A mention of Studio 54 tends to conjure up images of bright lights and disco balls, celebrities and cocaine-fueled hedonism, or even Mike Myers’s comic portrayal of owner Steve Rubell in the 1998 film about the club. But according to photographer Bill Bernstein, “It wasn’t always Bianca Jagger and a white horse in the middle of the room.” Bernstein, who ignited his career in the Seventies at this very paper, is set to release Disco: The Bill Bernstein Photographs this month via Reel Art Press. The coffee table tome celebrates the vibrant and inclusive nightlife of New York City at the end of the Seventies. It’s a look into a progressive past that foretold the diverse dance scenes that have only reemerged in the past decade.
But becoming one of the forefathers of party scene photography was not Bernstein’s initial intention. While working as a freelance photographer in 1977, he was sent to Studio 54 to shoot a black-tie dinner for President Carter’s mother, Lillian. The buzz about what usually happened inside the club compelled Bernstein to stick around after his work was done. “I wanted to see what the regular crowd looked like. So they started to come in and I just was drawn to it,” he says. “Visually, this was really something to photograph. I was really drawn to the people who were regulars there. They seemed to be really living for this experience. I didn’t know disco was such an interesting visual thing before that night.”
It inspired him to keep shooting, and he purchased ten rolls of film from a few other photographers who had been covering the dinner so he could capture the night. He had been searching for a personal project; the intrigue of disco was the one that clicked. As a freelancer, Bernstein was cautious about pursuing such an ambitious endeavor right away — a night of shooting would cost $30 to $40, as well as the man-hours to process and develop the film — but about six months after his initial night at Studio 54, Bernstein was back in the clubs, documenting the city’s robust dance culture.
“There was poppers; there was cocaine; there was whiskey. There was this booming music that was louder than anything I’d ever heard. When you’d walk into that room, your stomach would literally shake,” he recalls. “If you’re into the dancing, it was very hypnotic and you’d get a real high. I was there to work, but these people were there to get euphoric.”
Studio 54 was not the only disco haunt he captured. He also investigated Xenon on 46th Street — not just the clubgoers, but the décor of the place itself. “They had these moving sets, backdrops that would [change] during the night,” he says. “Every half an hour, 45 minutes, you would look up and see a different room.”
But beyond a given club’s ornamentation, Bernstein’s interest in disco hinged on diversity. “What I was really drawn to was the mix of people that were there. This was a time of gay liberation, women’s liberation, racial equality. There were a lot of movements that started in the Sixties that [are] now kind of in full swing. The disco was the place where all these people met up,” he says. “The raves [of today], they’re mostly middle-class. But [disco] was a celebration [for everyone] at most of these places. There was a place called G.G.’s Barnum Room and it was basically transgender men and women. It was a safe place. That was what kept coming back to me as the draw: that [discos] were really inclusive places. If I had gone the first night and it was a pretty straight, normal, poser crowd, I would have had no interest.”
Disco didn’t only thrive in Manhattan, either. Bernstein shot at spots like Park Slope’s Empire Roller Disco and 2001 Odyssey in Bay Ridge, the legendary locale of Saturday Night Fever. “It had this notoriety and fame attached to it, which gave it a certain kind of glow,” he says. “People came from all over the world to go to Brooklyn to dance on that dance floor. It’s a part of history; it’s like a piece of the Titanic or something.” But Empire Roller Disco was, ultimately, of much more interest “because [people were] roller-skating, the music was great, and there was this additional element of competition that would go on.”
Other unique venues caught his camera lens, too. He navigated the bubbling punk scene at Mudd Club and Hurrah’s, and spent time at the world-renowned downtown haven Paradise Garage. He admired iconoclastic club owner Larry Levan for his individuality and noted that it was more dance-centric than anywhere else. “There was no fancy light show. It was like a gym, [but with] the smell of poppers in the air,” he said. “You went there to get a workout.”
Bernstein considered disco dead by 1980. Now an accomplished career photographer with a Tribeca studio and a portfolio boasting portraiture work for the Voice and Elle, Bernstein has traveled the globe working for National Geographic, among other publications, and as Paul McCartney’s personal tour photographer. “That started in 1989, and I pretty much stopped working in 2005 [when] my son was born,” he says. “I had seen the world a hundred million times. It was kind of time to move on.” His time with McCartney is catalogued in a book called Each One Believing.
Disco was first conceived while Bernstein was still on the road with Macca. “In 2002, I got a call from a music producer in London named David Hill. He said, ‘I’ve seen some of your pictures and they’re cult classics.’ He was in with this whole DJ culture, and people really knew [my work],” Bernstein says. Hill suggested a coffee table book and dived into editing photographs provided by Bernstein and finding a publisher while the photographer was “touring like crazy” with McCartney. After their initial publisher shuttered before the book went to print, they linked with Reel Art Press, a boutique company whose books’ subjects range from Bruce Springsteen to Fidel Castro. Bernstein gives Hill’s hard work its due credit: “They’re my pictures, but it’s his book.”
Together, Bernstein and Hill have created a new history of Seventies nightlife that celebrates the culture beyond celebrity. Perhaps now a mention of Studio 54 will evoke the everyday people who made it so exciting — not just the ghosts of its dance floor.