Studio 54 Still Looks Like the Best Club of All Time

I spoke to photographer Tod Papageorge about his new book on the legendary New York nightspot.

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20 October 2014, 11:14am

When you combine an expert, artistically motivated photographer and late-1970s New York City’s most insanely fucked up, glamorous, hedonistic and beautiful people, you get some pretty phenomenal photos.

Images from Studio 54 are almost commonplace these days – what with all the articles, documentaries and biographies of the super club – but something about the pictures Tod Papageorge took there seem to raise the subjects to a new level. They’re not just partygoers, but some sort of weird, artsy, celebrity, cocaine-and-champagne-fuelled Dionysian cult clambering around in dinner suits and ball gowns.

Papageorge – who’s perhaps best known for American Sports, 1970: Or How We Spent the War in Vietnam, a piece of searing anti-war commentary – took the time to talk to me about the images in his new book, Studio 54; his motives for taking them; and seeing his work in the club as offering a cohesive view of the world we live in.

VICE: Any biography of you, or description of your early work, seem to focus on the "street photography" label. Is that a term you're happy with?
Tod Papageorge: Interesting question. No, it’s not. It was just the work of a photographer, working in New York City. I'm a little less sensitive to the designation now, as I get older and more benign in my temperament. But back then it was a red flag – not just for me, but certainly for Garry Winogrand and the other photographers in our crew. It seemed to be condescending, or at least that was the way we responded to it: that it was a condescending way of describing what we were doing. We thought that what we were doing was making photographs.

It’s what all photographers were doing at that time – going out into the world and capturing some piece of it, whether photographing a mountain like Ansel Adams, or Harry Callahan taking photos of his wife. "Street photography", it seemed to us, was not a very useful designation. There's a famous issue of Aperture Magazine called "Snapshot", which I had some part in putting together. It asked this same question of a lot of photographers and their replies were all negative. Like mine, right now.

Right. So, aside from the unfortunate label that was dropped on you…
Coincidentally, I was looking over some work I did in the 80s, when was making the Studio 54 pictures. I had bought a new medium format camera called a Makina Plaubel 67 that made a slightly squarer negative. Back then, when I was walking in New York I made a study of the debris thrown in the street, and over time accumulated a certain number of pictures. Recently I looked over and edited them, with the idea of doing a book, possibly. The name of the book would be Street Photographs, literally photos of debris on the street. That’s what I think of the designation – that’s how I think it should be properly used.

Well, I'm glad you've at last had your revenge on the term. In terms of the work you were doing at the time – the not-street photography – how did your work in Studio 54 fit into that?
In 77, [photographer and curator] John Szarkowski had asked me to curate an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, a very singular honour for a photographer, to curate an exhibition. It was an exhibition of Garry Winogrand’s work from a book called Public Relations. Every day I would walk from my apartment on West 86th Street, down through Central Park, to MoMA to work on this show. Daily I took my large 6.9cm camera with me; this was when I started working very seriously in Central Park.

Would that work in Central Park be what became your book, Passing Through Eden?
Yes, exactly. In the daytime I would work with a fill in flash, to open up shadows, in the park. Then, in many of those evenings, I would take the same gear to Studio 54. But it’s not as if I had some kind of obsession with Studio 54. I was very fortunate to have a friend – Sonia Moskowitz was her name – who was a celebrity photographer, and very well liked at Studio 54. So she was able to get me in. Otherwise I would probably have never thought about it. I was very much a student of Brassaï, the great French-Hungarian photographer. I loved his work and had seen a major exhibition of his in 1968, and so photographing in the club sort of fitted in a kind of natural way with pieces of photographic history that I had been very moved and inspired by.

So those two books, and projects, were separate bodies of work, both coming from the same day-to-day working practice and interests?
Yes. In the day I would work in Central Park, and occasionally at nights I would be in Studio 54, using the same camera and gear for both. In both cases I was very concerned with the level of descriptive detail, and tonal beauty, that the larger negative of this camera was giving me. When you see the actual book, you can see the level of detail and the beauty of the prints – it's a whole different order from 35mm photography.

So you had the access granted, as you mentioned, to the club. How did people react to being photographed in that setting at that time?
Well, in truth, there were a lot of photographers there. They were generous with access because the photos got out there and it made the club that much more desirable to people. The people there were very used to cameras, so there were no bad reactions at all. There wasn't even one single sceptical reaction to what I was doing. 

I take some pains in the little essay in the book to describe my working process, which I think helped. I was already an experienced 35mm photographer, and the camera I was using had the same frame shape as a 35mm would. I could sort of see the frame of the picture without lifting the camera to my eye as I walked around. I only raised the camera to take a picture when I saw something about to happen. I wasn’t, in other words, walking about tentatively with my camera raised, looking around with it, alerting people to it, or making people wary of someone taking a picture. It usually happened almost instantaneously. Occasionally I would take a second picture, but generally I wasn’t so clumsy as to be exposing this obtrusive camera.

To compare it to another of your books, American Sports 1970: Or How We Spent the War in Vietnam, was there any political or social comment in mind with the Studio 54 work? Or Passing Through Eden?
No. Certainly much less so than the Sports pictures. They were made at the height of the Vietnam War, in protest to the Vietnam War. I was pretty inflamed, politically, then.

What did you feel you were capturing then? Was it more a pure, mad, visual spectacle?
I think the way you have described it is good. I was just amazed by these, in a way, complimentary, sensual worlds. People relaxing on the grass in Central Park, or partying in Studio 54. It was more work along those lines. I have always believed – well, it’s a large subject to describe or attribute work to, but these things are a vision of the world.

It relates to the idea that you have this feeling about things in general – a feeling that’s been inculcated in you through your life, through the art you love and respond to, and the music you listen to. I always trusted that, whatever the shape of that vision was, it was going to be described and articulated in any pictures that I made. And I believe it is, in those two bodies of work, just as I believed it would be. I think both bodies of work describe a coherent, or even cohesive, sense of the world. Basically it’s poetic in its nature; it certainly isn’t journalistic in its nature, and again it goes back to my experience of being an artist and having artistic ambitions and being shaped by the art I loved. But no – it’s not political at all.

Tod Papageorge's Studio 54 is available for pre-order from STANLEY / BARKER here.

More old photos of people partying:

Ibiza Looked Just As Fun Before the Rave Generation Arrived

The Soul of UK Garage, As Photographed By Ewen Spencer

This Guy Spent the Mid-90s Living in a Travelling Rave Van