The myth, the meaning, the heirloom that is Studio 54 and 1970s New York: an extended interview with Bill Bernstein

An extended interview with photographer Bill Bernstein, whose Studio 54 NFTs dropped earlier this month.

Oct 27, 2021 Artist Profiles

11 months ago

2021 was no disco. A cyber disco? Studio 54, now a sprawling enterprise, engineered two series of NFT drops with SuperRare: 8-bit video game renders of the Studio 54, featuring music from Jitwam & TEYMORI  debut, Night Magic; iconic Studio 54 photographs by Bill Bernstein. On the eve of the drops, I zoomed with Willy Soul, Studio 54’s Creative Director, and Bill Bernstein himself, to discuss NFTs and NYC and the past and future.  

Willy  
Hey John, how’s it going? 

John
You’re in the city?

Willy
I’m in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, how about you?

John
I’m in Hell’s Kitchen, not too far from the old Studio 54. 

Willy
There you go. You ever get a chance to go over?

John
I walk past all the time. I saw Cabaret there. I don’t think I’ve been back since. I was in Studio 54 as a kid once or twice.

Willy
Yeah. A lot of people explored Studio 54 in its various eras. It would go on to be a club, way after Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell were there. How’s it working with SuperRare? How did you guys get connected?

John
Vinny [SuperRare’s Arts Editor] is a former advisee of mine at The New School MFA program. She’s an NYC kid too.

Willy
There you go. Cool. Here’s Mr. Bill Bernstein. 

Bill 
Thanks for the talk, John.  

John 
Thank you, Bill.  

Willy
I’ll let you guys get at it. I’m just going to be a fly on the wall.

John
Okay. So, what drew you to NFTs?

Bill
Willy, Willy. Honestly, NFTs are a little out of my realm. As a photographer, I started way back in the ‘70s. My theme, my personal theme, is about inclusion, freedom of expression, looking at cultures, looking at our culture, where we’re at. The whole NFT thing, honestly, is a little bit out there for me, in terms of connecting to it or accessing it, but I like the idea of using modern technology, especially for going back to earlier artwork, like ‘70s film photography. 

Photo of Bill Bernstein in 1977, courtesy of the artist

John
What was your first experience with NFT’s?

Bill
My first experience? Let me see. I had a gallery show recently in Palm Beach. And that was kind of the first time I heard about NFTs. The gallery director said this might be a good match for your work, you know. There might be some NFT buyers out there. I’m not sure about the basic demographic of NFT buyers. Young and early adopters, probably. But many of them are particularly interested in club culture. And my work is about club culture, almost where it started—in the ‘70s in New York City, Mudd Club, Studio 54, Xenon, Paradise Garage, places like that. 

John
Could you talk a bit more about Studio 54 culture and its internet mythology?

Bill
Internet mythology?

John
When I think about that culture, the way it was when I was a kid—and I loved it at the time—and I see it on the internet, in a way I prefer the vision of it now. 

Bill
That’s an interesting point. When you look back in history, sometimes there’s a romantic lens. You see the Depression or Prohibition through those filters: gee, wasn’t that an amazing time. But if you’re living through it, maybe it wasn’t so amazing. The city in the ‘70s was a mess. I lived in Soho, on Thompson Street at that point. New York City was almost in default. There was, you know, an underfunded police department, underfunded Fire Department. Buildings burning down because there weren’t fire trucks to go there. The mafia held a stranglehold on a lot of businesses in New York. If you really look at it, it was a pretty devastating time to be living in New York City. But we somehow got through it. 

John
It was also a great time to be an artist. Tough to be a banker or lawyer in New York City then, but for artists: You get a big fight and fifty cents if you mug an artist.

Bill
Exactly. I mean, I started back then, and I was shooting for The Village Voice, and I think I got fifty dollars a picture, right. And you know, if I shot like three pictures, I had my rent paid for my Soho apartment. Rents were cheap. It was like Berlin when the wall came down. Artists from all over flocked to New York City. There was more creativity in New York City then than ever before and ever since.

John
And there was a real sense of diversity and inclusion, even if that wasn’t the nomenclature. At the same time, downtown didn’t realize a vision of Nirvana; it was much more like, well, fuck the rest of the world. We’re just going to do this for ourselves and turn our back on the world. People don’t remember that—or make it part of this new mythology. 

Bill
I think that’s always been the case with New York City, from the very beginning. I mean, from way, way, way back, you know, with the Dutch. That’s what makes the city so amazing, in my opinion. The subways, where the banker is next to the guy who works at the grocery store. And if you don’t like other cultures, you don’t belong here, and you’re not going to want to live here. So, what’s left in New York City is: We all live here together, and we’re all working together, and that’s what it is. It’s not surprising that in the ‘70s, when clubs like Studio 54 opened, very, very different cultures could all party together without any problems. In all the time I was shooting, I never saw a fight. I never saw an argument. It was just a party. The straight Upper East Sider next to the transgender Puerto Rican woman who lives in the Bronx. Total, harmonious existence. And I’d never seen that before, in my life.

I am a ‘60s Woodstock person. If you look at Woodstock, if you ever watch the movie again, how many black people do you see in the audience? Most of them are on stage. How many transgender people, how many gay people, how many anything other than a white middle class guy in a work shirt? We were pretty homogeneous back then. We thought we were really cool and open. But honestly, we were a group of middle-class white people, against the war, against materialism, all that kind of stuff. Whereas in the ‘70s, with the disco, it was every sort of person. And that’s what drew me in as a young photographer, just starting out at The Village Voice. My eyes were like, blown open by it.

John 
What was it like to be a photographer in the clubs?

Bill 
In the late 1970’s, I’d been shooting professionally for only a few years. I started freelancing and The Village Voice was my main client. Through them I gained access to a lot of important and significant people and places. I was in my 20s and single so I had no problem going out at midnight and staying wherever until dawn. My Village Voice press pass was very helpful in getting past the lines outside the clubs. Also, I could avoid the cover charge. Most of the time. Because this was before the whole iPhone and Instagram world and culture, people were less camera savvy. They were not as self-conscious about having their photos taken. It was more of a novelty, and fun. People were less posed. They weren’t worried that a bad or compromising photo of themselves might show up online, forever, in the next few minutes.

The actual process of shooting at clubs was quite challenging. They were mostly very dark except for intermittent and strobe lighting. Focusing was always difficult and took some getting used to. Much of the time I would set my focus manually on the lens to a certain distance and try to shoot within that distance. I also learned how to use an on-camera flash and make the best use of “flash and burn,” where you utilize as much available light as you can—mixed in with your flash. A lot of this is done automatically by today’s cameras, but back then it was all manual.

John
Do you see any correlation between the process of an NFT processing and photography?

Bill
Well, there’s the minting process, which is like creating a final, individual work that is very similar to making a final print. I remember spending hours in the darkroom for the Village Voice or somewhere else. A little more burning here or dodging there. Ultimately, that’s it. Your final print. I see that in terms of minting an NFT: Get the result that’s finished and done. One of a kind. 

Bill Bernstein’s upcoming book, Last Dance

John
What’s the long plan for you and NFTs?

Bill
The long plan?  If it’s successful, if I feel good about it, I’ll keep going with it for sure. I like the whole process. It’s the precedent now. But an awful lot of people aren’t even aware of NFTs. 

Willy
It opens up more options for him. He’s dropping his book soon, Last Dance, which has more photographs from Studio 54, as well as shots from Mudd Club, Xenon, Paradise Garage, and the Empire Roller Disco. Is there a way that we can use NFTs with his book? He’s got contact sheets that feature outtakes that might have never seen the light of day, and now NFTs could bring those photos to life. That’s super cool. He has over fifty contact sheets just—

Bill
—of Studio 54. I have hundreds of contact sheets of other clubs that I went to at that time.

John
For all those reasons, photography syncs well with NFTs. I wonder if the NFT is the beginning of photography, in terms of a total acceptance by the normative art world, which wants to be invested in NFTs—but the market is puzzling and outside their realm. Photography lends itself to the medium. When people have seen the work, the value increases, whereas part of what’s valuable about a painting, for example, is the inaccessibility. An NFT photograph allows for a work that’s true to itself and original, with the provenance, and yet it can be duplicated; it’s a way to have an archival, certified original, even if there are infinite copies. NFTs allow buyers to own art, collectibles, even history. You can possess and pass down a piece of history. Our shared history. But the transition to NFTs for painting, sculpture and performance—not so easily reproduced—is much more difficult. 

Bill
Yeah, early film photography lends itself very well to NFTs. And I’ll add that film is not a digital platform: it’s a one-of-a-kind analog platform. It has that uniqueness built into it right away. I never thought to shoot something and upload it a minute from then—and everyone in the world would have a copy. A photograph sat in my camera or in a folder and I would make a print. It was unique in a way that digital images aren’t generally unique online.

John 
How has digital changed or not changed photography?

Bill 
Magic has always been a big part of photography for me. Watching my print come up in the darkroom tray. Looking at the developed negative strips on a light box. Studying the contact sheet and marking the selects. Seeing if you got the shot you think you got. Sometimes yes, sometimes not. Sometimes you found a surprise on the contact sheet. Something even better than you expected. All of this was part of the process of photography for me for many years. Digital has of course changed that. Auto focus, auto exposure (for some), instant feedback. Photoshopping out that streetlight in the background that you don’t like. Etcetera, etcetera. These are some of the things that were introduced with digital photography. The one thing that hasn’t changed is the eye behind the camera. You can have the most expensive digital camera on the market, and the best retouching and still take a bad or boring photo. You can have the cheapest film camera and take an amazing photo. Really it’s not about the gear or digital or analog. It’s all about the eye and what makes a photograph a photograph.

John
Is that a perfect place to wind up? 

Bill
Thank you, buddy. 

Will
Hey John, thank you so much for everything. 

John
Great to chat.

Bill
Thanks, John. Cheers.

*

You can check out and bid on Bill’s NFTs here on SuperRare. His new book Last Dance can be found here.

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John Reed

John Reed is the author of numerous books including A Still Small Voice (Delacorte Press/Delta), The Whole (Simon & Schuster /Pocket/MTV Books), the SPD bestseller, Snowball's Chance (Roof Books/Melville House), and All The World's A Grave: A New Play By William Shakespeare (Penguin Books/Plume). His work has been published in (selected) Artnet, the Brooklyn Rail,Tin HousePaper Magazine, Artforum, HyperallergicBomb Magazine, Art in America, the PEN Poetry Series, the Los Angeles Times, the Believer, the Rumpus, the Daily Beast, GawkerSlate, the Paris Review, the Times Literary Supplement, the Wall Street JournalElectric Literature, ViceThe New York Times, and Harpers.

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