© Bill Bernstein
Interview by Nicole M. Weingartner
If you lived through the disco era, you may remember Studio 54, Saturday Night Fever and Giorgio Moroder with his electro synth. It was a time when hits such as “Love to Love you Baby” and “Stayin' Alive" were played on every radio and in every nightclub across the country. The “discotheque” emerged out of the early 1970s and the urban gay culture of New York City to become a mainstream phenomenon.
According to photographer Bill Bernstein, “most people think that disco was just Studio 54, but there was a very vibrant disco club scene during the late 70s. This was the era when the economy was tanking in NYC and Gerald Ford famously told NY to 'Drop Dead'. Things were tough and people looked for an escape.”
It was also a time of rapid social and economic movements. America was coming to terms with sexual fluidity, women’s liberation and racial equality. These changes and their subsequent challenges brought about a cultural revolution, a tour-de-force of different identities trying to come to terms with this new way of life. And at the end of the day, all of these different people met on the dance floor.
38 years later, the disco is now catalogued in a new book out this week, Disco: The Bill Bernstein Photographs. It tells the story of a New York City that many of us have never witnessed, a time of acceptance and inclusion.
© Bill Bernstein
When he was young, Bernstein watched his father develop film from his Bronica. He was assigned the task of agitating the chemicals. While growing up, his love for photography was matched with his love for Rock and Roll. He was in a band called The Grapes of Wrath and their claim to fame was that they were asked to play in NYC at The Bitter End Café for a week during Thanksgiving break from high school. It was there that Bernstein met Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention.
After college, Bernstein soon realized he wasn’t fit for a 9–5. Freelance photography was in his DNA. He thought, “‘If it doesn’t work in 6 months I will look for a regular job again. Well, this was over 35 years ago. I guess I am sticking with this.’”
It was The Village Voice that gave him his first assignment to go to Studio 54 to shoot an awards presentation for Lillian Carter, President Jimmy’s mother. While there, he took note of the many celebrities. But as the night went on, he became more and more drawn to the regulars that came through the door and the stories they had to tell. It was then and there that he decided to keep coming back to shoot at Studio 54 as well as other disco clubs.
“The thing that drew me into the whole disco scene was not the music or the drugs, or the dancing or the celebrities. It was the culture of the scene and the people who frequented the discos. The regulars... the exhibitionists, the voyeurs, the posers, the hard-core dancers. When you scratched the surface of the disco and took out all of the glitz there was something important going on here. There was a very strong sense of inclusion and acceptance of all people, straight, gay, transgender, lesbian, black, white, old, young, famous and not famous. They all had a home at the disco.”
Most of his shooting took place over the course of several months in 1979. He would stay out for at least four hours and rotated between clubs—taking photos of not only Studio 54, but also Paradise Garage, Hurrah and Le Clique. He worked by being a floater, watching from afar but never engaging. He enjoyed his spot behind the camera, and anyways, it was hard to hold any conversation in the disco.
The great thing about the disco was that people weren’t shy in front of the camera, and Bernstein found that out very quickly. “People were there to see and be seen. It was the age before cellphone cameras, so it was also somewhat of a novelty to have your picture taken back then,” he recalls.
© Bill Bernstein
And it was a great gig for an early-career photographer. Bernstein learned how to shoot with a 35mm camera with Tri-X film and a Vivitar 273 flash, mixing any available light. The discos were dark, and with fog machines and strobe lights it was a challenge to light his subjects correctly. But the more he persisted, the easier it became and the more comfortable he was with his setup.
Bernstein kept photographing the discos until he felt like he had captured every nuance: “the roller discos, the posh uptown discos, the anti-discos, the gay disco, the transgender discos. All of it.”
When AIDS was discovered in America in 1981, disco had already started its decline. There was a cultural backlash against the music and the scene, fueled by homophobia and punk rock subculture. There was Disco Demolition Night in Comiskey Park, the closing of Studio 54 for tax evasion, and the AIDS virus. People were afraid to leave their homes. Disco was dying out.
This meant there was nothing left to photograph, and Bernstein put the images he shot in a desk drawer in his office, where they would sit for over 20 years.
© Bill Bernstein
Bernstein moved on to other freelance projects. In the 1980s he found work with Elle magazine, National Geographic TV, USA Network and the Hallmark Network. A few years later, he was introduced to Paul McCartney by McCartney’s then-publicist Joe Dera. Bernstein ended up working with McCartney as his personal photographer until 2005.
While on tour with McCartney, Bernstein took a few of the lessons he had learned from shooting the disco project to his tour photography, when late nights were the norm, and he had to shoot in many settings. “Of course it was much easier using digital instead of film,” he recounts.
It wasn’t until the early 2000s that Bernstein received an email from a music producer in London named David Hill. He had seen the disco photographs and wanted to know if he was interested in making a coffee table book. Bernstein immediately said yes, but told Hill that he was in the middle of a tour with McCartney but that he could have the images to play with while he was away. Hill found a home for the book with Reel Art Press in London. Disco will be launching November 16, 2015, with the first gallery show at the Serena Morton Gallery in London from Dec 3–Jan 24, 2016.