they dared to cross the street, which their parents had forbidden.”
After her initial set of images in 1976, Meiselas photographed the young women again two years later, by which point the whimsy and awkwardness of adolescence had vanished. The girls had exchanged their plaid school-uniform skirts for short shorts, and their playful camaraderie for the self-assurance of a teenage clique. Meiselas traveled with her subjects away from the familiarity of their block, photographing them on the subway and Rockaway’s beaches, their arms crossed and hips cocked; or shielding each other from the wind to light cigarettes.
The series might have become a longer view of womanhood, but Meiselas left for Nicaragua in 1978, and though she returned intermittently, she didn’t move back to New York until a decade later. The girls were grown up then, some with kids of their own, and the photographs came to represent a fleeting moment in their lives. But it wasn’t the end of Meiselas’s relationship with the Prince Street Girls—though they moved out of the neighborhood, they’ve visited Meiselas with their families in Little Italy, where the photographer still resides.
Jacqui Palumbo is a Senior Editor at Artsy.