When Disco Was King: The Photographer Who Captured New York’s Clubs

A glance into NYC's nightclubs in the late 1970s

NEW DISCO COVER web

“This is one of the first shots I took at Studio 54—the couple reminding me of a pre-war Berlin cabaret image. I had this image stuck in my mind throughout the entire Disco project. These were the people that I found the most intriguing, those who had a whole other life at night and became their fantasy character.”—Bill Bernstein (Photo: Bill Bernstein/Reel Art Press).

Between HBO debuting its upcoming show VinylGarth Risk Hallberg‘s much hyped novel City on Fire, and Patti Smith’s M Trainall set in 1970s New York—the era is definitely having a moment. It’s no coincidence then that photographer Bill Bernstein, perhaps best known for being Paul McCartney’s personal photographer, is also publishing his own book of photographs from the decade, taken at the height of the city’s disco years.

It was when Mr. Bernstein, then in his late twenties, was sent by the Village Voice to photograph an awards ceremony for Lillian Carter (President Carter’s mother) in December 1977 at Studio 54 that he stumbled across his inspiration. As the ceremony came to an end, the photographer noticed the club regulars rolling in—a stark contrast to those in attendance to toast Carter. With just $40 in his pocket, he bought leftover Tri-X film from another photographer and stayed for the rest of the night.

“That era was the safe haven for inclusiveness and acceptance.” Mr. Bernstein told the Observer. “There was a time back then in ’79 where real homophobia existed outside the door of the disco, but once you walked through the door, it’s like the rules changed.”

Picking up the project again in 1979, Mr Bernstein snapped the faces of the clubgoers every night for months. The images, rarely published before, appear in the new book Disco: The Bill Bernstein Photographs, out November 15.

"Le Clique was a roaming disco that popped up in different locations throughout Manhattan. Its creators, Marlene Backer and Stewart Feinstein, conjured outrageous parties with acrobats, actors, dancers, special effects and staging."

“Le Clique was a roaming disco that popped up in different locations throughout Manhattan. Its creators, Marlene Backer and Stewart Feinstein, conjured outrageous parties with acrobats, actors, dancers, special effects and staging.”—Bill Bernstein (Photo: Bill Bernstein/Reel Art Press).

“I knew what originally drew me into the project wasn’t the celebrities, it wasn’t even the music and, you know, it wasn’t the things that drew a lot of people in like dancing or the drugs, “ Mr. Bernstein explained. “What drew me to this was really the diversity and the acceptance that I saw at the clubs at this period.”

Instead of focusing on the celebrities who frequented disco’s most popular nightspots like other photographers, Mr. Bernstein looked to the everyday regulars that inhibited the spaces across the city. His haunts included Better Days, Empire Roller Disco, Xexon, and 2001 Dancefloors.

Years in the making, the book was initially slated to publish five years ago, with a small press in the United Kingdom. However, when the press suddenly went out of business, the project went back on hold. As a result some of the images in Disco are also featured in Night Dancinga book that that got shuffled from editor to editor. Mr. Bernstein, though, is much happier   with the timing of the upcoming book.

“The Empire Roller Skating Rink in Crown Heights, Brooklyn opened in 1941 and finally closed its doors in 2007. It converted into a roller disco in the 70s and then the roller rink organ was replaced with a sound system and DJ booth. Empire was usually packed with an African-American crowd but top skaters of all races and creeds also came. It was a great place to shoot with good vibes all around.” —Bill Bernstein (Photo: Bill Bernstein/Reel Art Press).

“Five years ago was wrong. This is perfect,” Mr. Bernstein said. “The synchronicity of this whole project has been astounding.”

Returning to the photographs 35 years later, Mr. Bernstein was surprised to notice a few similarities with the present day.

“I didn’t understand it then, but I now believe that this era was a short lived preview of a world of inclusion that we are just now beginning to bear witness to,” he writes in the foreword to Disco.

A photograph of a man kissing Ava's leg. (Photo: Bill Bernstein/Reel Art Press)

A photograph of a man kissing a transgender woman named Ava at GG’s Barnum Room (Photo: Bill Bernstein/Reel Art Press).

“People loved having their photo taken at discos,”  Mr. Bernstein recalled, and wonders if anyone will spot themselves in the book. “It’d be interesting to hear their story and see if they recognize themselves.”

While he also shot a few celebrities like Andy Warhol, the fashion designer Halston and Studio 54 owner Steven Rubell, they never truly captured his attention. “I have a shot in the book where its about a dozen paparazzi taking a picture at a table,” Mr. Bernstein said. “I was much more interested in that scene than who they shooting.”

A photograph Mr. Bernstein took at GG's Barnum Room, one of the Disco clubs on 45th Street.

A photograph Mr. Bernstein took at GG’s Barnum Room, one of the Disco clubs on 45th Street (Photo: Bill Bernstein/Reel Art Press).

90 percent of the images in the book were taken in 1979. Without trying or realizing it at the time, Mr. Bernstein caught the end of the era of disco.

“I think this book sort of pushes the limits a little bit in terms of its content in some places,” Mr. Bernstein said. “I think people will see things that they are surprised to see.”

Disco: The Bill Bernstein Photographs hits stands in the United States on November 15. A selection of images from the book will be on display at a exhibit at the Serena Morton Gallery in London from December through January. 

When Disco Was King: The Photographer Who Captured New York’s Clubs