Gritty Photos of New York Nightlife in the Early 90s
Jacob Fuglsang Mikkelsen branded himself as the Holden Caulfield of the avant-garde party scene.
All images © Jacob Fuglsang Mikkelsen
New York City in the 1990s was a heady time. Murder surged to a record high as the crack epidemic reached its peak. Abandoned buildings became crack dens and prostitution flourished on the streets, ushering in the controversial rule of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 1994.
Under Giuliani’s “Quality of Life” campaign, the New York Police Department began a crackdown on people committing minor offenses. Then the mayor took aim at nightclubs, ordering raids that would transform the underground scene from a DIY space for outsiders to a corporate endeavor replete with mega clubs, bottle service, and couches on the dancefloor.
The 90s was the last hurrah of bohemian New York, an epitaph to the “anything goes” insouciance that came with being able to live, work, and party in Manhattan without breaking the bank. It was into this bohemia that Danish artist Jacob Fuglsang Mikkelsen arrived and set up shop at the Gershwin Hotel on East 27th Street, the epicenter of the downtown avant-garde scene.
The Gershwin drew a delicious mix of artists, writers, and luminaries—including Quentin Crisp, Danny Fields, and Marcia Resnick; Warhol legends like Ultra Violet, Billy Name, and Paul Morrissey; and nightlife icons like Susanne Bartsch, Amanda Lepore, Sophia Lamar, and Junior Vasquez. Casting himself as Holden Caulfield armed with a camera, rather than a hunting rifle, Mikkelsen created a performance piece in which he “shot” the people on the scene, capturing them for a series he titled Catcher in the Eye.
Mikkelsen’s photographs preserve the city as it was: a surreal phantasmagoria of freedom, independence, and self-expression. VICE recently caught up with the photographer, who spent some time reminiscing about life in New York during the dial-up era.
VICE: Could you talk about your earliest experiences at the Gershwin Hotel?
Mikkelsen: I visited the Gershwin Hotel for the first time in 1993. It was a halfway house for ex-convicts and the homeless, and some of the floors had been renovated for use as a hostel. I worked off the cost of my room as the assistant to Lynne Packwood, the hotel's interior designer in residence from Liverpool [who was overseeing renovations.]
The Swiss businessman Urs Jakob and his wife Suzanne Tremblay had made a deal with the city. They could buy the building for one dollar with the promise to transform the building into a clean and classy business.
After a year of art school in San Francisco, I returned to New York and the Gershwin Hotel. Lynne and I soon became romantically involved, and she introduced me to the many amazing characters who were involved with what The Gershwin had become since I had seen it last. I moved in permanently in 1999.
I became friends with the writer in residence Gordon Sander, who introduced me to the art of “Hanging Out,” which he taught at night school. Billy Name was the photographer in residence. He reminded me of my grandfather Alf, who was also an artist, and they even looked alike with a big white beard and all. It felt like I had met family that shared their experiences and knowledge with me. It was something I could only have dreamt of.
Could you describe the scene at the Gershwin?
In the early years, it was Jules Feiler and Urs Jakob that stood behind most of the ideas for events. A Gershwin party started out on the street where, upon arrival, the long flame sculptures by Finnish designer Stefan Lindfors would draw one inside and through the lobby, which was connected to the art gallery. The Red Bar and the Living Room were in the back, and the Mezzanine, a Being John Malkovich-esque space with lower ceilings, was on the 1 1⁄2 floor. The Penthouse had a lovely rooftop covered in high-end astroturf, where they held starlit parties and film festivals. The hotel was called MA13—Museum of Art 13 Floors. Each floor had a permanent exhibition with different artists, including yours truly.
What was the inspiration for Catcher in the Eye?
The project began developing in my mind in 1996 while reading Catcher in the Rye, which Lynne gave me because she said I reminded her of Holden Caulfield.
The performance I developed, when I was taking photos of the people surrounding me, was in the state of mind of Holden Caulfield. The camera is the perfect protection to hide behind. As long as you stay behind the lens, looking and observing the world, it is not necessary to fully participate. The act of taking a photo, catching a moment in time on film is magic.
I created an exhibition where all the people in the larger-than-life photos would be present to interact with themselves on the walls. It was held on the entire 96th floor of the Empire State Building for a month in April 1997. The negatives were scanned and the images were printed on canvas. My thought was that if Warhol had been alive then, he would have printed his work on canvas too, with a machine.
When I was taking photos in New York’s underground club and art scene, I was almost the only one with a camera. Anton Perich and Billy Name showed me that it is really important to try and catch a certain time, a certain energy, a certain scene while it is happening, while everyone else is just being in the middle of it.
What are some of your favorite moments with the people you photographed?
Well, to start with, Quentin Crisp—Sting’s “Englishman in New York,” who often came by the Gershwin for parties. For the exhibition opening, I sent him a handwritten invitation. The time of the opening was 7 PM, but Quentin had mistaken PM for AM. The man, who looked like a sweet little old lady, was over 80 years old and had never been to the Empire State Building.
Luckily a security guard recognized Quentin. It turned out the guard was a big fan and took care of Quentin all day, showing him around the building, paying for his food and drinks, until the evening when the show started. Quentin loved the attention, and later sat in one of the windows overlooking the city, having his picture taken with all kinds of fabulous people who knew who he was and the importance he had in history.
What made the 90s nightlife scene a singular era?
The 90s was an in-between era fueled by house music, ecstasy, Special K, open bars, a booming stock market, and the web bubble that had not popped yet. There was an overflow of young, cool, clever, and creative people around with money to burn.
At the time of the beginning of the downfall, I was collaborating on curating art and cultural events at the Tunnel. I soon became part of the plans to re-open the Limelight, and pitched the idea of having HR Giger do the VIP room. This happened in the most wonderful way, and I met the mother of my daughter in that VIP room when I DJed there.
The new Limelight was pretty cool for a minute, but it soon became mainstream and yet another cash cow for club scion Peter Gatien. He needed to make money to pay for his insane legal fees. He finally end up getting busted for tax evasion, sentenced, and deported to his homeland of Canada.
The club scene turned commercial, uptown, mainstream, money grabbing, and boring. Nightlife is supposed to liberating, happy, positive energy and good vibes all around. The best parties started to happen far out by the West Side Highway and upper Chelsea Piers. There were more boat parties, loft parties, and parties in Brooklyn. Then came 9/11 and the end of New York as I knew it.
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