BY: SAMANTHA TAPP
All photos via Bill Bernstein
If you’re like me and you never got to experience the magic of the ’70s, you have to vicariously live through music, movies and photography taken during that period. Without experiencing the ’70s you were never able to be a part of the disco era; instead you’ve probably indulged in some grinding at the last club you went to. Not that I’m complaining, but there is something magical about the ’70s nightlife, and photographer Bill Bernstein agrees.
In 1977, Bill Bernstein was sent to New York City to photograph an awards presentation for President Carter’s mother at Studio 35. After this work assignment was finished, he decided to stay to shoot the regular disco scene until its demise in 1979. These photos are now part of his exhibition Night Fever: New York Disco 1977-1979.
“The Disco period covered by my photos is basically from 1977-1979. To me, this was the height of the Disco experience,” said Bernstein. New York City was near bankruptcy and rents were very cheap. Many artists from all over the world found NYC as their new capital city. It was a creative time in NYC. The Disco was a place where many social movements all ended up facing together on the dance floor. This was a time of Post Stonewall and liberation for the LGBTQ Movement. Also the Women’s Movement was in full swing. The Civil Rights Movement had made major gains in the ’60s and ’70s as well. The Disco offered a place for these movements to meet up and have their “Victory Dance” together on the dance floor.
His photos were taken in clubs like Le Clique, The Fun House and Paradise Garage; they show what he called “true democracy on the dance floor.”
“Straights danced next to or with the gays, transgender women and men were openly welcome, Black, Hispanic, old, young. All were welcomed here at this time,” he said. “It was a safe haven for all and anyone.”
Bernstein’s disco photography ended with the end of the era. People wanted their rock n roll back. People were burning their disco records in protest against the disco era, and with the entrance of Ronald Reagan, people were a bit more conservative.
“I think that this brief period of Disco, from 1977-1979 had a huge impact on us as a society as we saw for the first time a truly inclusive ‘society’ where people all got along with each other without judgement,” Bernstein said. “I feel that people generally want to be included and be inclusive and that this is the stronger presence over hatred and exclusion. I believe this acceptance will overcome all obstacles.”
The magic lives on in Bernstein’s photos and can be seen in the book, Disco: The Bill Bernstein Photographs published by Reel Art Press or at his exhibition in the Museum of Sex in New York. “Night Fever: New York Disco 1977-1979, The Bill Bernstein Photographs” is showing at the museum until February 19.