The first time Bill Bernstein went to Studio 54, it was at the relatively tame hour of 9 p.m. On assignment with The Village Voice, he was meant to photograph the guests in tuxedos and gowns at a dinner for Jimmy Carter’s mother, Lillian, who stuck around until about eleven. At that point, the event photographers started to leave, too, but not before Bernstein, making up his mind to photograph the club’s rowdier regulars, stopped one and bought ten rolls of film. As the chairs were cleared off the dance floor, he staked out a space in the shadows, ready for his “first taste of the nightspot whose reputation was somewhere between Sodom and Gomorrah.”
He ended up staying for nearly six more hours, transfixed: “Just being in the room gave me a physical high,” he said. It was the first of a string of nights he spent out till dawn over the next year, documenting New York’s disco scene at pre-AIDS, post–Saturday Night Fever prime. The dance floor was “a haven for acceptance and inclusion,” he said, attracting people of all races, ages, and sexual orientations, from Wall Street types to drag queens.
His photos are mostly from 1979, taken in places like the Mudd Club in Tribeca, GG’s Barnum Room in midtown, Paradise Garage downtown, and, of course, Studio 54 — at least until the IRS shut it down in 1980. They’re now published in Disco: The Bill Bernstein Photographs and will be on display next month at the Serena Morton Gallery in West London. Click through the slideshow to see the last real days of disco and read more of Bernstein’s memories.