Tina Paul: The Party Photographer Who Has Seen It All

Eduardo Gion Espejo-Saavedra,

Tina Paul shot all the most important parties that lit up the nights of New York during the 70’s and 80’s. Zooming her lens in on the likes of Grace Jones, Michael Alig, Keith Haring, and Betsey Johnson. Here she shares with us many of those iconic photographs and regales us with tales of insider stories of the hard partying heydays of the Big Apple.

A version of this exclusive interview first appeared in the pages of the 13th issue of ODDA Magazine.


Photographer Tina Paul in Surfside, FL 7/22/17 photo by ©Arhlene Ayalin 2017 All Rights Reserved

How and when did you start in the world of photography?

My interest in photography began through music and journalism. I loved the artwork of album covers and read newspapers and magazines, carefully paying attention to captions of photographs.  In college, I took a basic journalism class while also studying art. The rules of journalism, who, what, where, when, and why always stayed with me. In photography, you had to learn darkroom skills, developing black and white film and printing enlargements, while subject matter and composition defined your Style. My early interests were design, architecture, fashion and music. With a desire to photograph rock stars, I went to concerts and tried to do live photography. This was in 1978, at a time when photo restrictions were beginning and many times, I had to leave my cameras in the car and could not gain access. At the same time, Disco music had emerged in nightclubs and you could get in and photograph. You were welcomed and treated as a professional and I had access to photograph Grace Jones, Sylvester and other Disco and Drag performers.  I was a teenager, beginning and learning so I did not have the knowledge, experience and insight that I have now. I lived in Surfside with my parents near Miami Beach, long before South Beach became a destination for nightlife. The places I went to for music and dancing were gay bars in Ft Lauderdale that my high school friends introduced me to. When I began to photograph, I went back there with my camera.


Do you document the entire New York night scene of the 80’s and 90’s in photographs?

When I moved to New York in 1980, it was an exciting time. As a young photographer, my work was primarily street photography, influenced by culture and the history of photography, while studying at School of Visual Arts. I occasionally went to clubs with friends but didn’t document nightlife in New York until the late 80’s. I began working for Patricia Field in the early 80’s, producing Advertisements for her store, mixing my street photography with her fashions and painting on the photographs, adding a layer to accentuate socio-political elements. The work was raw, suggestive and different, with the Advertisements published regularly in downtown magazines, East Village Eye, Details and Paper. Through friendships formed at the store, I began going out to nightclubs like Paradise Garage, Area and Susanne Bartsch parties. Patricia Field brought the Harlem Ball scene to downtown New York in 1988 and when she recommended my photographs of her House Ball to Details Magazine, I began a friendship with Stephen Saban that renewed my career in nightlife photography.


What was that scene, its clubs, its artists, and its people?

In every scene, there are key players and in nightlife, they merge and crossover, reappearing in new clubs, with inspiration that attracts fresh faces. I was reading the downtown publications in the mid 80’s and knew who the prominent figures were plus my friends helped me. Stars are born within each club scene among the regular celebrities, artists, fashion designers, doorman, bartenders, DJs, club owners, security, promoters, dancers, performers, and revelers. The people I met were behind the scenes and they created the scene. Nightlife legends, Larry Levan, Liz Torres, Grace Jones, Frankie Knuckles, Rudolf Piper, Mel Cheren, Patricia Field, Susanne Bartsch, Anthony Wong, Alfredo Viloria, David Spada, Keith Haring, Johnny Dynell, Chi Chi Valenti, Haoui Montaug, George Wayne, Jellybean Benitez, Freddy Bastone, Mark Kamins, Christina Visca, Junior Vasquez, John Carmen, Steve Lewis, Peter Gatien, Richard Vasquez, Gilbert Stafford, Larry Tee, Ru Paul Charles, Lady Bunny, Alexis Di Biasio, Willi Ninja, Kevin Omni, Kenny Kenny, Leigh Bowery, Gene Di Nino, Nell Campbell, Paul McGregor, Dean Johnson, Tangella, Perfidia, Mona Foot, Sally Be, Peter Sibilla, Michael Musto, James St James, Keoki Franconi,  Julie Jewels, Michael Alig, Richie Rich, Tobell Von Cartier, Michael Tronn, David Leigh, Lee Chappell, Paul Alexander, Lincoln Palsgrove IV, Toni Senecal, Jo Jo Americo, Derek Neen, Kenny Scharf, Joey Arias, Ann Magnuson, Dany Johnston, Ande Whyland, Edwige, Maripol, Alba Clemente, Diane Brill, Richard Move, Kate Harwood, Amanda Lepore, Keni Valenti, John Suliga, Chip Duckett, Sister Dimension, Olympia, Zaldy, Matthew Kasten, Connie Fleming, Princess Diandra, Codie Ravioli, Robi Martin, Johnny Vicious, Florent, Lady Miss Kier, Deee-Lite, David Morales, Donna Giles, Tommy Frayne, Bruce Lynn, Claire O’Connor, Fred Rothbell-Mista, Wass Stevens, Kelly Cutrone, House of Domination, House of Field, House of Xtravaganza, Deborah Harry, Stephen Sprouse, Michael Schmidt, Don Hill, Kembra Pfahler, Patrick Chiatoo, Scot Hamlin, Julie Tolentino, Scotto, Mary McFadden, Jeannie Hopper, Moby, Sioux Zimmerman, Boy George and so many more, amazing talents.


Grace Jones performing at the Limelight in Hallandale, FL 2/26/1978 photo by ©Tina Paul 1978 All Rights Reserved

Was there much difference between the 80’s and 90’s? In art/culture.

Through most of the 80’s, I had other interests and went to concerts, protests and Art Gallery openings in the East Village. Friends would go to clubs to dance and as I went with them more, I became familiar with the nightlife scene. We went to Danceteria, Pyramid, The World, Boy Bar, Area, Paradise Garage, La Esquelita, Tunnel, Bentleys, Red Zone, Sound Factory, The Choice, Copacabana, Palladium, Underground, Mars, Limelight, Morrissey, Save The Robots.

Art, Fashion and Music mixed together, playing a key role in the 80’s culture. Artists frequented the clubs, Downtown fashion was an art form and the music was a combination of new wave, break beats, disco and early house. The 80’s were very creative and fun but also political because of President Ronald Reagan and AIDS.

The 90’s saw mega clubs like Club USA, Limelight, Webster Hall, Palladium, Supper Club, Irving Plaza and also small bars like Nells, Jackie 60, Squeezebox, CBGBs, Tramps, and venues with local Bands. I met my life partner, Arhlene Ayalin in 1991 and we went to all of the clubs mentioned above and more. Different scenes intensified and merged; the Club Kids, the Rave Scene, Gay Rock and Roll, Drag Queens and Drag Kings, Spoken Word, Performance Art, and Burlesque. The 90’s was about freedom and also business with a dark side because of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.


The 80’s were a time when the decline of punk began with the arrival of the new wave and the 90’s with the appearance of the Club Kids led by Alig, right?

Some really great original music and fun fashion came out of the 80’s. It went from new wave to Alternative Pop, Rap and Hip Hop and House Music. In fashion you had Day-Glo colors, oversized jewelery, baseball caps & B-Boy style, tight black dresses and spandex pants. The Club Kids became noticeable after the death of Andy Warhol with their twisted blend of accentuated commercialism. It was a great homemade style that mixed childhood products and TV culture in a grown-up form, with makeup and exaggerated fashion trends. This trend continued through the 90’s however, the Club Kids drug use changed their cartoon playfulness to more severe makeup and horror film darkness. A different form of expression fueled the mid 90’s music with the emergence of Gay Rock and Roll, replacing lip-synching with live singing. At the same time, Alternative Rock, Goth, Grunge and Guerrilla Girls had strong cultural influence while Electronic Music advanced into a blend of Hard-core Beats and Drum & Bass. The 90’s fashion was not as defined as the 80’s, it was toned down, with baggy pants and then club fashion became glamorous again.


Did you always shoot analogue, reveal your own work, and have your own lab?

I used Olympus cameras and Kodak Film; Tri-X black and white negatives, Ektachrome and Kodachrome color slides and sometimes color negatives. I processed my own black and white film, printing enlargements in my kitchen, and sent the color to a Lab. When I got my first digital camera in 2000, I still carried a film camera until around 2004 and now, I’m completely digital.

Zelda Rubenstein, Amanda Lepore, Michael Alig at Disco 2000 Anniversary party at Limelight, NYC 8/14/91 photo by ©Tina Paul 1991 All Rights Reserved

Do you have a very large photo archive?

The photograph prints, slides, negatives and contact sheets have always taken up a lot of space in my home. I am surrounded by this work and don’t have an exact total of all the images I have from my 38 years of photographing.


Artists like Haring have gone through their camera. Grace Jones, Betsey Johnson, or Sinead O’Connor among many, who looks through their photography?

I was trying to work as a photographer, taking all jobs, portraits, parties, fashion, press photos, magazine and newspaper stories and also working in an office during the day. When I found the magic at night, every night, I didn’t want to return to the daytime work world. I was having fun, living life and always carried a camera, photographing the same people each time I saw them. Over time, these photographs told a story, of friendship, places of importance, our culture and history.


Choreographer and dancer Willie Ninja, creator of the Vogue movement, is one of the least known but most interesting characters. How was it?

Willi Ninja was the most prolific voguer. I first saw him at El Museo Del Barrio in 1988 at a program introducing this urban new dance form. The vogue children were all really special, they were very young and could get into the clubs and would put on a show just being there and dancing. After Patricia Field introduced the Harlem Balls to Downtown New York, Susanne Bartsch produced the Love Ball at Roseland to benefit DIFFA, honoring all the Houses. The trophies were designed by Artists including Francesco Clemente, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and Julian Schnabel, and Fashion Designers competed with the Harlem Houses to a panel of Celebrity Judges. Then, Malcolm McLaren and designer Thierry Mugler worked with the voguers and brought them to Europe before Madonna’s hit song, Vogue. The ball children returned to their roots in the New York clubs and House Balls. Willi Ninja privately taught models how to walk and other voguers became choreographers and teachers of Dance in Universities.


Do you feel nostalgia for that time?

It was a special time of emerging cultures and my photographs of that era invoke nostalgia. There is great interest in what it was like during that time. This was confirmed in the response I received while exhibiting my nightlife photographs during Art Basel Miami Beach in the past two years.


Do you currently continue to photograph, have you changed the way you represent today?

I continue to photograph and document our culture and have a massive collection of work. Times change and the medium has changed, sometimes I can approach photographing as I used to though mostly, it’s different. Everyone has a camera now so it’s more challenging to get a meaningful photograph.


What will be your next photographic work?

The world has become more political and in addition to photographing nightlife, I’ve gone back to photographing protests. I am now a Commissioner in my Town of Surfside, so as an elected official, I have taken on another persona. The photography I’ve done has become relevant over the years and I plan to continue exhibiting, produce a book of my collection, and always carry a camera.


GPS Radar

Filmmaker, Journalist and documentary.
For several years working as an assistant director of short films and feature films in 35mm. His documentaries have been shown at festivals Festival de Cinema de Sitges, New York Film Festival, Portland Underground Film Festival, San Francisco Film Festival, and others.
Worked at events “080” in Barcelona, collaborating with photographers Miguel Villalobos for the production of the tribute to Thierry Mugler.
Writes and produces reports for magazines “Candy Magazine” to Luis Venegas, Also works for the magazine “Paraiso Magazine”, and Features Editor at ODDA Magazine.

the writer

Eduardo Gion Espejo-Saavedra

Filmmaker, Journalist and documentary. For several years working as an assistant director of short films and feature films in 35mm. His documentaries have been shown at festivals Festival de Cinema de Sitges, New York Film Festival, Portland Underground Film Festival, San Francisco Film Festival, and others. Worked at events “080” in Barcelona, collaborating with photographers Miguel Villalobos for the production of the tribute to Thierry Mugler. Writes and produces reports for magazines “Candy Magazine” to Luis Venegas, Also works for the magazine “Paraiso Magazine”, and Features Editor at ODDA Magazine.

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