Photographer Rafael Fuchs reflects on his early work shooting fashion for the cult nightlife zine that captured the magic and madness of the club scene.
By the late 1980s, the New York nightlife scene was entering a new phase as club kids, drag queens, banjee boys, models, celebrities, bondage slaves, and bods boys mixed it up on the dance floor. House and techno music, which began in the Black club scenes of Chicago and Detroit respectively, had made its way East, backing the four on the floor beat of disco with a thumping bass. As Baby Boomers dropped off the scene to have children of their own, Generation X began its rise, determined to create their own scene.
Growing up in the shadow of AIDS, crack, and nuclear war, Gen X turned the word “whatever” as the ultimate clapback. They were not apathetic, as the mainstream media would insist; they were independent, freethinkers with a deep distrust for authority, who refused to get caught up in the faux morality of social norms. At a time when the LGBTQ was vilified by the right, Gen X embraced gender and sexual fluidity without labeling it as such.
Before influencers became a corporate phenomenon, an underground crew of nightlife personalities reigned supreme, using the clubs as a creative laboratory for music, fashion, and art. To get the word out, they embraced the D.I.Y. techniques of the day. With the Xerox machine being the 1980s answer to art in the age of mechanical reproduction, New York nightlife icons Michael Alig and Julie Jewels launched Project X in July 1988, which they handed out to promote the parties they were hosting at clubs including Red Zone, Tunnel, and the World.
With the success of independent magazines like Paper and Details chronicling the downtown scene, the time had come for insiders to chronicle their world. “It is my theory that everybody should have his or her own magazine at least once before they die,” Julie Jewels wrote in the “Letter from the Editor” in Issue 1. “I consider it my duty to start Project X. It’s the only way to entertain those knowledge-seeking, gossip-hungry, enquiring minds of yours.”
Bringing together famed DJs Larry Tee, Keoki, and Andy Anderson as music editors, James St. James — later author of the tell-all book Party Monster — as entertainment editor, and club owner Rudolf as publisher, the self-described “Vanity Unfair” zine offered pages of tongue-in-chic journalism. In time, Project X became more polished and attracted actual advertisers including Betsey Johnson, Bowery Bar, and Canal Jean Co., quickly becoming a cult object all its own.
Hailing from Israel, photographer Rafael Fuchs began shooting the “Looks to Look For” column in September 1989 for the “Ultra Fab Fall Fashion Issue.” “I photographed the queen of New York nightlife Kenny Kenny, who started as a club kid and then became the irrepressibly witty doorman, promoter, and photographer in his own right,” Fuchs says. “For this photo session, I wanted to play with double exposures, echoing his double name. I photographed him with lights, and then in silhouette, then printed each image from two separate negatives to create a double exposure effect.”
Both Fuchs and Kenny Kenny had recently arrived in New York, and found their way into the club scene at the dawn of its renaissance. Fuchs first got into photography in his early 20s while leading hiking tours across the Sinai Desert. “I saw a twirl of dust – it was a caravan of camels. As they came closer, I saw that its Beduin owner was driving a white Mercedes Benz. I started taking pictures by instinct to respond and record what I saw,” Fuchs remembers.
Those photographs became the basis of his application to the Bezalel Art Academy, the national college of design and art of Israel, in Jerusalem. After graduating, Fuchs embarked on a “culture trip” that took him to Paris, London, and finally New York. He arrived in the city on May 1, 1985, spent a couple of months with a cousin in Brooklyn Heights before relocating to the East Village. He lived just a few blocks from the city’s fabled Pyramid Club, which just shuttered its doors after a 41-year run, and would often club hop, hitting up Save the Robots, Limelight, Nell’s, Giant Step, Sound Factory, Palladium, and the Saint. At the clubs he met a bevy of fashion designers and boutique owners with whom he would collaborate on photo shoots including Patricia Field, Kanae & Onyx, and Allan & Suzi.
Fuchs also met promoter Michael Alig and night icon Julie Jewels in the clubs, and found the perfect place for an ever-evolving series of fashion shoots. Inspired by the models, Fuchs came up with various schemes for lighting, contrast, and props, as well as working with the magazine to determine the best locations. Sometimes they would photograph at the clubs, at other times in more innovative locales such as the famed Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum on the Hudson River. Or on the streets of the Meatpacking District when it was still home to slaughterhouses and packing plants, as well as nightclubs like Mars, sex clubs like the Vault, and the Stroll — the streets where transsexual sex workers plied their trade.
The End of an Era
Like the nightlife scene, Project X enjoyed a magnificent run, with 37 issues published before it folded in 1995, just before the whole scene came toppling down under the weight of Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s draconian crackdown on the nightclub scene and the gruesome murder of Angel Melendez at the hands of Michael Alig, who died on Christmas 2020 from a heroin overdose.
Although the nightlife scene would soldier on, the era had passed and all that remains are the stories and photographs. With the ‘90s making their comeback as kids of that decade are now becoming adults, the impact of Project X and the club scene continues to flourish, affirming the impact and importance of the era.
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
Project X - Issues can be downloaded for free, here.