Spectacle and Distance – Review of “In the Limelight: The Visual Ecstasy of NYC Nightlife in the 90s”

It seemed good at the time.  In the 1990s, New York City nightclubs defined energy, culture remade by boundary-exploding innovation.  The days of Studio 54 had already passed.  AIDS had frozen the world.  Then came the next wave.

In the Limelight: The Visual Ecstasy of NYC Nightlife in the 90s.” by Steve Eichner and Gabriel Sanchez
Published by Prestel Verlag, Munich · London · New York, 2020
review by W. Scott Olsen

Nightclubs like the Limelight, Tunnel, Club USA, and Palladium were the places to be seen.  Celebrities showed up to be extravagant and noticed.  Regular people showed up to join something loud and large and fast. In his role as house photographer for Peter Gatien’s suite of clubs, Steve Eichner was charged with documenting the scene. 

That was nearly thirty years ago.  The world has changed, dramatically, and in many ways grown up.  Yet now there is a book on my desk that brings it all back.

The Tunnel, 1993 © 2020 Steve Eichner

As the book’s introduction states, “New York City nightlife in the early 1990s was a hot and visceral experience.  Drenched in throbbing neon while whirling away inside the relentless, pulsating music, a simple passing glance and an open mind could lead to the journey of a lifetime.  True freedom was something tangible—even addictive…Bold experiments in music, fashion, art and sexuality set the tone for decades to come and established a new paradigm of American culture…”

Later, the introduction says, “Each frame is like a snapshot from a fever dream that tingles the senses—the visceral heat of the bodies, the smell of the spilled liquor, the deafening bass.  For the people frozen in time within these images—the starry-eyed kids from Long Island, the flamboyant drag queens and Club Kids, the entrepreneurs and the suit-and-ties, the eyes of youth, and the aged wisdom—the party never ended.  It’s been raging for decades within binders collecting dust in a Long Beach storage facility.  For all those who missed the party or who keep those memories stored away in the backs of their minds, these photographs capture a generation that shared an electric vision of the future and chose to make it their reality.”

The Palladium, 1995 © 2020 Steve Eichner

In the Limelight is an odd book.  The photographs are mostly snapshots from hallways and dancefloors.  They document fashion and attendance. Here’s Madonna, smiling.  Here’s Robert De Niro, looking at the camera.  Here’s Leonardo DiCaprio and Dennis Hopper, looking at the camera.  Here’s Woody Harrelson outside a club, saying hello to someone, looking at the camera.  Nearly every image features someone (or many someones) posing for a party pic.  At that level, the images are not particularly insightful.

But then again, these images document cultural history.  Any image, given enough time between shutter release and viewing, can become insightful and important.  The images in this book bring back what we once thought was leading-edge and important. 

For me, though, that impression has not weathered well.

Club goers dressed as The Fabulous Wonder Twins at the Roxy, circa 1993 © 2020 Steve Eichner

Don’t get me wrong.  Although the introduction by Gabriel Sanchez, photo editor at BuzzFeed News, is filled with hyperbole and cliche, and although I wish Eichner had gone for more depth than glam, I am not saying the book is bad or the images poor.  I am quite sure a great many people, especially veterans of the New York club scene, will look at this book with a type of fond nostalgia.  Ah yes, those were the days. 

What I see is different.  I see a generation catastrophically vain and self-absorbed.  The book brings that out well.

(From left) Sushi, Richie Rich, and Ernie Glam at the Tunnel, 1995 © 2020 Steve Eichner

History is always a matter of perspective and interpretation. The distance between then and now, between spectacle and remembrance, leads (if we are lucky) to insight. In the Limelight is certainly a history book.  If you look at the book and gasp at the avant garde, the rule-breaking, the in-your-face assault on expectations, that’s the point.  That’s what we were talking about.  And in the same instant, if you look at it and think well, here’s a bunch of affluent people behaving poorly in costumes that would be bad even on Halloween, that’s exactly the point as well.  That’s what we were talking about.  That’s what we were thinking about.

We need to remember this.

Steve Eichner’s Website
Gabriel Sanchez’s Website

A note from FRAMES: if you have a forthcoming or recently published book of photography, please let us know.

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