photographing the high heels and hedonism of 80s nyc nightlife
Frank Rispoli documented New York's legendary downtown club scene through the New Wave explosion of the late 70s and early 80s. Most of his photographs have never been exhibited.
"I was there six and a half nights a week. The epicenter of everything was Danceteria," Frank Rispoli remembers of the NYC nightclub where Sade worked the bar, LL Cool J operated the elevator, and Madonna made her debut. Danceteria was often every other downtown nightclub rolled into four sprawling floors, its lack of a strict closing hour attracting a hedonistic hodgepodge of insomniacs from CBGB, Mudd Club, TR3, Trax, and the basement BDSM sex clubs littering the area where Le Bain now looms.
If there was anything you could predict, it was probably that you would see great outfits and incredible shoes. Frank would head downtown after his design consultant day was through at 10pm to shoot high heels perched atop high-fi systems and cigarette-littered bathroom sinks. His photos are intoxicating Kodachrome timestamps that capture the frenetic zeitgeist of the late 70s and early 80s, leaving the identity of the women up for interpretation. Though Frank remembers an impressive number of their stories. He was inspired by a lingerie catalog Guy Bourdin shot for Bloomingdale's as a New York Times insert in 1976 and the advertising imagery Bourdin did for Charles Jourdan. Frank wasn't trying to sell anything tangible, but his photos are a testament to the versatility of a good pump — one pair might have taken you from a scrappy CBGB punk show to an after-after party at a loft in Leo Castelli's gallery building, provided you didn't step in anything on the way.
The few times he wasn't at Danceteria, Frank was probably shooting at one of the music venues he'd highlight in the Village Voice when it came out each Thursday. (Or perhaps at the corner bodega — "I went everywhere with my cameras," he says. "The only time I didn't have them with me was when I was sleeping. If I went down to the deli to get a quart of milk and some Pepperidge Farm cookies, I took my cameras. You never knew when you were going to come across somebody wearing heels.") One of his favorite stories is about being at the BDSM club Hellfire around closing time when the vice squad rolled up. One fellow, "a classic Brooklyn Italian detective named Vinny," ordered him to open his cameras — he was looking for drugs — before sitting down with Frank's portfolio and offering a critique on the images. "You can't make this shit up. That's New York. That's nightlife."
Here he remembers the stories behind some of his favorite shots.
"These two women I met either at Tier 3 or Danceteria. I followed up with them and met them one night over in Chelsea. There was a playground across the road, so we shot over there. I'm not a studio photographer; I just like incorporating environment off the street or in the space that I'm in at the time."
"The way Danceteria was set up, there were all these vignettes — living rooms everywhere with televisions stacked in one corner. We're talking early 80s so it had all this trashy furniture. The whole idea was the contrast of the trashiness of the environment with the start of new wave fashion, which was just exploding."
"This woman was lead singer in a band which was playing. They were through with their set and I went up there and said, "Would you mind posing for me?" She ripped open her white vinyl raincoat and lo and behold, it's just this incredible outfit."
"When you got off the elevator on the fourth floor [at Danceteria], there was this circular glass block partition with this old TV. Danceteria had these constructs throughout the spaces of old televisions just stacked on top of each other. They brought in video artists to create the imagery. This is Halloween night, so that's why she's dressed in that African skirt, the black heels, and Bakelite bracelets. I can't believe the price of Bakelite today, I mean it's fucking plastic."
"On the wall are these long telephone cords. She's on an old vintage stained sofa and she took off her coat and she had a teddy on that was totally see-through. But she had these wonderful pantyhose, and the classic black high heel pump."
"As I recall, this woman was from England. The bouquet is dramatically white. She's standing on top of an old hi-fi. It's like the Zenith hi-fi that my old man bought in '62 that I played my Beatles albums on."
"The sofa is a velour tufted Victorian thing. The jumpsuit kind of looked like silk. Over the gloves she's got her bracelet and her ring. People have asked why I wasn't photographing heads or faces, but what I was focusing on was essentially the shoes. It's really that aspect of fashion that I'm interested in. I think if I had to do it all over again, knowing what I know now, I would have photographed the people also. It would have made an interesting series of the period. Hindsight is always funny."
"This is a band called the Stray Cats. This couple was involved in some really serious necking. She had hotpants on, with the heels — it was obviously summertime. Then there's this other person, with the orange and the yellow, which are my two favorite colors. So much photography, at times, is just a matter of luck."
"They had all this paint running down over this metallic gold, with the Corinthian capital, steam pipes, and an old South Bronx sofa. She was a bridge-and-tunnel girl, as I recall."
"This is one of my all-time favorites. To wear the white pantyhose and overlay them with these drawn-down windowpane hose and the white heels on top of the 1940s yellow and black, kitschy metal chair — it's just a nice composition. The flash really cloaks her legs in light, then everything just dies behind it."
"This was an S&M club that was located in the basement, of course, down in the Meat Market around 14th Street. There was some kind of vending machine that they had painted in black and white bands. A woman happened to have on these Wizard of Oz black-and-white hose and black heels with this little detail caressing the ankle and it worked perfectly."
"The later it gets at night, the more interesting people become, and the more fucked-up people become. I'm sure that dynamic hasn't changed. Those are just beautiful mules. I posed her on her tippy toes on the bumper."
"These two women outside Max's, showing up at 3am or 4am, they're both wearing velour and suede. Just a really lush image. What's really cool is there's this automobile with this yellow reflector, which is all lit up because of the flash."
"This was in the stairwell of Leo Castelli's gallery, in a loft building on West Broadway in Soho, which was just starting to gentrify. People who were opening more cutting-edge galleries were looking for space away from the traditional scene of 57th Street, so they started moving to Soho."
"That's the ladies bathroom at TR3. Everything was finished in red and black tiles. It speaks to the time — it was probably 3am, nobody was feeling any pain."
"That period of time, with new wave, women were embracing vintage. This is a classic graphic pattern on this really large skirt from the 50s. Her red vinyl heels just made the outfit. Some of those shots from TR3 I think would make perfect album covers for a rock 'n' roll band. That's what it's all about — having fun, losing your mind, and having good times."
"When I was just starting to go out by myself, and getting up the nerve and the courage, First Avenue was lined with a whole bunch of bars. I was in a bar one night and went walking outside, and this woman comes walking by. I ran over to her and said, 'Would you let me photograph your shoes?' She said, 'Absolutely.' She just layed down and pulled her skirt up."
Text Hannah Ongley
Photography Frank Rispoli