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Patrick McMullan Misses Studio 54, But That’s Not Stopping Him From Going Out


Snap, snap, snap. If you’ve made the New York City party scene at any point in the last 30 years, chances are you’ve had your picture taken by Patrick McMullan. Now a fixture of the media-industrial complex, with a key photo agency bearing his name, six books to his credit, and several standing magazine gigs, McMullan has come a long way from his days as a social gadfly who toted his camera around every night because it gave him an excuse to be out. That was back when being out meant being around the likes of Andy Warhol and being at places like Studio 54, so who could blame McMullan for wanting to capture as much of Manhattan’s good old bad days as he could? Details—then a local nightlife rag—gave McMullan his first regular job covering the party circuit, but it was Interview that made McMullan’s reputation as the go-to guy for shots of movers and shakers out on the town. This month, Interview celebrates the 20th anniversary of McMullan’s photo column in the magazine with a special insert dedicated to its archives, and tonight, they’re throwing the man with the golden camera a star-studded party at Elaine’s. Hosts, to name only a few, include Marisa Berenson, Mary Boone, Cornelia Guest, Iman, Debbie Harry, and Liza Minnelli. Here, McMullan gives the lowdown on two decades of late nights.

How did you wind up with a column in Interview?
Well, it’s funny, because now Glenn [O’ Brien] is back at Interview, and he was the one who got me the job. I knew everyone over there—I’d been doing this and that for the magazine for a few years⏼but in ’88, the guy who had the nightlife column decided to quit. Glenn was working at Interview back then and he recommended me for the job.

I imagine that must have been a pretty taxing gig, at first. Was it hard to adjust your schedule?
Well, I’d been doing a similar thing for Details, and anyway, the whole reason I got into shooting at parties was because I wanted to go to them. My friends would invite me places and I’d bring my camera, and then, I had this kind of illness for a while that kept me cooped up, and when I got better, I was even hungrier to be out of the house.

Twenty years is a lot of making the scene. You must go out all the time.
I go out every night. Or, pretty much.

Even now? I figured that part of the reason you launched Patrick McMullan, the photo agency, was so you could take a break now and then.
The agency exists so I can cover more, not less. It allows me to be inclusive. I hate saying no to people, but you know how it is some nights—there are three, four, five events going on, and one’s on the west side, and one’s uptown, and so on… Obviously, I can’t be everywhere at once. So now I have a staff that fans out, and meanwhile, I can make the rounds without worrying if I’m getting everything.

Surely, though, the job has changed since you started out.
I’ll tell you what’s changed: technology. And the city. When I was younger, you know, I’d shoot black-and-white film, and when I finished my rolls, that was it. I could stick around and have a drink, and then go home to my apartment and develop my contact sheets. You know, with the chemicals and all. And then, sometime later, I’d take the contact sheets to my editors, they’d circle the images they wanted, and I’d go back home and make prints. Later, it got to be more like, I’d drop the film at the developers before I went home, and the next day would start around noon, when my contact sheets were ready to be picked up. Now, everything’s digital, and there’s no sticking around for drinks,
because I have to head right back to the office and start downloading and writing captions. I’m out as late each night as I ever was, but now every night ends at work.

You say the city has changed, too. How so?
Oh, well isn’t some of that pretty obvious? New York is just a very different place. There’s nothing like Studio 54 anymore; there just isn’t. I’ll tell you what was great about Studio 54: They played fantastic music, but they didn’t play it too loud. You could dance or you could socialize. And the characters that were around back then, you don’t see anything like them anymore. Like Rollerina, an old lady drag queen who was always on roller skates. Or Disco Sally, a really old lady who looked like the Playboy old lady cartoon. I bet not many people who read this will get the Playboy reference, but anyway, she was great. People like that are more fun to shoot than movie stars.

But in a way, some of the changes to the party scene also come down to technology. When I first started taking pictures, there were no cell phones, there were barely any answering machines, and if you called someone and they were already on the line, you got a busy signal. So there was none of this, oh, I’m going to call my friend and see if there’s something better going on. I see a lot of that. People are always comparing notes and wondering if there’s some other place they should be. In the ’80s, you just went out.

Do you miss that?
Eh. I mean, look, my job is, what’s happening tonight? I don’t spend much time thinking about what happened yesterday. New York nightlife is what it is. And there have been some great developments—I think people are a lot more ambitious about creating party spaces now. Like, last fashion week, when Calvin Klein was celebrating its 40th anniversary and they built an entire structure right on the High Line and filled it with Champagne and flowers—you wouldn’t have seen anything like that 20 years ago. An entire structure, it was up for two days and then they tore it down. Amazing.

Given the state of the economy, I highly doubt we’ll be seeing anything like that again for a while.
Yeah, probably not. But you know what I like about fashion? It doesn’t matter whether it’s a fancy event or not—people in the industry really get themselves together. They like to look good. I’ll tell you, if there’s one thing I do miss about the ’80s, it’s all the great-looking people who were around. I don’t just mean great-looking like, attractive, I mean great-looking like they had a look. Stephen Sprouse, Teri Toye, Dianne Brill, Billy Idol… For them, every night was another night to dress up and be fabulous.

Did you ever have wardrobe anxiety? Or was the camera your costume?

Me, I never had the budget to be fabulous. But I’d always wear a skinny tie.

Photo: Sam Bolton / Patrick McMullan