Photographing in nightclubs is easy pickings for a photographer; dangerous sometimes, unfair because your quarry is often worse for wear, judgmental because there are multi-various photographic tropes that comply easily with the iconography of loss and abandon.
Tod Papageorge’s collection of documentary photographs of the legendary Studio 54 are positioned uneasily in the shadows of Larry Fink, Winogrand and Mary Ellen Mark to name a few photographic observers of the rhythms of nocturnal social relations. The beautiful book object; matt black cover; platinum prints and gold coloured inlay summon wild fantasies of fascist pleasure-domes and the disco tackiness of Berlusconi.
Papageorge, along with other photographers too, gained access to the nightclub, which burned brightly in the late 1970’s – part of an apparatus and embellished expectation – and like the Bowery, three miles downtown, the nightclub appears to have been a ‘go-to’ destination of easy photographic spectacle. Some revellers are in a state of utter trauma; the sublime opening image shows a Cinderella in an explosive aftermath, shattered glass at her feet, dazed and confused as her suitor checks her shoe size. She is oblivious to his attentions, on the margins, ready to leave, well after midnight already.
Yet there is heightened irony in these extraordinary grandiose tableaux that share an iconography and historical lineage more with the work of Jacob Riis than any other New York photographers. The induced collapse and sandwich of prostrate bodies, the pursuit of pleasure as main objective and apparent abandonment of any moral code all converse with Riis’ representations of opium dens and the cramped living of the same city ninety years previously.
As a complete body of work Studio 54 is a welcome series, and the title of this mythologised blip of history offers a useful commodification for the works, yet what happened here happens everywhere. The enquiry of these photographs is elsewhere; the pursuit of oblivion via decadence and benign entitlement being familiar to us all from time to time.
All images courtesy of Stanley/Barker. © Tod Papageorge