In boxes of old photographs, you sometimes come across nightclub pictures from the 1950s and 1960s. These images sit at the boundary between the public and private, the posed portrait and the casual snapshot. They were taken by ‘snappers’ who worked in the nightclubs, taking pictures of couples and groups of adults enjoying themselves which the sitters could then buy as a memento of their night out. These were the sort of West End nightclubs that were hidden behind a door in Soho or Mayfair. They were glamourous but slightly disreputable places where you could rub shoulders with shady characters, attractive ‘hostesses’ and the slumming rich alike.
These pictures go beyond the familial and domestic constraints of the common family snapshot and portray an exclusively adult world, a nocturnal world where people are searching for excitement and romance. They were taken with the consent and hence awareness of the sitters, but aim to capture some of the spontaneous, lively atmosphere of the club.
In these pictures the sitters are relaxed and enjoying themselves. The snappers were familiar figures in the clubs with a good line in patter that would put potential customers at their ease. No one here is expecting anything more than a snapshot of a good time, a record of an alcohol fuelled night out. The pictures were never intended to be put on public display, even at home.
What do I see when I look at these pictures? I see groups of men and women (never single portraits) sitting at tables, dancing or standing embracing each other. Their surroundings are non-descript or barely visible. Some of the sitters have cigarettes between their fingers and drinks in their hands but few of them are actually drinking – it is as if they have stopped for the camera, frozen by the photographer’s flashgun.
If photographs fix us in time and society then I see in these pictures a post war period when the future was full of promise. They show the sort of individuals who determined to enjoy themselves. The people in this post-midnight world seem like more relaxed, exaggerated versions of themselves. This is night’s carnival and these photographs, these traces of happiness, are proof that the people in them were truly alive.
These photographs are different from the pictures of clubs taken by documentary photographers such as Bill Brandt. Brandt strove for the seemingly candid shot, whereas the pictures taken by nightclub photographers are taken with the collusion of the sitter. Unlike Brandt, the nightclub pictures are not intended to be works of art and they are not meant to educate or document an unfamiliar world.
There are similarities with the photographs of Billy Monk, who worked in Cape Town nightclubs in the sixties. He was an enterprising bouncer who started taking photographs of clubbers to supplement his income. Like the West End snappers, Monk took his pictures for the sole purpose of selling them to the sitter and some of them adopt the same poses; couples dancing, people sitting, drinking at tables. However, the nightclubs Monk worked in were rougher than the ones in the West End. This means there are more photographs of wild, drunken behaviour and a clearer depiction of the seedy, rundown environment of the nightclub itself. This gives the pictures an aggressive, hard edge which, together with Monk’s ability to capture moments of human tragedy, marks them out from those taken by your average snapper. Although Billy Monk did not set out to document a particular time and place, his photographs are now recognised as an important record of South Africa in the sixties.
That does not mean that the anonymous photographs of London nightclubs taken by social photographers are devoid of interest. Conceptual artists such as Christian Boltanski understand the power of old photographs, their ability to evoke a shared understanding of the past and to create an emotional resonance between memory, death and immortality.
In 1998 the artist Ian Breakwell exhibited a series of works in Cardiff called Death’s Dance Floor. Included in the exhibition was Ghost Dance, a twelve-part sequence of found photographs with text. The photographs had been found abandoned in a derelict building that had once been a drinking club. They had been scattered on the floor and were stained, faded and creased. The pictures show people dancing, smoking and drinking and Breakwell has added captions such as ‘lost souvenirs of private parties’ and ‘dancing strangers fixed in time.’
The pictures In Breakwell’s exhibition are similar to the nightclub photographs but they have been enlarged and presented on a gallery wall and underlined with poetic text. The artist forces us to scrutinise the images and, in doing so, imbues them with poignancy and meaning. For Breakwell, the images represent the human need to leave traces of our lives behind after death – they are evidence of us having existed.
Professional nightclub photography still exists but its purpose is now to promote the clubs online rather than to make money from the sale of the pictures – that declined in the ‘70s when instant photography replaced black and white prints, and by the 1980s had died out.
The American photographer Diane Arbus said that photographs are ‘proof that something was there and no longer is.’ Photographs freeze time and make it stand still. They capture the moment between what has just happened and what is to come next. They are the point when the future becomes the past. If all photographs are therefore in a way connected to the past, then they must also be in some way about memory and death. For me, the nightclub photographs are apparitions of a night of fun and possibility, of people who, for that one night, could be more than themselves. These photographs continue to move us today because they are like fragments of this lost happiness.
All the photographs in this essay are from the author’s collection of found snapshots.