New York in the 1980s was the last hurrah for hedonism. For three brief but memorable years the worlds of art and fashion, music and film, collided four times a week at the downtown Manhattan nightclub Area. British photographer Ben Buchanan was there every night to record what went on behind the velvet rope of the club, famed for its elaborate and extravagant ever-changing themes.
London-raised Buchanan has opened his archive for the first time to tell the story of New York nightlife at its dizzy peak during an era of unbridled excess. From1983-86 everyone who was anyone in New York would be found at Area: the first club to boast unisex bathrooms, the first to install a shark tank, the first to have a house reptile (a monitor lizard that inevitably escaped), and the first to change its entire look every six weeks... just because you could.
Until then the New York nightlife had been centered on Uptown, and clubs were, in Buchanan's words, "black rooms with flashing lights." Area brought it Downtown - along with Danceteria and Limelight - and took it to a whole newlevel of glamour and artistic creativity, with its constantly changing themes such as Sport, Sex and Sci-Fi. "They would shut down on a Sunday night and reopen four days and $50,000 later with a whole new look," says Buchanan, who was employed as the house photographer from opening night (his first picture was of Lauren Hutton) to its closure three years later.
"You never knew who you'd find there each night," says Buchanan, "But you could be sure they would be glamorous and interesting." The pictures he has chosen for Downtown - chosen from literally thousands of contact sheets - reflect that. There are icons of New York nightlife like Andy Warhol and David Hockney along side young protégés like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who made their names working on Area's regular refits. There is rock royalty like Keith Richards rubbing shoulders with punk princes Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer, while Boy George and Billy Idol, Steve Strange and Holly Johnson, preen themselves at the glass-topped silver bar. Area was where Grace Jones would bring her Hollywood boyfriend Dolph Lundgren - who memorably rode through the club on his motorcycle - and Naomi Campbell brought along her boxer boyfriend Mike Tyson. The fashion world was always well represented, by everyone from Calvin Klein to Jean-Paul Gaultier, and a never-ending stream of models.
And the only rule of Area was that there were no rules. Except for one that Buchanan imposed on himself: "I always asked permission before I took a picture." Remarkably,the celebrities rarely refused to pose for Buchanan, who was working as a photographer's assistant when he got the job as Area's house cameraman. "I wasn't a photographer and I didn't even have a camera," he confesses. "They gave me a Nikon F3 hp on the first day and told me to set it to F11 and take the pictures at 1/60th with a flash. And for two years I didn't press another button." By1987 Area had gone, and the bohemian neighborhood where Buchanan shot so many local artists and musicians would soon be gentrified and rebranded as TriBeCa.But the spirit of the age lives on in his celebration of the people who put Downtown on the map.