Steve Terry, the one-man show behind England’s Wild Life Press, has an uncanny knack for sniffing out and shaping into hard-hitting photobooks material that is not only marginal in its subject matter (portraits of ‘90s NYC tranny street walkers, “the club kids” of the same era) but also marginal in its original production. His books gather up what were labors of love pursued primarily for personal reasons outside any formal art-making avenue. These are photographs that sat in boxes in apartments for decades unknown to but a few.
I first met Terry in person a few weeks ago in New York. Before that we had recently worked together long-distance on a profile of the photographer Katsu Naito (the full profile will appear in volume five of our print magazine) focusing on his and Wild Life Press’ first photobook, West Side Rendezvous (2011), an intimate collection of forty-five black and white portraits of tranny sex workers taken on the streets of New York’s Meatpacking District in the early 90s. Steve was in town ahead of the NYArt Book fair to showcase his second and most recent photobook, a catalogue technically, published to coincide with the London exhibition, “Fabulousity: a night you’ll never forget… or remember!”
From the get go it is apparent that the book (£35) was painstakingly produced. It is comprised of four parts: a 46-page soft-cover photobook of club-land photos, mostly portraits, by Alexis DiBiasio; a printed transparent plastic envelope for a slipcase cover; a 32-page insert on newspaper-like stock of early 90s NYC dance club ephemera, including Limelight club kid cards (think baseball card but club kid); and a 33 RPM flexi-record “Are the club kids in the house?” specially produced for the book, a tip of the hat to the dance promoter practice of making 33 RPM flexies for use as party invitations.
Just like West Side Rendezvous, the book was published in an edition of 500 copies. Just like West Side Rendezvous, it will probably go out of print soon after its release.
A club kid, as described in the book’s forward penned by Ernie Glam, a contemporary of the scene, “donned thrift-store ensembles that were slashed and redesigned, or they maybe made their own outfits to provoke outrage or hog attention. They took inspiration from clowns, drag, bondage, sci-fi, horror, punk, Parisian couture and children’s wear. They had shoe repair shops add layers of soles to shoes and boots until they looked like stilts. Eventually the look became a stereotype: a skinny young man or woman with clown makeup, a wig or hat, platforms, a lunch box, and a body hugging unitard or hot pants and a stretch t-shirt.”
Their outlaw parties and mayhem instigating pranks (for example, a pre-flash mob flash mob in a Times Square McDonalds) coupled with their reimagining “Studio 54’s celebrity landscape or Andy Warhol’s 1960 factory and its superstars, but with far less drug abuse – at first,” soon led to a, “roving circus [that] appealed to club owners who realized they could hire club kids to go-go dance or host parties, which essentially gave the owners all-night spectacles for the paying customers.”
Glam also wrote the remembrance of Alexis DiBiasio that closes the photobook. DiBiasio died on April 16, 2013, almost 60-years old to the day and, sadly, shortly before the publication of this book of his photographs.
As Glam describes him, DiBiasio was an accountant by profession and a “nightclub enthusiast whose hobby was documenting New York City’s outlandish club culture.”
Going by the flyers and invites collected in the ephemera, he photographed in The Tunnel, BLDG, The Pyramid Club, Limelight, Roxy, Save The Robots, Disco 2000, The Cat Club, Danceteria and Red Zone, to name a few. That covered a nocturnal swath of New York City from Avenue A to Eleventh, East 2nd street to West 54th.
“Alexis lived in New York City from the late 1970s through the mid-1990s, when he relocated to Miami Beach. The move to Florida revealed Alexis’ obsessive compilation of photographs because he left me [Glam] with four meticulously organized and labeled boxes with hundreds of pictures. Those boxes were the source for some of the photographs in this publication.”
“I,” recollected Terry, “started thinking about a publication on the New York Club Kids scene a couple of years ago – it was something I wanted in my book collection that had not really been done as yet. I had been collecting ephemera from that era for a number of years for the Wild Life Archive which is my collection of youth culture related printed matter and artifacts. One of the guys I had been dealing with was Ernie Glam who was at the core of that particular party scene. So we got talking and I put an idea to him about doing an exhibition with an accompanying catalogue. Ernie involved Alexis DiBiasio who had boxes of great photos he took at the time and it all started to come together.”
“It took around 6-8 months to get to the initial exhibition launch in London with a finished catalogue ready to go. There was work cleaning up the photos as they had been in the boxes for years and also the catalogue design was made up of four separate parts. Me & Anna Howard (the designer on this project) wanted to produce something fun that reflected the approach those guys would of maybe taken themselves so we produced a transparent plastic printed sleeve that made up the cover alongside the main catalogue with Alexis’ photos, a complimentary zine showing flyers/posters and then a flexi disc house music record we produced with Ernie’s vocal on it.”
As to what drew Terry to this particular body of images, he responded, “I loved looking through those boxes of photos! That is exactly what I am into – I went up to the Bronx to Ernie’s place, got some Puerto Rican food and sat there for hours looking through everything.” There were around 700 photos by Terry’s count, maybe more. “I had a certain look and feel in mind so as I started to edit: I would pull out what I felt would work well. Then we got that initial set down to a core body of images that we edited again to get the final cut.”
The photographs themselves are good in the way that photographs are good when the person taking them manages to get out of their own way. They are not amateurishly bad or self-consciously artless. There is just enough to elevate each photograph into the realm of the exceptional without sacrificing the enthusiast’s eye for the perfect detail, like a candid shot of pink hair held aloft for another dousing of Aqua Net with a red-tinged glass-brick window and mottled smooth concrete club wall for a backdrop. The composition a delicately balanced blend of greys, lilacs, pink, bruise colors (on the wall) and lurid red in the window glass.
Many of the subjects pose for the camera. Some glare. Some are so in the moment as to be unaware of DiBiasio at all with “his big camera that emitted a red beam as he prepared to release the shutter.”
And while the whole is bled through with revelry and style by the bucket load, there is also a haunting sense of the party being over before it even got started.
FABULOUSITY – A NIGHT YOU’LL NEVER FORGET…OR REMEMBER! by Alexis Dibiasio & Ernie Glam.
All images copyright and courtesy of Alexis DiBiasio and Wild Life Press. http://wildlifepress.co.uk/