“I worked with luck,” recalled photographer Hasse Persson, who was given access to New York City’s infamous Studio 54, where celebrities and the less famous danced the night away from 1977 to 1980.
During the late 1970s, disco music peaked, with Studio 54 as its crazy, sexy, have-to-be-there headquarters. Persson’s exhibition at House of Sweden — “Studio 54 Forever” — gives the viewer a hint, a flavor of what was inside and what went on. The regulars included Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger, Calvin Klein, Michael Jackson, Liza Minnelli, Truman Capote, Grace Jones, Halston and Brooke Shields.
Persson spent more than 100 nights at Studio 54 as the only photographer allowed inside by co-owner Steve Rubell after press hours. “After much experimenting, I finally found a way to capture the Studio 54 ambience on camera by using a flash to freeze the subject at the same time as I kept the shutter open for up to 30 seconds,” he said.
Along with outlandish costumes, the seminudity and some sex in the bathroom or balcony, Studio 54 existed for only about 1,000 days, Persson told the audience during his Sept. 19 talk at House of Sweden — before the chairs were removed and people danced to disco music like it was 1977.
“It was a human happening,” Persson said. “It was a fantastic mix … and, in a way, elegant.”
In those years after the pill but before AIDS, the club wielded its bacchanalian influence and had a unique blend of clientele. Persson spoke of Rubell’s formula of whom to allow in. To the majority uptown crowd, he added 20 percent gay, 5 percent lesbian and the rest, perhaps, Brazilians and the wealthy. As for himself, Persson, who went on to become the artistic director of several museums in Sweden, said, “I am Eurotrash.”
Persson’s freeze-frames show a New York still financially struggling, still an artist’s city, and Studio 54 as a place, he said, where there were “no cell phones, no social media … no pornography … no guards … and no judgment.”
Of the legendary discotheque, the former young country boy from Sweden who landed in New York 40 years ago mused: “When you’re in the middle of it, you don’t realize what’s going on.”
He added this advice: “Put your cell phones down, keep dancing and be happy.”
Presented by the Embassy of Sweden and FotoDC, “Studio 54 Forever” is open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m., Sept. 22 to Dec. 9, at House of Sweden, 2900 K St. NW.