A seemingly endless collection of party snaps from punks to posh kids to the denizens of Studio 54, this book catalogues the nightlife of eighties New York through the black and white photography of Patrick McMullan. With this decade back in vogue, so8os is a timely publication. McMullan’s photographs reproduced along with an introduction by Bright Lights, Big City author Jay McInerney and commentary by figures from the scene, such as Tom Ford, combine to create a shameless celebration of the decadence and creativity of the times. As an insider onthe party circuit, McMullan had access to all the famous places and faces synonymous with the in-crowd. His photographs are less a lesson in technical ability – he wasn’t interested in fancy lighting or equipment – than in the effectiveness of a disarming approach in capturing hip Manhattanites at play. Armed only with an instamatic his intimate images of eighties’ confidence record a time when Wall Street, the art world and the club scenes all exploded together.
After partying at Studio 54 in the Seventies, McMullan got cancer at the beginning of the next decade. Convalescing at David Hockney’s LA home, so the story goes, he became interested in the artist’s personal photographs, and on returning to New York trained a lens on his own world: the nightlife of the city. Shortly afterwards his interest was validated by a job at Details magazine working alongside the writer Stephen Saban. Significantly, this book begins with an image of Andy Warhol. Warhol was one of the people that encouraged McMullan: “If you don’t know Patrick McMullan you ought to get out more”. A catalyst for the celebrity party scene, he was still at its epicentre in the eighties and in many ways its source of validation. The celebrity media took off during this decade and McMullan was one of the pioneers of this kind of photography.
Reflecting the atmosphere of equality in the clubs, his was a non-discriminatory eye, placing the beautiful beside the powerful and the downright outrageous. This was a pre-Giuliani era in which nightclub goers were positively encouraged to misbehave. In venues such as Area, the Mudd Club, Limelight, Danceteria and the Palladium, celebrities of the art and music world mixed with actors and political heirs. McMullan’s images are a who’s who of the eighties: Madonna, Basquiat, Deborah Harry, Jack Nicholson and John F Kennedy Junior rub shoulders with wealthy socialites, transvestites and club bunnies scrambling for their fifthteen minutes worth of fame. It was a culture clash of uptown and downtown; of expensive finery and fancy dress producing images more glamorous and edgy than the all too familiar party pictures in today’s glossies.
As so8os progresses in a loose chronology, it traces the diluting of the scene and the loss of integrity at its heart, the death of Warhol in 1987 representing for most revellers a sea change. Retrospectively there is also a darker side to these images of Bacchinalian revelry: the shadow of AIDS, the drug abuse that fuelled the high-octane nightlife and the excesses that paved the way for the more extreme behaviour of New York’s club-kids. The reader can be forgiven if the abundance of people spotting and endless parties in So80s begins to make them a little bit queasy, but it is still provides a fantastic record of the personalities and fashions of this fast living era – more something to be dipped into rather than read in one go.