A photographic tribute to the heyday of disco

A new exhibition featuring the work of photographer Bill Bernstein captures the ecstasy and inclusivity that defined New York nightlife in the 70s.

A new exhibition featuring the work of photographer Bill Bernstein captures the ecstasy, creativity and inclusivity that defined New York nightlife in the 70s.

When Bill Bernstein first walked into Studio 54, he was on a mission to The voice of the village. Tasked with photographing a black tie event, he stayed while club regulars showed up and was quickly captivated by the scenes unfolding around him. He would eventually tour New York nightclubs for the next two years.

Largely rejecting the celebrity cameos that attracted his peers, his images feature inclusive parties and chaotic dance floors, and in 2015 he collected his catalog for the book, DISCO. A second monograph, named after the 1978 piece by Donna Summer Last Dancearrived in 2021 and is the subject of a new exhibition in collaboration with Simon Dunmore’s Glitterbox club party series: Glitterbox Presents The Last Dance.

“I wasn’t really interested in music,” Bernstein explains. “I was in it for the visual experience, aiming to capture what I was seeing at a very unusual time coming and going.” Studio 54 opened in April 1977 and had closed in February 1980, due to the conviction of its founders for tax evasion. “It was really a bubble of two, three years,” continues Bernstein, who notes the onset of the AIDS crisis as an additional factor in dissolving the scene. “Then disco came out in Chicago and became house music. It morphed into something else.”

2001 Odyssey Dance Floor, 1979

Initially, Bernstein didn’t know what to expect inside the club, although he read about it in the papers. “It had a reputation for being a wild place in terms of the people who went there; a lot of drug use, a certain sexual aspect that was open. It was different from anywhere I had been, and what struck me visually, as well as in terms of curiosity as a journalist and an artist, was how all these cultures really blended seamlessly on the dance floor – trans men and women, queer culture in general, as well as high-end New Yorkers.

Bernstein became a fixture on the scene and his fascination took him across New York to clubs such as Xenon, Mudd Club and Paradise Garage, where he photographed DJ Larry Levan. “I haven’t spent a whole night anywhere. There were so many clubs that I would just grab my camera and go around trying to find the person or group that looked the most interesting or did something unusual that represented my feeling about that time period and about freedom of speech that I was seeing.”

Studio 54 Moon and Spoon, 1978

Paradise Garage dance floor, 1979

“It was unusual at the time to have a camera. It’s not like today, where everyone has their iPhone and knows how to have their picture taken, it was more innocent,” he says. “[People] were there to party and have a good time, focused on the music, getting high and being in the moment.

The new exhibit is the latest product of a long-standing relationship between Bernstein and Glitterbox and Defected Records founder Simon Dunmore, who also wrote the sequel for Last Dance. “We’ve had a correspondence over the past four or five years,” the photographer explains, “so we’ve bonded on a lot of different levels. The Glitterbox experience makes people feel at home and comfortable, and that’s what the late ’70s disco scene was like, how at home all those people felt.

A major similarity is the focus on inclusion. “It plays a very important role in our thinking. In America, it’s a big topic – look at our politics. It all comes down to inclusion, how we get along with someone who’s different from us, and that’s what struck me at the time, seeing this mix of people dancing together and [everyone] to not only be okay with it, but to embrace it,” Bernstein says. “That was what was so startling and amazing to me, in that short period of time, in my own city of New York.”

DJ Larry Levan at Paradise Garage, 1979

Studio 54 and Cadillac, 1979

Empire Roller Dancer

The Clique #1, 1979

DJ at Sybil’s, 1979

Glitterbox Presents The Last Dance is on until April 29 at The Basement.

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Michael E. Marquez