Historians and cultural critics alike love assigning names to eras and identifying cultural moments, as well as the people and trappings that define them. It’s a curious irony that these namings only take place once the era has passed. We have a more difficult time defining the moments and cultures we currently inhabit. It often takes an outsider, viewing us through the distance of culture, to neatly explain ourselves to ourselves. Studio 54 and Beyond: The Photography of Hasse Persson, accomplishes this feat, all while managing to steer clear of stereotypes and tropes. It’s an exhibition of (mostly) black and white photography which remains vital through Persson’s use of lighting techniques and framing. It’s a porthole into a past which seems so removed from our own, yet presents haunting echoes of the present. The work of the Swedish photographer, who focused his lens on America between the years of 1967 and 1990, edits the American experience of that time into frames that are by turns scathing, ethereal, and dignified.
The exhibition begins with Persson’s travels through the rural south, where he trained his lens on the lives of lower and middle class African-americans. The resulting series depicts a variety of scenes, from the interiors of people’s homes painstakingly decorated with framed photos to men working in the afternoon sun to dig a grave. The most nuanced of this series is a shot of a woman’s hand on the back of a wooden church pew, where a man sits, likely listening to a sermon. In her hand is a fan, relief against the close heat of a packed house of worship. Persson has centered the fan in his composition, on which is printed an Alpine scene. This image, so foreign to rural Mississippi, yet likely so familiar to Persson’s eyes, is a reminder of Persson’s role as an outsider, a reflection of his distance.
When Persson’s touch is gentle, as in the church pew photo, it can be quietly poignant–a throughline he is able to find even amidst the bacchanal of Studio 54.The photographer was allowed “unfettered access by club owner Steve Rubell,” and he spent 100 nights at the famed nightclub photographing the revelry. One example of Persson’s subtlety is a large photograph of two mustachioed men in satin, tulle and feathered ballerina costumes sitting together on a loveseat looking pleasantly bored. It’s a respite compared with the splashy light techniques Persson uses in his scenes of partygoers. Shots of Andy Warhol and Diane Furstenberg and Liza Minelli et al make the cut, but the most fascinating in the group are those images that reveal a crush of nude or half-nude bodies in full abandon amidst the bouncing light. Conservatives and leftists alike famously tsked at the club’s decadence (Joe Strummer confessed in self-horror that he’d gone there himself one night) but there’s something to be said for the pure joy being expressed by young queer people, women, and people of color among the glitterati in this place. They look beautiful and free, as though the Disco offered a different set of hierarchies than the larger world…the most beautifully strange at the top of the heap. A wall text quotes Persson as saying, “what was interesting is that women felt secure enough to dance nude in the place. This is after the feminist movement of the 70’s: if a woman wanted to be nude, that was her privilege.”
Persson also presents more conventional photos of notable celebrities and political figures. Looking back through the distance of several decades, it is with a quiet thrill that we see those who have passed or grown old and infirm returned to life and in their prime. Persson, perhaps because he was a young man himself at that time, was especially good at capturing the beauty of young people. His shots of a handsome and intense Muhammed Ali, bored American soldiers in Vietnam, and his own self- portrait as a young man juxtapose the fleeting nature of time with the surety of youth.
But where the exhibition is a bit heavy-handed are the political photographs, first of Nixon (accompanied by the president’s famously contradictory quotations “I am not a crook,” etc.) and at the show’s exit a color portrait of the Reagans. An etched glass frame superimposes the words The End over their faces. Without the accompanying texts, the images reveal little new information about their subjects. With the texts, however, they give us too clear an image of the photographer himself. They lack the nuance and quiet humor of the show’s best works, things all Americans could use in our current political moment. For Persson, the Reagans may simply represent “the end” to his own era of American discovery, but as we exit this exhibition we are keenly aware that the story continues. We walk back into the malaise of a present as yet undefined, but unfolding itself newly and unsurely around us each day.