The 1990s were the last hurrah of bohemian New York. The decade kicked off with the highest murder rate in city history, while the draconian Rockefeller drug laws disappeared a generation of Black and Latinx youth, and the AIDS crisis continued unabated. It had been more than a decade since the federal government left the city for dead — but from the ashes of destruction the phoenix that is New York would rise once again.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” philosopher Plato sagely opined, understanding nature abhors a vacuum, as does the human mind. New Yorkers have long applied the wisdom of classical antiquity without giving it a second thought; the nature of survival demands innovative solutions to keep us afloat. As Generation X came of age, they broke all the rules, reveling in a dizzying mix of sin, spectacle, and self-expression that percolated in the non-stop extravaganza of the ‘90s New York nightlife scene.
Welcome to the Pleasuredome
Here, a new group of upstarts of all races, ethnicities, genders, sexualities, and economic backgrounds came together on the dance floor in a celebration of PLUR (peace, love, unity, and respect) to dance until the break of dawn. Music was the draw — house, hip hop, techno, industrial, goth, drum and bass, grunge, and just about any other permutation of the underground sound drew an inexhaustible mix of partygoers dressed to impress.
On any given night, one could party alongside celebrities, club kids, drag queens, ravers, hip hop heads, models, banjees, body boys, bondage slaves, Wall Street suits, and the bridge-and-tunnel set at legendary nightclubs like Tunnel, Roxy, Palladium, Club Expo, and Webster Hall.
As official photographer for Peter Gatien, the legendary King of Clubs, Steve Eichner made pictures in places where cameras were prohibited, documenting the birth of a radical era of music, fashion, pop culture, media, and art, brilliantly captured in the new book, In the Limelight: The Visual Ecstasy of NYC Nightlife in the 90s, co-authored by New York Times photo editor Gabriel Sanchez (Prestel).
“My job was to photograph celebrities to publicize the clubs, but most of the photographs in the book I made for myself,” Eichner says. “There was something in me that wanted to document the scene. I knew Sodom and Gomorrah wasn’t going to last forever.”
A Star is Born
Hailing from Long Beach, Long Island, Eichner fell in love with photography and music as a youth, discovering ways to combine his two loves by shooting concerts and shows. After efforts to pursue a degree in accounting failed miserably, Eichner went on tour with the Grateful Dead taking pictures, before dedicating himself to the study of photography.
In 1987, he moved to Manhattan and hit the nightclub scene. “As a young photographer starting out it was like Halloween on acid every night,” Eichner says. “It was like a traveling circus. You were flowing from a mega club to a concert venue to a little club on any given night. I was like a moth to a flame; I couldn’t get enough of it.”
While shooting a Sugarcubes concert, Eichner met Michelle Feeney, recently hired to handle publicity for Peter Gatien’s growing empire, which would soon include Limelight, Tunnel, Palladium, and Club USA. “In those years I had a beeper. When it went off, wherever I was in the city or if I was even sleeping, I would call in and they’d say, ‘Julia Roberts is dancing at Club USA.’ I would get in a cab with my camera, get the shot, drop the film off at the lab, get a few hours of sleep, then make the rounds at the photo desks,” Eichner says.
“I was like a rock star. I went to the clubs and the club kids were dressed for a social media moment but there was none of that — there was just me. They would prance around in front of me and I felt this sense of power where I have this camera, I know how to use it, and when I point it at people, they fell in love with it.”
A Democracy on the Dance Floor
Of the legendary 1970s nightclub Studio 54 Andy Warhol famously said, “It was a dictatorship at the door and a democracy on the dance floor.” Two decades later, that ethos reigned supreme, as Gatien’s nightclub empire turned a random night out into an unforgettable trip to wonderland.
“Peter’s genius was keeping it fresh — you never knew what to expect,” Eichner. “With the Limelight, he took a church and turned it into a club. Every room was a different party that changed from night to night. The Tunnel was a former train tunnel, hundreds of thousands of square feet. You walk in and there was a skateboard half pipe. Upstairs he put a full bar in the middle of a co-ed bathroom because that’s where the real party went on in the clubs. At USA, he put a slide that took you from the balcony to the main dance floor so you could get your groove on when your song came on. Peter never rested on his laurels. He was always looking for the next big thing.”
And big things came out of the clubs. RuPaul launched his global anthem “Supermodel (You Better Work)” in the clubs, while Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes hit up the clubs to research their roles for the 1995 film, Too Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. Mecca, the Sunday night party at Tunnel, became the epicenter of East Coast hip hop. Hot 97’s Funkmaster flex helmed the decks and brought in artists like Jay-Z, Nas, Puff Daddy, Method Man, and DMX to perform, the world’s toughest crowd giving them the street cred they needed. As the legend went, “If a fight breaks out to a record, you’ve got a hit on your hands.”
Looking back at the decade, Eichner observes, “The ‘90s was the first time it was accepted to be different. The club had all sorts of people mingling together, getting along, and having fun. A lot of what we see today came from the openness of the ‘90s where you could explore, push the limits, and try new things.”
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, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
In the Limelight: The Visual Ecstasy of NYC Nightlife in the 90s
Published by Prestel
$ 45.00 | £ 35.00