Allan Tannenbaum captured the most hedonistic period in New York’s history in glorious black and white photographs
The 1970s were the height of personal liberation. Prior to the advent of Aids, sex was a space for experimentation by a new generation coming of age, reaping the freedoms of the sexual revolution and the women’s and gay liberation movements. Powered by a profound desire for pleasure, self-expression, and the need to connect, sexuality became an open space for men and women free from the heavy-handed social control of the 1950s – and the results were amazing.
Nightclubs became the go-to place to live out fantasies, find a partner to hook up with, and for a brief, shining moment there was no ‘walk of shame’ in the morning. Everyone was encouraged to let it all hang out. Performers and patrons alike led decadent lives of pure, unadulterated fun. There were sex clubs as well as sex-themed parties, and sometimes people just felt the vibe. Sometimes it seems like everyone was naked just because – something virtually unimaginable now.
As a former chief photographer of the SoHo Weekly News, Allan Tannenbaum covered New York in the 1970s like no one else. Whether visiting sex clubs like Plato’s Retreat and the Hellfire Club on assignment or covering sex-themed parties and art happenings, Tannenbaum captured the most hedonistic period in the city’s history in glorious black and white photographs.
The author of four books, New York in the 1970s (Overlook Press) and Grit and Glamour (Insight Editions), Tannenbaum gives us a taste of the libertines living the life, as comfortable with their bodies as they were with their lust. Here, at the intersection of gender and sexuality, it was a time when anything goes. Tannenbaum looks back at an era unlike any other, reflecting on the power of youth culture to change the way we relate to each other – and to ourselves.
Can you talk about how the “Free Love” movement of the 1960s changed the game.
Allan Tannenbaum: When I was growing up, if you wanted to have sex you had to get married – and then that was gone. It was the beginning of “Free Love” and it was the dawn of a new age. I took a year off from college when I was 19 and went out to San Francisco when things were in full blossom: sex, drugs, and rock & roll. You could go to a concert, hear three great bands for $3.50, meet someone there, and hook up. It was absolutely crazy.
I saw that ending in the late 60s and came back to New York. In the beginning of the 70s, I was teaching for a couple of years. After the wreckage of the San Francisco scene, I withdrew and became isolated for a little while. Then I got a job taking pictures for the Soho Weekly News and that opened up a whole new world for me: I was involved in music, the art scene, nightlife, and the disco phenomenon.
There was a lot of exhibitionism in the art world. A lot of performance artists did things in the nude. There was also the club scene with a lot of semi-nudity, which I had never really seen before. This was fueled by drugs, especially cocaine which became the drug of choice in the 70s in addition to marijuana. It wasn’t psychedelic like the 60s anymore.
I found myself thinking, “Wow, the 60s aren’t over” – but there was a new tone to it. The 60s were all about peace, love, and making a better world (which turned out to be quite an illusion). The 70s were more upfront in being about hedonism and decadence. People made a conscious effort to look and act decadent. How decadent they really were, that varied by degree.
This makes sense because New York City was in an extreme state of decay. Do you feel like that had an impact on how people were behaving?
Allan Tannenbaum: Yes, definitely. The city was shabby. Right now it looks so gentrified that it is almost unrecognisable. The city, just like the country, was going through a severe economic crisis. It was dangerous. It was dirty.
At the same time, with a bad economy, all these loft spaces from businesses that had moved out were empty and cheap. Artists, filmmakers, performance artists, dancers, and theatre groups would use all these spaces and they were centrally located Downtown. There was a lot of synergy between the artists and a built-in audience for everything that was going on. This amount of creativity was phenomenal, and the concentration of it made New York quite an exciting place to be.
Things were a lot less regulated than they are now in every way. The clubs that could exist then in terms of regular nightclubs, after-hours clubs, sex clubs, swingers clubs, the porno and prostitution scene in Midtown – you wouldn’t have them today. You don’t see hookers walking around anymore. All the X-rated theatres and live shows, that’s all gone. You could also go to a club for sex. Couples would go to Plato’s Retreat and engage with other couples. Absolutely anything went as long as nobody got hurt.
“I found myself thinking, ‘Wow, the 60s aren’t over’ – but there was a new tone to it” – Allan Tannenbaum
What were some of the parties that were going on at regular nightclubs and how did that encourage the hook-up culture of the 1970s?
Allan Tannenbaum: One of the first discos I went to was Le Jardin, which was started by the late John Addison. I remember Newsweek hired me to do a story on bisexuality and I went to Le Jardin. You had mixed couples, threesomes, men dancing with men – this was unusual to see publicly at the time.
Disco reached its apotheosis with Studio 54, which was such a good place with phenomenal lighting, phenomenal sound, and an incredible mix of people, from straight businessmen, fashion models, and punks to artists, record industry people, and celebrities. Really, anything went there. There were some parties that didn’t leave much to the imagination in terms of what people were wearing. Halloween and New Year’s were always great ones for that.
The other parties I remember covering: one was at Studio 54 for Purple and another was at Regine’s for High Society and they were both porn magazines. The one at Regine’s was funny because the owner, Regine, thought the magazine was actually about high society, socialites, and debutantes (Laughs). There was some crazy, overt stuff going on the floor there with some of the porn stars.
Then you had the gay clubs and the whole gay scene. There was an abandoned pier called Pier 48 on the West Side, which I had to go to one night. It was pretty scary. It was very dark and all kinds of random hook-ups were happening there. Coming out of the 60s and seeing how the 70s progressed with the background of the city in decay was just more sex, drugs, and rock & roll.
How did the women’s and gay liberation movements of the late 1960s and 1970s create a space for freedom from a shame culture that was so popular in the 1950s?
Allan Tannenbaum: People felt free to do what they wanted to do. When you had places like gay clubs and parties, there were a lot of men in drag, it was amazing. People could go out and nobody would bother them. They could flaunt their sexuality. The same goes for women, whether they were gay or straight. I saw many situations where women were sexually engaging in play. In the past, it would have been taboo but it wasn’t taboo anymore.
People could express what they were feeling and they would get more encouragement from the people around them, rather than getting shunned or put down for who they were or how they felt.
There were other places that went beyond that, like the BDSM scene. There was the Hellfire Club over on the corner of Ninth Avenue and 14th Street. There was a place in the basement with incredible goings-on. I went to a party and Annie Sprinkle was one of the people there (getting fisted). There was a lot of outrageous stuff going on in public.
It sounds like all of this freedom really allowed people to use the club scene as a space for sexual exploration – whereas now it might be more about having fun with your friends, checking out new music, or documenting your life for social media.
Allan Tannenbaum: One of the biggest reasons people went to clubs and parties was to get laid. That was the goal. The idea was to get dressed up, go out, dance, and have fun – but you were hoping to meet somebody there and take them home. That’s what all of the drinks and the coke was for.
When you’re young, you’re not necessarily looking to meet someone you will settle down with have kids with – it’s just to go out there and have a great time. You might regret it in the morning but at the moment, it seems like a good idea. I don’t remember any kind of judgment for any kind of behaviour for anyone who was going out, whether it was to CBGBs, Mudd Club, or Studio 54.
Why did things change?
Allan Tannenbaum: Aids was the big game changer. That scared the shit out of everybody, gay or straight – when people realised what was going on and the horror of it. In the 80s, I photographed Aids patients in the hospital and seeing people with Kaposi’s Sarcoma on their skin was pretty terrifying, seeing how they were gaunt and sick, and everybody eventually died. Now, thank God, there are drugs and people can survive, but back then it was a death sentence.
That changed the rules of the game and people were afraid. With all the freedom going on, you don’t know where your partner had been. You couldn’t have confidence in that kind of careless freedom at all. I had friends who died. A lot of people I knew and people I photographed were some of the first patients who passed away.
By the time the early 80s came, I had had enough of the nightlife and the decadence anyway. I went on to do serious international photojournalism. When I wasn’t traveling, I would come to New York and occasionally go to a club like Area or Club USA to take pictures but I found it kind of boring and repetitive by that point. For me, by the early 80s, all of that freedom was gone and the values had changed. Being artistic, creative, having fun, and living free were thrown by the wayside as money crept in and the city became more wealthy.
Do you think this is cyclical, or was that a moment in time that is forever gone?
Allan Tannenbaum: It’s always difficult to predict the future but I can cast a fairly practiced eye on the past – but where it’s going to go, I don’t know.
Today, I am still living in the same loft in Tribeca as I did in the 1970s. I went out to walk our chihuahuas at the same time the local parents were going out to pick up their kids at school, and I couldn’t help but notice how much the neighbourhood has changed. You have legions of these very American-looking families with fleets of kids, all marching home from school. As an aside I walked myself or with friends to school every single day through 13 years of school.
To go from something so Wild West and anything goes to this intense, suburban scene here in the city – it’s hard to imagine anything changes, but you never know. There could be a huge financial collapse and if that happens, God knows what’s coming next.