Inside Studio 54 With Tod Papageorge

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© Tod Papageorge
© Tod Papageorge

We step inside the hedonistic nirvana that was Studio 54, via Tod Papageorge's mesmerising photographs of the iconic club

A curly-haired beauty, decked in silver frills, reclines dramatically against a bar; identical twins in matching tracksuits sway to an unheard song; a mysterious woman dangles from the ceiling like a tightrope artist, preparing to unleash a netful of balloons onto an expectant crowd. What could be mistaken for stills from a David Lynch film are in fact a series of beguiling photographs by lauded American street photographer Tod Papageorge, taken in New York nightclub Studio 54 between 1978 and 1980, and available this month in book form courtesy of Stanley/Barker.

"I was inspired by the beauty of its denizens and the fiery pleasure that they took in being there" – Tod Papageorge

Come nightfall, Studio 54 was home to the city's brightest young things; not only a photographer's dream, but one particularly suited to Papageorge's poetic vision. "Only the famous or socially connected could assume that they'd be shooed around the flock of hopefuls milling on the street side of the entrance rope and through the door," he describes. "Once inside, though, everyone there seemed thrilled by the fact, no matter how they managed to accomplish it, a feeling fed by the throbbing music and the brilliantly designed interior, which, from night to night, could suggest anything from Caliban's cave to a harem." Here, in celebration of the book's release, we speak to Papageorge about his inspirations and aspirations for the series, alongside a selection of our favourite images.

On his favourite anecdote from the club...
"Photography was my only agenda when going to Studio 54; I couldn’t have made the pictures I did there with anything less than total – and sober –concentration. I was, arguably, much too serious about what I was doing, which is the artist’s perennial dilemma: 'The intellect of man is forced to choose perfection of the life or of the work,' as Yeats put it, which, while sententious – and sexist – pretty much describes what I believed when I was making these pictures. 'Anecdotes are for dancers', I probably would have said – or something like it – if I’d been asked the question then. In other words, I was nigh on insufferable."

On the film-like quality of the images...
"Right from my first minutes in Studio 54, the beauty of its denizens and the fiery pleasure that they took in being there seemed to me to present the possibility of making such pictures, and is what kept me coming back. Actually making the photographs eloquent enough that they resemble film stills was that possibility realised, although always elusive. I’ve always believed, or hoped, that, if a given photograph appears to have a narrative quality inhabiting it, it might be more clearly understood as less a piece of journalism or reportage (the common reaction to photographs made in the world), than as a new, created thing; in other words, as a kind of visual poem constructed (if only in a moment) from literal fact."

On his key inspirations ...
"I’d seen a retrospective exhibition devoted to the work of the great Hungarian-French photographer, Brassaï, at the Museum of Modern Art in 1968, and never forgot it. And the photographs of his that I admired the most were those he made at night in the 1930s, not only in the streets of Paris, but more particularly in nightclubs, dance clubs and brothels. But, at least as much as the subjects of those pictures, I was taken by their beauty as prints, which I realised was related to the medium-format camera he’d been using. This produced a negative four times the size of that created by the 35mm Leica that his most brilliant contemporaries, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Andre Kertesz, had adopted in the late 1920s, a difference that revealed itself in the gorgeous tonal quality and descriptive exhaustiveness of his pictures. So, although an experienced Leica photographer myself, I bought a series of modern-day versions of his camera beginning in the early 1970s, and began to use them seriously at about the time I made these Studio 54 pictures, in 1977-78."

On New York, then and now...
"I feel New York has changed profoundly, although I’ve lived outside of the city for more than 20 years now. Certainly the grit and wonderful, ethnic neighbourhoods scattered throughout Manhattan, particularly, back in those days, are lost now, and with them a sense of antic energy and commitment to something other than the acquisition of money, which seems to me to define the island now."

On the best advice he's been given...
"Garry Winogrand, the great American photographer who was a close friend of mine, used to tell anyone who’d listen that “The most important rule in photography is, ‘Don’t drop your camera!’” Still good advice. As is Robert Frost’s observation that “The best way out is always through.”"

Studio 54: Tod Papageorge is out now, published by Stanley/Barker.