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ON THAT DAY, "Late Night Flash" by Tod Papageorge

ON THAT DAY, “Late Night Flash” by Tod Papageorge

With On That Day, photographers are invited to tell the story behind one of their photographs. Today, photographer Tod Papageorge tells his 1977 New Year’s Eve story.

“In late 1977, I was given the chance to photograph in Studio 54, only a short time after it opened to almost-instantaneous notoriety as the most exciting and decadent discotheque in New York. I was told that the best nights to be there were those when the club threw special parties, as it was going to do on New Year’s Eve. So, when the day arrived—and feeling very lucky because Studio 54 was difficult to get into any time if you weren’t a celebrity or connected to one—I packed my heavy Fujica 6 X 9 cm camera and its even heavier flash into a bag with a lot of 120 film, and headed down from my apartment to 54th Street and the club.

Where I photographed feverishly through a long night until early morning, moving from the dance floor to the bar to the balcony upstairs, which overlooked the dancers and featured raked seating (Studio 54 was originally a theater) where partygoers would retreat for rest—and, often, drugs. In fact, I was there, looking down from the balcony, exactly at midnight, when the old year, to the sounds of cheering and loud horns, blasted its way into the new one, and I made a good photograph of the partiers jammed together below raising their arms up to the ceiling, swaying in unified joy. 

© Tod Papageorge

That moment was not even the halfway point of my evening, though. As I mentioned, I continued working all night and into the first morning hours of 1978, until, at around 6:00 am, I realized that my flash battery was about dead, out of charge, not to mention that I was too, along with the last revelers still left in the club, who were gathering up their coats and moving to the exit and the street outside. As I neared the door, though, I noticed a handsome couple—he was black; she was white and blond—sitting on the floor, but even at that late/early hour, still animated and happy about what, for them, must have been a wonderful party. Nestled behind them, on their right, was a bearded man dozing with a hand to his head, while, on the other side, two young women had stretched themselves out one behind the other and fallen into a deep sleep. I lifted my camera…

And realized I couldn’t do anything until the ready light on my flash lit up to show me the dying battery had enough stored energy to power an exposure. So I waited and waited—at least 30 or 40 seconds—until the light finally ticked on just after the blond woman picked up a balloon from the floor and leaned back with a smile into her friend’s arms—leading me to lift my camera and make a picture.

Then she surprised me by flipping the balloon into the air above her, where it dropped lightly down onto the hip of the girl sleeping next to her… just as another loose balloon, making its own helium-directed journey, fell (unbelievably!) into a matching home on the hip of the second drowsing girl! As if that weren’t enough, this Lady of the Balloons picked up yet another one from the floor in front of her and tapped it into the air—while I stood a few feet away, in an agony of waiting for the ready light to show me when I could try to capture this unfolding scene on film. Which, as it turned out, was not to be that moment, or even the moments immediately following on from it. As I wondered if the battery was totally dead, the balloon slowly fell and, for one last time, the blond woman stretched out in the arms of her friend and, arching her head dramatically back to an angle where her chin pointed directly at the ceiling, gracefully stretched an arm up to meet it as it fell to the tips of her extended fingers. The pose of a goddess, or at least a gesture eloquent enough that some minor angel or deity overlooking the scene took enough pity on me and my frustration to send a spark down into that ready light, triggering it and leading me to raise my camera for the last time that night (the battery did die after that) and press the shutter.

Which captured the picture you see here, where (calling up the ghost of the great Brassaï) mirrors both double and reflect a world extended well beyond the immediate glory of the woman, the group joined around her, and the happy arrangement of the balloons.” 

By Tod Papageorge

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