Tod Papageorge – Studio 54

Bianca Jagger rode a white horse through it on her birthday. On Andy Warhol’s special day, the owners gave him bin full of dollar bills for his. New York’s Studio 54 opened in 1977 and closed less than three years later, but it’s gone down in history as the most glamorous, most louche, best nightclub in history.

It was also one of the most photographed. Populated by celebrities and party people, decorated with literally tonnes of glitter and an illuminated, coke-snorting man-on-the-moon, Studio 54 was a treasure trove for image-makers. Tod Papageorge was one of them, first arriving at the new year’s eve party of 1977/78 and going back again and again until it closed.

But while most of the photographers were shooting on assignment, or shooting celebrities with a view to selling them on, Papageorge was working for himself, free to capture the whole scene on his own terms.

“I was on my own kind of self-assignment,” he tells BJP. “It had nothing to do with celebrity, and all to do with making what I hoped would be ‘clear photographs’. By which I mean pictures that were legible and complete, although drawn from a visually complex – and often frustrating by being too complex – situation.”

Because of this, and inspired by Brassai’s images of 1930s Parisian nightlife, Papageorge shot with a 6×9 Fujica, rather than the lightweight 35mm Leicas favoured by so many others.

“It felt like a lead brick in my hand,” he says, “and had a gruesomely inaccurate viewfinder”. But, if this beast of a camera was hard to shoot with, it allowed Papageorge to create much more detailed and richly toned images.

Capturing about 1500 images over five or six visits, he exhibited about half a dozen in the 1980s, “a couple of which have become iconic”.

“This is what the times, at least in New York, favoured,” he says. “Editing a few absolute ‘winners’ out of a larger group, then printing and hopefully exhibiting them with the object of selling one or two to MoMA or, perhaps, a collector.”

The rest languished undiscovered – some negatives were never even printed – until, about a year and a half ago, Papageorge’s German gallerist, Thomas Zander, asked the photographer to send over some archival work. Papageorge included a couple of Studio 54 jpegs to the mix and, intrigued, Zander asked to see the rest.

Zander ended up showing a large grid of 39 at the 2013 Paris Photo, where they caught the eye of young UK publishers Gregory and Rachel Barker.

“Rachel and I spent a great deal of time standing in a very crowded thoroughfare with it,” says Barker. “We had been looking for another project that we felt strongly enough about to publish for nearly three years, so when we got back to London, we emailed Tod. Fortunately he was looking for a publisher.”

Barker and Papageorge picked out 66 of the best images for publication – many of them shot in 1978 – and Barker had the idea of sequencing them to follow a typical night out, showing New York’s beau monde arriving, in the heat of the night, and falling asleep (or passing out) towards the end. The book is also tightly structured around just three ‘templates’ – large double-page spreads, right-hand verticles, and smaller horizontals always appearing as pairs on the two facing pages – and was lushly printed by EBS in Verona. The result is eye-opening, compelling, beautiful and funny in equal measure. Even Papageorge is impressed with the result.

“I think that, as a group, they’re much better than I’d first understood,” he says. “I’d clearly rejected [some of] those pictures back then as not being good enough to deserve even a proof print. A good argument either for never destroying a single one of your negatives, or for concluding that I never should be trusted to edit my own pictures.”

Studio 54 by Tod Papageorge is published by Stanley/Barker, priced £40 for the standard edition or £300 for a box set special edition including a signed limited edition print.

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is the editor of BJP, returning for a second stint on staff in 2023 - after 15 years on the team until 2019. As a freelancer, she has written for The Guardian, FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, Aperture, FOAM, Aesthetica and Apollo. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy