DISCO: review

By Ruth Allen

In the late 1970s, Bill Bernstein received a call to photograph president Jimmy Carter’s mother, Lillian, at an awards ceremony. Bizarrely, the epitome of American white suburbia was to receive her award for humanitarian work at the notorious New York club Studio 54. As he was packing up to leave after the ceremony had ended, the patrons of the club began to arrive – and it was like nothing Bernstein had seen before. “The way they dressed, the way they walked and talked and posed, it was like, suddenly, I wasn’t going home early.”[1] Bernstein had stumbled into the midst of a movement that was changing New York from atop a dark, sweaty dance floor: Disco.

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Lillian Carter, left and Andy Warhol, Studio 54, 1977

Published only last year in 2015 and released with a corresponding exhibition, Disco contains many never-seen-before pictures, set within a large, heavy square. Its weight implies its significance, as if it were a jewellery box or treasure chest. The high-contrast photographs fill entire pages, or are spread over two – notes or annotations do not appropriate any space. This allows for a wholly immersive experience, for the full might of the photos to truly resonate with the viewer. Bernstein’s photographs are classic documentary photography, born of voyeurism. However there is no sense of his intrusion into this alien world, allowing the viewer a chance to club-hop through one long, ridiculous New York night out. Each photograph represents a single moment throughout this prolonged celebration – a stolen glance to the right that coincidentally happened to be not merely a feast, but a carefully prepared banquet for the eyes.

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Dancing at the Crisco Disco, 1979

In Disco, Bernstein captures something missing in the usual Saturday Night Fever tropes: a guttural, raw demand to be emancipated from the constraints of a still conservative society. As a gay Puerto Rican partygoer told the New York Sunday News in 1975: “The more hostile the vibes in your life, the better you learn how to party, ‘cause that’s your salvation”.[2] This pours out of every shot: there is a sense of urgency, as if the dancers know about the imminent end of their reign, their freedom. The Stonewall riots of 1969 anticipated a decade of unprecedented ‘coming out of the closet’ and the gay rights movement in many ways grew up amidst the disco scene. However in Bernstein’s own words: by 1980, ‘disco was really dead’.[3] The joy seen in many photos is marred by the retrospective knowledge of the announcing of AIDS by the World Health Organisation in the early 1980s, which caused huge reverberations for the gay rights movement. This makes the dancer’s drive seem all the more desperate, their short-lived liberty snatched away after only a few years of guilelessness.

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Studio 54, 1979

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Le Clique, 1979

Numerous moments parade this newly found and long-anticipated freedom; many of the most popular clubs were also meccas for the gay scene and the above photo from Studio 54 evidences this incredibly. The central figure, statuesque and covered in glitter, grabs at the strings of the tiny thong that covers his manhood, insisting more attention be showed to it than his risqué underwear choice already requires. The ghostly remnants from admirers’ hands clawing at the glass adorn his backdrop – elevated above them on his stage, he has risen far above the realm of the ordinary, the day-to-day. Meanwhile, in Le Clique, a man is spread out on the floor, sequins adorning his body as his face contorts with the absolute elation of that moment. A barefoot dancer stands either side of the man’s body, giving a ritual, animalistic quality to the image. The display of the hedonism of such clubs could not be more audacious throughout Disco.

The anonymity of all (bar a few famous faces) serves the book’s purpose as a glimpse into another world, where in the midst of a drug-fuelled haze, names were caught briefly, then forgotten in an instant. These mysterious unknowns spun into superstars each night – funnily, all seem to take it in their stride as if seasoned professionals. The fact that the dancers are only available in 2D adds to their allure, as Barthes confirms: ‘since Photography authenticates the existence of a certain being, I want to discover that being in the photograph completely, ie., in its essence’.[4] The creatures in these photographs are so otherworldly that they almost cannot be real – they are evident, yet improbable.[5]

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A man kissing a transgender woman named Ava, GG’s Barnum Room, 1979

In GG’s Barnum Room, a ‘transgender haven’, a transgender woman is pictured having her leg caressed by a man. His hand bends backwards in a seemingly uncomfortable position in order to accommodate her foot. The wall behind them echoes the focal point of the picture; her stockings draw the eye up the leg and one can imagine where the man’s kissing will stop. In contrast to many of the other photographs, this is still: the woman exudes sex and glamour, whilst retaining complete power and control – the neutral expression on the woman’s face suggests that she plays empress on a regular basis. Her femininity is not weak or submissive – her knee rests on his crotch, the subversion of traditional gender roles clear. Richard Dyer’s defence of disco reasoned that whilst rock, for example, was ‘indelibly phallocentric music,’ disco ‘restor[ed] eroticism to the whole body… for both sexes’.[6] Further, Gilbert and Pearson added: ‘what a music like disco can offer is a mode of actually rematerializing the body in terms which confound the gender binary’.[7] No matter what sex you were, the undulating rhythms of the dance floor were a uniting force for all, and this was, of course, empowering to women in particular. Disco music was dominated by the Divas, and a new technology and sound system meant that this music was felt even before it was heard. Dancing evolved into a spontaneous reaction to this synaesthesia: truly, these people were “Lost in Music”.

Nevertheless, the 1970s was in many ways a dark time in American history. For all its fostering of change, backlashes to these emancipations were felt twice as hard. Racism, though no longer supported by the law, was rife throughout the country in a more insidious form. Throughout all of this, the underground disco movement became a melting pot where all kinds and creeds came together to dance their stresses away – barefoot and carefree. Bernstein sensed early on that “there was a real acceptance of people, no matter who or what they were, and an incredible tolerance of diversity.”[8] Older businessmen dancing next to transgender women, gay couples next to straight couples next to interracial couples – no one was bound by their identity.

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A couple from Suburbia

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Studio 54 Cabaret Couple, 1977

The average suburban family seen in Bill Owens’ Suburbia represented a different kind of harmony, a measured unity. To contrast the two sets of photographs is to view two opposite ends on a scale of vitality – the subjects of Bernstein’s photos are truly living, rather than simply existing within the grey-scale frame of the photograph. This was precisely the energy that attracted so many white suburban teens away from the safety of their hometowns to the city. Owens’ pictures evoke a certain comfort in their nostalgia, but viewed next to Bernstein’s photographs they become unnerving, their predictability a trap. In this way, the photographic medium suits Owens’ photographs much better – the subjects are much more comfortable confined to the edges of a photograph than Bernsteins’. Disco’s inhabitants are just a second away from escaping.

It is strange to consider that had Bernstein curated his collection at the time, rather than 40 years after the photos themselves were taken, his choice may have been different. Perhaps he would have chosen photos that alluded to his personal highlights of the night, rather than the most compositionally striking. The decades that have passed have instead allowed for the cherry –picked images to suffuse with a type of nostalgia, but of a different kind to Owens’. Bernstein’s photos deliver synonyms of the city: they are carnal, grimy, and magical, and they make you want to break free from the dreaded norm.

Despite Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s claim that ‘in the photographic camera we have the most reliable aid to a beginning of objective vision’, my opinions of this photo-book are almost entirely a product of my own intense longing to experience a 70s dance floor.[9] The closest I had got before looking at these images was watching Saturday Night Fever and dancing to Debbie Jacobs in my room – thanks to Bernstein, my imagination has been replenished. Whilst I wish I had been able to experience the world these photos tale first hand, ultimately they feel like something I should never have been so lucky to see.

References:

[1] Sean O’Hagan, “Boogie wonderland: disco’s hottest 70s nightclubs” The Guardian, 26/9/2015 at: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/26/disco-nightclubs-photography-1970s-new-york

[2] Sheila Weller, “The New Wave of Discotheques,” New York Sunday News, 31 August 1975.

[3] Holly Williams, “Bill Bernstein…” The Independent, 1 November 2015 http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/bill-bernstein-i-always-left-feeling-high-i-can-t-tell-if-it-was-just-the-pounding-music-the-light-a6715341.html

[4] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, (London: Random House, 2000) p.107

[5] ibid.

[6] Richard Dyer, “In Defence of Disco,” Gay Left, summer 1979. In: Hanif Kureishi and Jon Savage eds.,The Faber Book of Pop (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), pp. 518-27.

[7] Jeremy Gilbert and Ewan Pearson, Discographies: Dance, Music, Culture and the Politics of Sound (London: Routledge, 1999) p.102

[8] Ibid. O’Hagan

[9] Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Painting, Photography, Film, in: Charles Traub, The New Vision, (New York: Aperture, 1982) p. 28

Bibliography:

Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida (London: Random House, 2000)

Bernstein, Bill, DISCO: The Bill Bernstein Photographs, (London: Reel Art Press, 2015)

Gilbert, Jeremy and Ewan Pearson, Discographies: Dance, Music, Culture and the Politics of Sound (London: Routledge, 1999)

Kureishi, Hanif and Jon Savage eds.,The Faber Book of Pop (London: Faber and Faber, 1995)

O’Hagan, Sean, “Boogie wonderland: disco’s hottest 70s nightclubs” The Guardian, 26/9/2015 at: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/26/disco-nightclubs-photography-1970s-new-york

Traub, Charles, The New Vision, (New York: Aperture, 1982)

Weller, Sheila “The New Wave of Discotheques” New York Sunday News, 31 August 1975. in: Julie Malnig ed. Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake: A Social and Popular Dance Reader (Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2008)

Williams, Holly “Bill Bernstein: I always left feeling high – I can’t tell if it was just the pounding music, the light show, or the smell” The Independent, 1 November 2015 http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/bill-bernstein-i-always-left-feeling-high-i-can-t-tell-if-it-was-just-the-pounding-music-the-light-a6715341.html

Listen:

Lost in Music – Sister Sledge
He’s The Greatest Dancer – Sister Sledge
Everybody Dance – Chic
Don’t You Want My Love – Debbie Jacobs

 

 

 

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