Two years ago, Marie Audier D’Alessandris opened her gallery in New York: The Selects Gallery. We presented it to you in our issue of June 3, 2020. She chose to show us today the work of Rose Hartman who was one of the pillars of the legendary New York club of the late 1970s: Studio 54! I have an amazing personal anecdote to tell about the place that was the extraordinary symbol of this sexual liberation which had just been born and which would last until 1983.
Thanks to Peter Beard, the star pillar of the place, I very quickly discovered Studio 54. In PHOTO, we published several times portfolios dedicated to the club. While staying at N.Y, Peter called me. “Steve Rubell (the owner of the Studio 54) is very happy with the features. He invites you tonight to come see him. ” At midnight, I found myself in his office, a huge circular room littered with trash bags from which dollars were sticking out, and on a table: an oversized salad bowl full of cocaine. “Thanks for the posts, it’s great for us. Help yourself, take what you want, we are not lacking! ” –Jean-Jacques Naudet
The magic of Studio 54 as seen by the photographer who helped create its cultural legacy. An exclusive fireside interview with photographer Rose Hartman in the context of the Brooklyn Museum exhibition Studio 54: Night Magic.
On March 12th, 2020, the exhibition of the Brooklyn Museum, Studio 54: Night Magic, opened for a day before closing to the public due to coronavirus. At the time of this article, the reopening date has not yet been confirmed, with indoor museums being excluded from NYC’s Phase 4 Arts & Entertainment Reopening plans.
The show depicts the lasting artistic and cultural impact of the most famous nightclub in the world. We spoke to legendary photographer Rose Hartman, whose candid and captivating images helped place Studio 54 on the map and encapsulated the timeless legacy of this storied establishment.
The exhibition was curated and designed by Matthew Yokobosky, Senior Curator of Fashion and Material Culture of the Brooklyn Museum. Yokobosky, whose background is a unique mix of curation and scenography and film and video, focused on providing an experiential and immersive understanding of the famous club and its artistic impact in the city’s history. It took two years and over 100 interviews to acquire the 650 different objects that shed light on the club’s creation, its 33 months run, and the years following the nightclub’s closure, illuminating the ongoing significance of Studio 54 aesthetics.
Studio 54 was truly one of a kind. Opened in April 1977 by Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, the club occupied a former opera house, which was then transformed into a radio and television studio. It quickly became the epicenter of nightlife in New York. It was a destination for fashion, celebrities, disco, sex, drugs, and extravagance. Even after more than four decades, the cultural influence of Studio 54 persists.
In the late 70’s America was fraught with political disunity and activism. At the epicenter of it all, was a bankrupt and dilapidated New York City. The once thriving metropolis had descended into violent chaos. It was an unstable, dangerous, and outright volatile city. Despite these glaring flaws, and from the ashes of a grim New York City, a vibrant creative and artistic culture began to flourish.
During this period of instability and uncertainty, Studio 54 represented an escape from the outside world, an oasis where one could forget their troubles and feel a sense of complete freedom. As Andy Warhol said, it was “a dictatorship at the door and a democracy on the dance floor.” Once inside the doors of the club, anything could happen. Its music, fashion, and culture are remembered even by those who were not alive during the time. The legacy of Studio 54 conjures a nostalgia for a time of unbridled freedom and social independence, and photographer Rose Hartman was there to capture some of the most iconic moments on camera.
Rose Hartman was bringing her camera with her long before street style and society photography were clearly defined movements. Andy Warhol, Grace Jones, David Bowie, Cher, and Naomi Campbell are among the names that Hartman has shot with her 35 mm lens. The photographer was always at the right place at the right time to capture the style and energy of the 1970s. During her career that spans over 40 years, she photographed the most defining moments and personas of New York City, creating a cultural consciousness and nostalgia for the era. Rose has published three books, Birds of Paradise, Incomparable Women of Style, and Incomparable Couples. She was also the feature of the intimate documentary film The Incomparable Rose Hartman. She has been published in all of the top fashion publications, including W magazine, New York Times, Vanity Fair, Vogue.
Marie: Rose, your picture of Bianca on the white horse is the most famous image of Studio 54. It was taken at Bianca Jagger’s birthday party organized at designer Halston suggestion, the Monday after the club’s opening. Someone had brought a white horse into the club, and Bianca hopped on it. This photo was featured in the New York Times after the party. It was “the shot seen around the world,” and it truly made Studio 54 what it was. Renny Reynolds, who was the party designer at Studio 54, said in an interview that “that photograph went viral when viral wasn’t happening.” It epitomizes the style, verve, and excess of Studio 54.
Rose: Before Bianca got on the horse, a Lady Godiva figure in a bodysuit with beautiful long golden hair sat on the horse. She then got off the horse and Bianca got on. I had maybe a minute or two to capture her and the horse was led away. That was Bianca’s birthday surprise, and no one knew that that horse would be rented from a nearby stable. It was a surprise to all the guests like Baryshnikov and Halston and many others. Then Bob Colacello wrote a fabulous piece in the New York Times where he said: “Bianca on her horse put Studio 54 on the map”. And if you saw that in the newspaper, you’d think “oh my god, I have to go to that club.”
Marie: Although it was only open for 33 months, the nightclub has had a lasting impact on pop culture and our collective memory of New York in the 1970s. With diverse avant-garde offerings and clientele, Studio 54 would influence many facets of life throughout New York City and beyond. “Studio”, as it became lovingly referred to by regulars, came to function as a cultural incubator that helped foster many subcultures. Yet you were able to capture some pictures with an incredible intimacy.
Rose: I was first invited to the club by owner Steve Rubell, who I had met on a press trip in Coconut Grove, Florida. I never had to wait in line and would arrive early for the private parties. There was a huge curtain that separated the general floor from the private party, which would usually be from 9 until 11 pm. It might be at the party Valentino had for his birthday with a theme of Fellini costumes. So at 11 pm, this curtain would rise and the celebrities would come out. They would sit on banquettes that were silvery grey and people could see them and be near them. I was totally free to wander around. Unlike today with publicists blocking accessibility to their stars, at that time, no one would stay in my way.
So literally I wandered on the dance floor, I would dance and hide my cameras in huge speakers. Once I was looking through the lens of my camera – an Olympus at that time – I would just discard people around my subjects, I would do that with my eye, and then maybe zero in to get a tighter shot.
With the picture of Bianca and Mick Jagger, nobody was bothering them. I don’t even remember another photographer taking this picture, I never saw a similar one, and I always look at photography books, especially when they were photographers of Studio. And it was just a moment when they seemed to be very much in love.
Marie: Marc Benecke was selecting people at the door and was 19 at the time. He always has fantastic anecdotes about who could come in. He mentioned Steve wanted to mix the crowd up like casting a play “Whether they were dressed in a festive way or they were interesting, high energy, danced well, or socialites, celebrities, models, you had to bring something to the table.”
Rose: Well, first of all, it was at Studio 54, and the fantastic thing about Studio is that you would have the most interesting people from the world of culture, art, film and modeling.
My work was always really about the subjects. I subscribed to a number of publications. ‘W’ would be a major one because they always had stories on, let’s say the new actor – Jennifer Lopez – people didn’t know her at all. But I knew from reading about her and just sensed it.
For example, I just saw Diana Vreeland and Jerry Hall sitting together, obviously engaged in conversation. It seemed very warm. Diana Vreeland had probably hired Jerry for Vogue and she knew her. And Diana Vreeland was a great force. She always had something fantastically interesting to say. Jerry looked amazing that night. And it’s interesting to know that after Mick divorced Bianca or vice versa Jerry Hall was his next wife. So it was kind of a small world. But in a way, Studio had a small community of celebrities. People always thought of how many famous people were there, but it wasn’t that at all, it would be almost like a click like Halston and Halstonnettes and Truman Capote, etc. It was a list that you could easily count on your fingers. It wasn’t a group of thousands, they were key figures and were always written up and photographed and that made the thousands of more ordinary people want to get into Studio.
Andy was one of the people who just loved being there. He loved being surrounded, as we all did, with beautiful people. He would have his camera in hand, always ready to capture somebody. Of course, I admired him greatly. I was always going to exhibitions and I think that he was extraordinarily talented. He was beginning at that time, but I knew it.
I always chose people who interested me and who had very special qualities. I certainly would say that I had to be attracted to my subject for either something that he or she had done or because of his or her personal style. That was always the number one reason for me to photograph people that you see.
Marie: It seems like a very intuitive process!
Rose: Yes, I think that ‘intuition’ is the word. I mean, it’s not something that I would ever sit down and think about. Of course, I spend a lot of my time looking at images. I love to look at Brassai, and William Klein, and Avedon, etc. So in a way, I’m always looking at the masters. I don’t know if I’m absorbing anything consciously, but maybe unconsciously.
Marie: At capacity, the club could accommodate 2,000 patrons with a 5,400 square-foot dance floor and 85-foot high ceilings. Despite being shot in a nightclub, your photos are incredibly flattering. While these photographs are candid, they feel very put together. They show the free-spirited nature of Studio 54 and those who went there, yet you never captured someone in an unflattering light. Can you talk more about your approach to photographing moments at Studio and how you balanced spontaneity with poise?
Rose: I never wanted to attract any attention to myself and always wore black so that I could move without being noticed. The first time I went, I just could not believe it. When you entered Studio, there was a pulsation through your heartbeat. The sound system was so powerful because it had been a sound studio; they understood how to make music that would go through your body and never leave. I was shaking when I left because there was so much energy that I had experienced in the evening.
I would never take a photo of anyone in an embarrassing situation. And that was particular around many male designers who were gay and didn’t want the public to know at that time because they were afraid that they would not be able to sell their clothing around the country. And I would never take those photos. I was very proud of that. I was looking to capture the best of the person, their essence. It’s when I’m really successful.
Marie: This collection of photographs taken at Studio 54 by Rose Hartman are some of the most defining images of the late ’70s in New York City. They suspend this moment in time, allowing us to look back and admire the optimism and energetic sense of freedom that grew from dangerousness. They are the perfect example of human resilience, a powerful and very actual message of hope as the world, America and New York City are going through another major crisis. They show that in times of darkness and despair, we can rebel, we do not have to settle, and we can thrive. Rose, thank you.