The Last Days of Disco as Captured by Photographer Bill Bernstein
Bernstein's new photo book charts the rise and fall of disco as a crucial moment in history, and the impact the movement had on New York clubland.
Empire Roller Disco #1, 1979 ©Bill Bernstein
Clubs: the home of drinking, dancing and fucking in toilet cubicles since forever. If the walls of clubs could talk they'd undoubtedly give us a long lesson in social history. Since they can't, it's lucky that people like photographer Bill Bernstein are around to capture those stories with their cameras. Bernstein documented New York nightlife in the late 1970s and his photographs of the city's club culture remind us that, above all, clubs provide people with a place of refuge and a sense of community.
Starting his photographic project in Studio 54, Bernstein traipsed around New York in search of the city's most unusual venues. He captured iconic clubs like the Paradise Garage, gay men meeting eyes on the dance floor at clubs on Fire Ireland, and the unique sense of freedom on offer at smaller, suburban discos in Brooklyn and Harlem.
Aside from giving people an escape, these clubs and the others Bernstein visited had another main thing in common: they played disco music until dawn. Bernstein's new photo book charts the rise and fall of disco as a crucial moment in history, and the impact the movement had on New York clubland. We asked him to cast his mind back to what disco clubs felt like on a Saturday night, and why they mattered to the people who frequented them.
VICE. Hi Bill. So tell us, how did you get into nightlife photography and what was it that drew you to the subject of clubgoers?
Bill Bernstein: I became a freelance photographer in the mid-1970s for the Village Voice. That's really where I got my start. They had me shooting portraits of underground artists and playwrights. One night, they sent me to Studio 54 to shoot an award ceremony for Lillian Carter, Jimmy Carter's mother. People were in black tie, it was an upscale dinner, and Lillian Carter was sitting next to Andy Warhol. It was kind of funny and weird. I'd once before stood outside Studio 54 in the crowd with some friends and we couldn't get in, but this night I had press credentials, so when everyone was leaving I decided to stay. I bought ten rolls of film off another photographer, hid out and started to watch the regulars come in.
That was the beginning of my interest in photographing discos. I was drawn by the theatricality of the club, the visuals, and the inclusiveness that I saw – the fact that it was a totally harmonious group of all different cultures and sexual orientations and ages. Everybody was just there to have a good time and party.
That's rare for a club – they often attract a specific subculture. What do you think it was about Studio 54 that brought people together?
Disco music was very happening at that point. It was underground through the 1960s and then it became this phenomenon after the movie Saturday Night Fever. It was also a period when New York City was going through a horrible economic downturn and discos were the place to go to forget about it all. You had a strong gay liberation movement after Stonewall, a strong women's liberation movement, and a racial equality movements. You had a lot of political movements – equality movements – at the time. These people needed some place to go at night to let it all out. The disco was there. All of those movements manifested themselves on the dance floor with this fantastic blend of people. It was a perfect storm.
I'm a huge Larry Levan fan. I love your photographs of him DJing at the Paradise Garage. What was the atmosphere like there?
It was a great place, I used to go there a lot when I was doing this project. It was a big parking garage, still there today, with amazing sound system. They didn't serve any alcohol there, just juice and fruit. But the smell of amyl nitrate filled the air. It was really like the equivalent of a work out gym because people just went there to dance for hours and work up a huge sweat. I have a picture in the book of the sign outside Paradise Garage – an iconic sign of a guy moving a tambourine, and there's a gigantic warehouse window open next to it. That place got so hot from sweat that you could see the sweat coming out of the window on certain nights.
What was your personal favourite club that you shot in?
Another unusual place that I really liked was GG's Barnham Room. It was basically a bar for transgender people, but it was also like I was saying before, in terms of inclusiveness, it wasn't a place that only transgender men and women went to – it was full of straight people as well, black people, white people, older businessmen. Actually, it became a tourist attraction after a certain period. They had these dancers that would perform on a trapeze above the dance floor, and if they fell they had a net that would catch them. That was a great place. For me, a white Jewish kid, going in and hanging out in GG's was a complete novelty and it really exposed me to a whole different culture. It was wonderful.
What did that club mean to the people who went there?
It was the late 70s and the world was very homophobic outside. The world was basically full of negative feelings towards gay, lesbian and transgender people, but once you stepped into the disco, all of that went away. It was a transformational place.
How did the landscape of New York's nightlife change around the onset of the AIDS epidemic?
When AIDS was declared an epidemic there was nothing more than an article in the New York Times about it. You didn't know if someone spat in your mouth when they were talking to you or touched your arms that you could catch AIDS. It was the beginning and so little information was known that people were panicking about it. For that reason, people tended not to go out so much.
So, when you look back at the precise moment in disco history you captured, how do you perceive it now?
This was a period of time when disco was massive... but so big in fact that there became an underground swelling of dissatisfaction with disco music across America. I think disco was so huge that people had enough of it. And then suddenly Studio 54 was closed down by the IRS for tax evasion and Steve Rubell and Ian Schrader were sent to jail for tax evasion. It was a weird time when I was shooting... Disco was at its peak and just about ready to fall. My foreword in the book is called "Last Dance" and the picture is a brick wall outside a club called 2001 Odyssey, in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where someone has spray-painted 'Disco Sucks' on the wall.
You caught the last days of disco...
'Disco: The Bill Bernstein Photographs' is published by Real Art Press and is available to buy now
The release will coincide with an exhibition at Serena Morton Gallery, 343-345 Ladbroke Grove, London W10 6HA from 3 December 2015 – 24 January 2016.
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