Spotlight: Photobook

New York Club Kids: Rewriting the narrative

Ball room at Tunnel, 1993. © Catherine McGann.

Curating over 500 images by 18 artists, former Club Kid Walt Cassidy chronicles the extravagant party scene of the late-80s and early-90s New York

In an era defined by the breakthrough of rave culture, the rise of vogueing, and fashion trends like grunge and heroin chic, the Club Kids were the stars. Strutting straight into New York’s mega-clubs in fearless looks and sky-high shoes, they were an unstoppable force in the underground clubbing scene. But, the group was not just a subculture — the Club Kids regularly appeared on daytime television, and made long-lasting contributions to art, music, and fashion that still resurface in popular culture today.

But, in 1996, a brutal tragedy tarnished their reputation. One of the group’s founding members, Michael Alig, and his roommate, Robert “Freeze” Riggs, were convicted of murdering and dismembering a young drug dealer, Angel Melendez. The story blew up in the press, fuelling the conservative agenda of then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Many of the city’s iconic clubs closed as a result and the Club Kids eventually dissolved.

Astro Erle at Limelight, 1992. © SKID.
Mezzanine over main dancefloor at Club USA, 1993. © SKID.

Since then, media coverage concerning the group has centered around narratives of addiction, murder, and debauchery. There was the 1999 memoir Disco Bloodbath, written by former Club Kid James St. James, and the 1998 documentary Party Monster: The Shockumentary, which was followed by a film of the same name in 2003.

At the time, many people were irritated by the negative press. “It was so sensational, and people assumed that was all there was. They thought everyone was a killer, or a disturbed, crazy person. Michael was a really important mentor, but that was only two per cent of the story,” says Walt Cassidy, a former Club Kid and author of a new book that seeks to rewrite their history. Cassidy recalls speaking to journalists for hours about fashion, performances, and the political conversations on gender and identity incited by the scene, but “it never made the cut,” he says. “They were more interested in the tabloid, blood-and-guts, approach.”

In New York Club Kids, Cassidy details the trajectory of the movement, illustrating his story with over 500 images by 18 photographers and artists who documented the scene. The images capture the driving members of the scene, as well as the thousands of other club-goers, along with the fashion, iconic clubland graphics, extravagant interiors of the mega-clubs they frequented, and the bustling city-scape of New York City in the 1990s. “There was a vast scene of people who were doing so many different things creatively,” says Cassidy. “The book is really a love story to New York, told from the vantage point of the Club Kids.”

The World, 1988. © Stephan Lupino.
Christy Love and Daisy, 1993. © Linda Simpson.

Cassidy moved to New York in August 1991, aged 19. “I came from a broken family, and I was seeking a unit. My first attempt at that was as a teenager in the punk scene,” he says. “When I arrived in New York and fell in with the Club Kids, that fit perfectly. I had finally found my tribe.” Working mostly as a painter and illustrator, Cassidy became known as Waltpaper, and appears throughout the book in his signature looks.

The project began in 2015, when Cassidy was approached by Candy, a fashion magazine dedicated to celebrating transgender and non-binary people. To accompany his interview, Cassidy curated a spread of five photographers from the Club Kid days. “Once I did that, I realised there was much more to be uncovered – more photographers and bigger archives.”

Waltpaper with cupcake at Limelight, 1992. © SKID.
Dancefloor at Club USA, 1992. © Catherine McGann.

Cassidy visited each of the photographer’s archives, rooting through dusty boxes of negatives and contact sheets. “There were so many images, and huge portions of the story that had not been told,” he says, estimating that around 70 per cent of the images have never been seen or printed.

“There was a real collaborative energy between the photographers that were hanging out on the Club Kid scene,” says Cassidy, who placed great importance on including a variety of viewpoints in the book. Many of the studio photographs were used for promotional material, made by in-house club photographers, like Michael Fazakerley, who produced iconic shots of the Club Kids for event invitations, posters, and Project X the Club Kid’s own fashion and music magazine.

“People assumed that was all there was. They thought everyone was a killer, or a disturbed, crazy person. But that was only two per cent of the story.”

Walt Cassidy
Left: Girlina and Candis Cayne in photo booth at Palladium, 1995. © Linda Simpson. Right: Lil Keni’s shoes, 1994. © Misa Martin. Bottom: Donald and Shuck E, 1991. © Michael Fazakerley.
The World, 1988. © Stephan Lupino.

Some images were made by photojournalists such as Catherine McGann, who was shooting for publications like The Village Voice and The New York Post, while others were shot by photographers like Misa Martin. “She was almost as much of a club kid as any of us, in the trenches every night,” Cassidy recalls. Arguably, some of the most striking images in the book come from photography duo SKID, whose documentary project was eventually published in The New York Times in 1994.

For Cassidy, one of the most rewarding experiences was working with Brian Lantelme, a photographer who stopped printing after the trauma of his lover passing away from AIDS in the 1990s. Cassidy visited his studio, discovering negatives from his projects on the transgender and vogeuing communities. “I think my excitement engaged him,” says Cassidy. For the first time in 25 years, Lantelme decided to set up his dark room again. “When an artist’s work or career goes dormant, it is a beautiful experience to see them rediscover their work,” he continues. “A lot of the photographers have moved onto other careers, but each one has their own story.”

Unknown at Sally’s II, 1992. © Brian Lantelme.

As well as rewriting the narrative, giving credit to these photographers was an important motivation for creating this book. Images of the Club Kids are regularly circulated on social media platforms such as Instagram and Tumblr, but the photographers are frequently overlooked. “Their work has been so widely pirated and passed around,” says Cassidy. “I wanted to create one spot where everything was accurately acknowledged and where the photographers were put forward as a force within this scene.”

New York Club Kids by Walt Cassidy is published by Damiani and now available to pre-order

© Michael Fazakerley