During the 1970s, photographers like Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin blurred the lines between fashion and fetish with style and verve. Whether shooting advertising campaigns or magazine editorials, they transformed commercial imagery into subversive works of art.
While perusing the Sunday edition of the New York Times in 1976, Frank Rispoli came across Sighs and Whispers, a 36-page lingerie mail-order catalog insert Bourdin had shot for Bloomingdale’s. The photographs, inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s films, caused a sensation. In Bourdin’s work sex, seduction, and attitude were just as important, if not more, than the product. Bourdin was selling attitude and fantasy. These were more than mere bras, panties, and slips – they were power incarnate. Bourdin brought that same spirit to his campaigns for French fashion designer Charles Jourdan, who was then one step ahead of the pack with his exquisite and daring styles of footwear. Breaking free from stale conventions, Bourdin introduced a dark, daring, and dangerous undercurrent to commercial work.
Seizing the moment, Rispoli embarked on an adventure all his own among the city’s demimonde for a series of never-before-seen photographs just published in the new book High Heels (Circa). Working at the intersection of fashion and fetish, Rispoli cast regular women for impromptu photo shoots after spotting them in downtown Manhattan night clubs like CBGB, Mudd Club, Danceteria, Club 57, and a basement BDSM club in the Meatpacking District when the cobblestones were still covered with the blood of freshly slaughtered animals.
One Way or Another
“I’m the black sheep of an Italian-American blue collar family,” Frank Rispoli says. “I had all this artistic ability, never nurtured, thank heaven for the New York City public school system. My folks were not educated; my old man had a sixth-grade education. My parents tried to hold us together with the Catholic Church. Growing up in the 1960s counterculture movement with the explosion of everything across the board, sexuality came into play. The Church prohibited thinking in sexual terms, defined sex as a sin. In hindsight, that’s how this fascination came about. I really should thank the Vatican.”
In junior high school, Rispoli discovered he was unable to look at women face to face, so he cast his glance down in deference. In doing so, he discovered a fascination all its own: women’s legs, shoes, and feet. As Rispoli came of age, spiked heels were a pleasure he grew to enjoy just as the stiletto became fashionable. Named for the narrow, double-edged knife invented in 15th century Italy, stiletto heels symbolized the danger and decadence of late 1970s New York. Debbie Harry adopted it as the name of her first band, an all-girl ensemble that performed at CBGB during the early days of punk.
In 1974, Rispoli moved back to Manhattan, renting a railroad flat for just $100 a month. He remembers the city falling apart as it teetered along the brink of bankruptcy. “It was just disgusting but I was young and didn’t pay any attention because I was pursuing my art and photography. The downtown scene was such a joy,” says Rispoli, who first purchased a camera to document his paintings while at school.
But in due course, Rispoli found the camera could brilliantly serve his predilection for women’s footwear. While working as a design consultant by day, Rispoli would spend his lunch hour walking the streets in search of women in high heels amenable to an impromptu photoshoot. He approached strangers and they graciously welcomed the chance to model their heels for an appreciative audience.
From these humble beginnings, High Heels was born, a project that would come to fruition long after the 9-to-5 shift ended.
Rip Her to Shreds
In the late 1970s, Frank Rispoli was spending his nights in the clubs just as the scene reached stratospheric heights. He traveled down to the Bowery when it was still Skid Row, frequenting CBGB, the epicenter of New York’s burgeoning punk scene. “By that time rock and roll was dead, but punk was happening,” he says. “Music was so important to me. It gave me a form of escape as well as providing energy.”
Seizing the moment, Rispoli hit the clubs, his camera loaded with Kodachrome film. “Rispoli began pounding the sidewalks of New York City, looking for likely subjects,” Erik Bradshaw Hughes writes in High Heels. “He sought the sultry and the surreal in the shadows, intent on outlining the contours of those who lived on the margins of polite society. Provided, of course, that they strutted around town in a pair of killer heels.”
At the center of it all was Danceteria, the Chelsea nightclub where Madonna made her debut and Sade tended bar before going on to stun the world with her sultry vocals. Spending “six and a half” nights out at the clubs, Rispoli refined his aesthetic — literally placing women on pedestals. They stood in bathroom sinks, on top of bars, or even climbed the grill of a Mack truck, each step adding another edge to the work.
Drawn to the vivid mix of sensuous textures, bold colors, and raw industrial spaces, Rispoli crafted delectable scenes of drama and decadence whether he was at a punk show, on the train, or just walking the streets of New York. Rispoli’s photographs perfectly encapsulate the styles of the times while celebrating the power clothing and accessories have over our imagination. Although all of the women are anonymous, we envision them as divas, vixens, and sirens — bold, adventurous, and in control.
“Even at their most risqué, Rispoli’s portraits venerate their subjects, elevating them to a level that borders on the religious,” Hughes writes. “He presents the women who wear these shoes in their natural habitat, gliding about the city on their pedestals, hovering just above the rest of us.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books and magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
High Heels is published by Circa, $60.