Joyful photos from 1980 at the Studio 54 of roller discos
New York street photographer Patrick D. Pagnano spent one night at the Empire Rollerdome, but until now the pictures have never been published.
"I think it's important to note that this book is not a deep dive into the Empire Roller Disco or Brooklyn's roller skating culture," says Jesse Pollock, the editor of a new Anthology Editions-published monograph from the late Italian-American photographer Patrick D. Pagnano. "This is about Patrick's photos and his connection to the Empire Roller Disco." Shot in February 1980, the images that fill Empire Roller Disco capture just a single night with vast energy and joy.
"I'd heard his name around, but I hadn't seen the images that pulled me in," continues Jesse, who was introduced to Patrick's work in 2018, after the writer Miss Rosen penned an article about the series (New York's Benrubi Gallery was exhibiting it at the time). "There's a lot of street photographers in New York -- that's a great thing about it – but sometimes it means I don't end up getting exposed to work for some time." Quickly sharing that initial article with his colleagues, Jesse began exploring Patrick's wider archive, and work for the book began the following year.
"I was really taken by Patrick's work as a whole -- I consider him one of the most preeminent photographers in New York street photography of the 70s and 80s," Jesse says, "but this project was really cohesive. It felt like a good place to start." Originally an assignment intended for a major magazine, the project was dropped and lay relatively dormant for several decades as Patrick focused on other work. In 2002, Patrick self-released Shot on the Street, a survey of his mammoth street portfolio from the mid-70s through to the 80s, and in 2017, having reached out to Elizabeth Ferrer, Chief Curator of BRIC in Brooklyn, he was included in a group show Brooklyn Photographs. Patrick passed away in October 2018, aged 71.
"His family was really integral in helping us craft the book, getting the photos right in terms of retouching and the aesthetic," Jesse says. "Patrick wouldn't have said that he was an expert on the Empire Roller Disco; the assignment took him there. But he felt very comfortable." In an artist statement written for the series, Patrick says, "The success of this series was possible because of the experience I gained from many years shooting on the street, which made me adept at capturing important moments intuitively and quickly."
While Patrick had never been to Crown Heights before the assignment, the club itself was a vital part of the local community. Originally opened in 1941, in the late 70s, it became a nightlife fixture when DJs began playing regularly. "At that point, the scene in New York City was becoming a different thing – not elitist, but stuffy," Jesse says. "Some people found it hard to get into." The roller disco was one of several Brooklyn-based clubs with a door policy that swayed more inclusive. "But even before people from the city started going, it had become a hub of the local community. Probably until its closing [in 2007], it played an important part in Brooklyn itself. These photos, while important to Patrick's work, also show that history. And they're just as relevant now as they were back then."
Throughout Empire Roller Disco, which is all shot in black-and-white and features a number of regulars across multiple pages, there's a strong sense of vitality and moments of collective euphoria that speak to the spirit of the club – a chief consideration, Jesse adds. "It was important for me to show the idea of motion, because this is a very static book; these are static images of a situation that was full of movement," he says. "There are several regulars in this series, and I think seeing their obvious joy at being in a place they loved, with friends just immersed in the night having a great time, was really nice to see. And there are photos that really do emulate that. There's some where they're mid-stride, mid-dance move and loving every second of it, and it just speaks to the energy that was in the club that night."
‘Empire Roller Disco’ is published by Anthology Editions and available to buy 15 July
All images © Patrick D. Pagnano