Traversing the subway in New York City, it’s easy to come across an occult, seemingly omnipresent ad for the infamous Museum of Sex, a racy collection of exhibits, sex-ed and sex toys. This is also where photographer Bill Bernstein is showcasing his latest exhibition, Night Fever, which assembles a collection of 40 images taken between 1977 to 1979, exploring the “sexually and socially radical multiculturalism embraced by the New York disco clubs of the late ‘70s.”
Throughout his career, Bernstein has published two books: one that covers his iconic disco photos and another that chronicles his 15 year stretch as Paul McCartney’s tour photographer. He’s also worked with a number of notable celebrities and musicians, such as U2 and Keith Urban. Today, he continues to work for a number of editorial and advertising clients, and even shoots series on his iPhone, despite coming up in the days of film. Most recently, he spoke at the Library of Congress with Gloria Gaynor and other scholarly types who have studied this era, which he says was one of his greatest honors.
We caught up with Bernstein to talk disco, life on the road with Paul McCartney, and to learn more about evolving as an artist when your career spans more than three decades.
Hey Bill, let’s start by discussing the disco days. What was your intention when shooting the disco era? What were you seeking to accomplish?
My mindset was one of a curious photojournalist. I was curious about the culture I was witnessing and knew I was witnessing something interesting. Going back to the late ‘70s, I saw and felt that something unusual was happening. I basically followed my instincts and tried to capture what I saw without thinking about it too much, but reacting to it viscerally, trying to see what was going on and how it was affecting the world. It wasn’t until much later that I had perspective on shooting that work because all I could see and feel at the time was the amazing cultural diversity meeting on the dance floor; LBGT, straight, African American, Puerto Rican, men, women, old, and young people. Back then it was unusual to see, so I just kept shooting.
Moving into the ’80s, did any of this thinking change for you?
I kept seeing things in front of me that were unusual, which was a period that basically started after Stonewall and popularized by Saturday Night Fever in 1977. Then Studio 54 opened and it continued for a couple years until the AIDS crisis, which made people a bit afraid of going out. There was also a gay undertone to the whole disco culture, which caused some cultural backlash against the music. A lot of people were sick of disco and moved on to rock, punk or new wave. This is the tiny little period of time I captured for this body of work that can never really be recreated. It was all of these different movements—the LGBT movement, the women’s movement, the civil rights movement—that were having their victory dance on the dance floor.
You mentioned that this was an unusual, diverse time in culture. Is there anything happening right now that you’d say is comparable?
On a cultural level afropunk is interesting. But on a larger scale, not just in New York but all over the world, there’s the culture against the Trump administration. I think that’s bringing a lot of energy to the streets and our consciousness, and it reminds me a bit of the ‘60’s and the Vietnam War protests which I was a part of. Unlike the disco era, this movement had a common enemy, whereas disco was more like an inclusive celebration. That’s the difference—today it’s more of a fight against something. But the power and strength coming from it, to me, is very noteworthy and shows a lot of creativity. People are really expressing themselves in an interesting way.
Totally. Now can you walk me through a standard night of shooting at Studio 54?
I would usually get there around 11 or 12. I knew the people at most of the clubs by that point because I was shooting a lot. I was also working at the Village Voice so they would always let me in. Around midnight, the place would be fairly packed and people were just starting to arrive. I never drank or did drugs when shooting this project because it needed my full attention. It was also difficult shooting in those conditions because the light was low and I was shooting film, so I couldn’t see right away if it was focused or if the light was balanced. Basically, I would start by scoping out the crowd and seeing who was there. Were there cliques? Were there celebrities? Was it a young crowd? Was it an old crowd? From there, I would rely on my gut instinct and looking for interesting things that were happening. Whether it was a cluster of people sitting on a couch or a transgender woman dancing with a straight guy, I looked for things that showed diversity and reported to what I saw that night to the world—the Village Voice often used my pictures to illustrate pieces during that time when disco was so important, which was really happening in New York City.
I’d get back home by around 4 or 5 in the morning and would sometimes develop my film right away, so when I woke up the next day the negatives were hanging to dry. I would make a contact sheet in my makeshift darkroom and sit there with a big, strong cup of coffee. By then it was probably 3 in the afternoon and I would use a loupe and marking pencil to check the shots I thought were interesting. At some point, I’d have a person come in to help make prints. Then I’d repeat that day after day. I was in my mid-20s at the time so I was able to do it back then, but it was a lot of work.
If you fast-forward another 10 years or so when I was Paul McCartney’s tour photographer, I would travel on the road with him and was fortunately used to long nights. I didn’t actually process the film on the road, but after a show I would arrange to have someone pick up the film and bring it to a lab. Then we’d pay a ton of money to keep the lab open all night so I could have the contact sheets delivered to me the next day.
I read that you spent 15 years photographing Paul. That seems like absurdly long time to work with one artist on one project. How did you manage to continually evolve creatively?
It’s interesting because I was on the road with him from about 1989 to 2005. He wasn’t touring every year during that period, but whenever he did I would go with him. There were long stretches of time when we were on the road for months and months, then we’d take a couple months off before getting back on the road. So how did I grow? Well, that was a challenge for me, honestly, because the show itself was pretty much the same every night. Over the years some of the songs would change, but once he locked down a show it was pretty much the same show every night in a different venue. Yet what was interesting to me was the crowd because it was always different. I ended up shooting a lot of people in the audience and their reactions to the show. I also experimented a lot with different angles—one night I’d shoot low, then the next night go way up in the back of the arena with a long lens, or sometimes shoot from behind. I knew what was going to happen throughout the night, so I tried to set myself up in different places to cover those things. Then there was also backstage, which was completely different, as well as offstage where I would go with Paul if he went on a bike ride or something like that.
“I’m constantly looking for things that are unusual, which is how I keep myself sane.”
I think a lot of it was using journalistic instincts to report back to the world. Artistically, it was very challenging because I was inevitably not able to do too many different things, and after a while you burn out from a job like that, especially when you’re shooting just one person shows. But I really enjoyed it, loved it and learned a lot. I learned a lot about how a person—how someone of Paul’s stature shows himself to the press, to the world, and how he in some ways helps keep his own legacy alive.
Let’s switch gears a bit. I noticed the iPhone section of your portfolio. What’s it like transitioning from someone who came up shooting the film days to shooting a series entirely on a smartphone?
I love my iPhone. I like the fact that you can shoot anywhere and people don’t really know you’re taking a picture. It’s much different than holding a camera. I can look like I’m texting when I’m actually taking pictures. Also, I use the iPhone 7 Plus with the big screen and 12 megapixels, so I’ve actually made pretty large prints from that and they look really good. I think it’s a great tool and has really changed the world, but I wouldn’t use it professionally for an assignment, unless the client asked me to.
I’m constantly looking for things that are unusual, which is how I keep myself sane. I detach myself from all my life and life problems and look around, soaking in what I’m seeing and finding something that really catches my eye. That’s like my therapy and the iPhone is great because it’s so easy to have around all the time.
Right on. To wrap things up, is there a purpose that envelops all of your work? What kinds of concepts, themes or messages define you?
For me, it’s about producing work that’s not contrived and reflects that what you’re seeing and feeling, which is perhaps unusual or out of the ordinary. If done successfully this will reflect something universal that anyone can pick up on. Really, I send postcards to the world of what my life is like and what I’m seeing, feeling and experiencing at a given moment in time.