Tod Papageorge’s Studio

In the hazy history of nightclub excess, Studio 54 was, arguably, its zenith. The scene at the legendary 54th Street boîte, which ran under Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager from 1977 to 1981, is in part a lost totem of the bass-soaked, drug and sex-charged disco-era and an indelible flash of New York nightlife. It’s also a testament to a certain bacchanalian liberation that fell between the introduction of the Pill and the advent of AIDS, where sex was available and plentiful, and “powdering one’s nose” denoted an entirely different reason for excusing oneself to the bathroom.

Some of the most memorable images taken at Studio 54 attempt to bottle the maddening aura of celebrity and the exclusivity of being there: Bianca Jagger entering on a white horse, Andy Warhol and Liza Minnelli elbow-to-elbow, and Elsa Peretti and Halston, et al. But the scene to be seen in also served as a mutable tableau vivant for art photographer Tod Papageorge, who surveyed the club for sculptural form and composition, capturing frames evocative of myth and fable, rather than glitz and glamour. Sixty-six of his photos, taken between 1978 and 1980, are collected in a new volume, Studio 54, which is out now from Stanley Barker.

Papageorge, the former director of Yale’s photography graduate program, counting Gregory Crewdson, Katy Grannan, and Philip-Lorca diCorcia among his students, began as a poet. He studied at the at-home photography salon of the late Garry Winogrand and photographed the streets of New York in the ’60s before capturing American spectator sports and the social and environmental landscape of Central Park in his seminal photo books American Sports, 1970, or How We Spent the War in Vietnam and Passing Through Eden. During the late ’70s, Papageorge photographed in Central Park by day and Studio 54 by night–the two series, he says, have an analogous sensibility.

In anticipation of his book signing today at Paris Photo, Interview called up the the photographer last week to discuss the creation of narrative, photography as poetry, and Papageorge’s entry into the world of Studio 54.

COLLEEN KELSEY: What was your first sensory experience of Studio 54?

TOD PAPAGEORGE: As I remember, it was New Years Eve 1977, ’78. It was a big night. I was there early. I remember going in and encountering the open lobby and then watching the party gradually gather itself together. I was armed with a large camera and flash. I have to say–and I don’t know if this is particularly interesting–but I was never there to participate. I was never interested in that as a celebrant. I realized immediately that it was an extraordinary situation, so that’s what was thrilling. I had a friend named Sonia Gordon Moskowitz who was a celebrity photographer and had access and was very well liked. She offered me the chance to go photograph there. Only a fool wouldn’t have taken her up on it. As I said in my text [in the book], I had the great example of Brassaï’s pictures that he made in the 1930s in the Parisian versions of Studio 54 in the front of my memory, so that was also kicking in too. [laughs]

KELSEY: You were making work in Central Park during the day around the same time that you were shooting at 54 at night. In the moment of making the work in the Park and the work at 54, did you sense a connection between them? 

PAPAGEORGE: Because of the camera that I was using and the lens that I was using, which was the same in both cases, there was a sense of continuity. The lens–a so-called normal length lens–described things with a sensuous authority that was almost sculptural, both because of the relatively large size of the negative and because the focal length of the lens drew things that way. There was something very continuous between the two projects.

KELSEY: Considering the literary or biblical content of what ended up to be Passing through Eden, which contextualized the park photos in the book of Genesis, would you say there is a literary or perhaps mythological context to the Studio 54 work?

PAPAGEORGE: Yes to mythological, maybe in the way that Cocteau’s films from the ’30s have that quality, sometimes very literally. They’re not characters, but they are like figures out of painting almost, say Watteau, whose work I’ve always loved. I am and always was a student of literature, so it was always my sense and my ambition as a photographer to make pictures that do have that complex resonance. I think literary is the correct word to characterize it. In the photographers whose work I most deeply admire, such as Brassaï and my former friend Garry Winogrand, I see that same kind of impetus in the work. I see something tremendously analogical between the two media, and that’s always directed me. The greatest literature is literature of myths, in a way. But in relation to that, this was an extraordinary setting where you walk in, and from moment to moment you might see something that is very much torn from a painting by Watteau or Caravaggio, depending on which part of the club you’re in. [laughs]

It’s very interesting to me. I haven’t made a study of Studio 54 or looked at all the books that have been published. I haven’t even seen the films. But what I have seen–at least in the still photography–is almost nothing that looks anything like the pictures that I took. In other words, photographers were really concentrating on the nature of celebrity, whether Halston was there or Warhol or whomever it was. They weren’t really seeing the possibility for a kind of meaning that wasn’t so literal or journalistic.

KELSEY: Was it difficult to find clarity in what you wanted to photograph within the sensory overload of the club? I can imagine it might have been a bit overwhelming.

PAPAGEORGE: It was–it was very, very hard. There’s a picture in the book, it’s a horizontal picture with a lot of people in it, and in the lower right there’s a young woman holding a hat in her hand. I can physically remember waiting to make the picture, and how frustrating it was to stand there and hope that things would clarify enough. I can vividly remember being there. Even in the relatively short distance there is between me and them, say it’s seven or eight feet at the most, there are people constantly walking in front of me and I’m just waiting and waiting. Waiting for the form as I intuited it–the shape of all of that business–clarified itself. And, bang, I took the picture when the opening existed.

KELSEY: Given your background and interest in poetry, what do you think is the relationship between photography and poetry, or perhaps photography as a type of poetry? 

PAPAGEORGE: The most basic connection is that as a poet, you sit there, and even if you’re [Edna St. Vincent] Millay you have to refer to things in the world. You have to say, “the rose” or “the vase” or “the cloud,” things that are physical, and that can be seen, and that the reader is going to use as a handle into the emotional and language world of the poem. The poet can’t exist without the physical world; the photographer can’t exist without the physical world. Photography is denotative, it denotes the things in the world in a much clearer, more literal way than poetry has to, but the greatest poetry is the poetry where the connotative power is not restrained by, but illuminated by the literal.  As [T.S.] Eliot said, and I’m paraphrasing, “A good poem does not describe the aura of the experience, but it presents the experience.” And what could better describe a good photograph that presents the experience? I guess the photographer’s problem was turned around in that, to go back to your word “myth,” the strongest photographs evoke a kind of aura that might relate to myth or fable. It’s this connection between the medium and the world.

KELSEY: I also wanted to talk a little bit about the photo book as a vessel for narrative, as opposed to viewing photographs in the gallery space or on a wall. How does containing the Studio 54 photographs in a book affect the tory told?

PAPAGEORGE: I come from a generation that really believed that the strongest expression of a photographer’s work was in books, and I continue to believe that. Particularly as the practice in galleries has become to show these hyper-sized pictures that try to literally be Caravaggio. [laughs] There’s no way that they’re ever going to have the authority or the surface, in a way, to do that. Some large work is interesting, I guess, but there’s something peculiar about it. The [Studio 54] work was exhibited in Cologne and Zurich. In Cologne it was a beautiful hanging, in a very elegant gallery. All of the horizontal pictures were hung together in one room and all of the vertical pictures were hung together in another room. And it was really quite effective. As beautiful as that was, and as strong as that was, it’s much more effective in the book, I think. For someone of my generation, the book always has been the ultimate expression for what we’re trying to say. It has its greatest chance of being realized in that interpretive space of reading that a book allows.