By: Robert Stinson
â€œFeel the rhythm, check the ride. Come on along and have a real good time. Like the days of stomping at the Savoy. Now we freak, oh what a joy. Just come on down, two fifty four. Find a spot out on the floor.â€ These iconoclastic lyrics by Chic typified the glitz and glamour that was Studio 54, where the famous came to frolic with the freaks and beautiful denizens of Manhattan. The sexual revolution had come to fruition, which coincided with the radical ideologies born out of the civil rights movements of the 1960s. Suddenly, anything was game: interracial dating, designer drugs, communal living, casual nudity, and of course the open and honest expression of homosexuality.
Amidst the rampant decadence of the â€œMe Generation,â€ there were a lucky few who had the opportunity of documenting this unique period in our nationâ€™s history. One of these individuals was Bobby Miller, house photographer for Studio 54 who had the privilege of photographing some of tinseltownâ€™s brightest stars. Mr. Miller is a veritable renaissance man who has published 12 books of photography and poetry, has worked as a make-up artist for Robert Mapplethorpe, and happens to be an accomplished actor and spoken word artist. We spoke with Bobby Miller about his experiences in the Big Apple for this edition of NUG Magazine.
During the â€˜70s and through the â€˜80s, there was a tremendous amount of creativity emanating from NY. What was it like to be part of that elite group of artists?
I moved to New York in 1973 on April Foolâ€™s Day, which probably should have told me something. When I first got there, it was like a dream come true with all the bars, bathhouses, clubs, and all the gay life. In 1974, I started taking photographs at Studio 54. I later published a book called Fabulous, a Photographic Diary of Studio 54. You can still find copies of it online and on eBay. Most of my friends during the â€˜70s had just arrived in Manhattan and were trying to forge a path for themselves. Whether they were artists, actors, writers or models, they all went on to become really successful, well-accomplished and famous. So, it seemed that I was at the right place and at the right time to be taking photos.
What was it about these experiences that compelled you to channel them through your art? Why did you choose written prose, spoken word and photography to document them?
It all started when I was a make-up artist working alongside really great photographers, including Robert Mapplethorpe. I did all the hair and make-up for his shoots. After I would finish doing the modelâ€™s hair and make-up, I would stand near the photographers and watch them work. At a certain point, I remember telling Robert that he â€˜should do the shoot like this,â€™ and he responded by saying, â€˜You should shut up and get a camera!â€™ So, I started out with mostly glamour and portrait photography. Then in 1990, Jackie 60 opened, which was this really great party that only happened on Tuesday nights in the Meatpacking District. The promoters ended up securing a lease on the place and changed the name to Mother. In fact, Debbie Harry recently released a single called â€œMotherâ€ that was about Jackie 60 and Club Mother. So during this time, I started working as a hair and make-up artist in television and theatre, which led to a career as an actor and performance artist.
You are quite the busy entrepreneur extraordinaire. Please tell us about your new publication PStar Magazine and the release of your latest book Fetish? Â
PStar Magazine is a project that is still in the works. I am thinking of launching it later this year. I live in Provincetown, which is a really small community that has about 2,900 people living there during the winter and a half a million visitors during the summer. That being said, there are only two publications in this town, so I really felt we needed another periodical.
Fetish is a project I have been working on that is 99% finished. I will be having a gallery showing at the Patty Deluca gallery here in Provincetown at the end of July. Because I lived in NY for so many years and have known so many artists, freaks and colorful people, I thought that I really wanted to do something to celebrate some of those individuals. I shot all the photos in my studio and picked 25 different fetishes to illustrate. That book will probably be available on the Blurb website by the end of July. Iâ€™m also starting a new book of photography focusing on phobias.
What images do you find provocative? How do you go about finding subjects for your books?
When I lived in NY, I photographed people I knew. I have a black and white collection of portraits that feature people like Debbie Harry from Blondie, Lisa Edelstein from the TV show House, and features from Robert Mapplethorpe to Andy Warhol.
What advice would you give to young artists looking to break into an industry that is completely saturated today?
Do it yourself and donâ€™t sell out to large companies and conglomerates thinking that youâ€™re going to get rich and famous. Fame is fleeting at best and money comes and goes, but if youâ€™re making your art for yourself, then you have something tangible in your hand. Itâ€™s kind of like having a child. You make this book that started out as an idea, and now itâ€™s manifested.
Weâ€™re coming up on the 30th anniversary of the first outbreak of the aids virus; could you tell our readers what it was like being in NY when the hedonism of the â€˜70s suddenly turned into a holocaust? Did any of your friends pass away?
I think you hit the nail on the head there. By the time I moved to NY in â€˜73, Stonewall had already happened, so there was this newfound freedom and people seized the opportunity. We were coming out of the civil rights movement of the â€˜60s, so everybody gay and straight were on the same page. Suddenly, we were liberated with the explosion of the sexual revolution. So, the â€˜70s was a time when gay men threw caution to the wind and became completely hedonistic in NY. I think they lost all perspective when it came to morality or even just being healthy. For the most part, if someone handed you a pill, you took it and nobody used condoms. In the early â€˜80s when the first cases of HIV/AIDS reared their ugly heads, it was an awakening for many people. During that time, I had people dying all around me, sometimes three a week or someone I knew had just been diagnosed. What I would do when someone I knew had died is highlight their name in my phonebook instead of crossing their name out.
Our publication is all about educating the public about pending medical marijuana legislation. What are your feelings on the subject matter?
Thank God for California because you guys have been on the forefront of the battle for medical marijuana. I think it has influenced a lot of other states. I think itâ€™s just a matter of time before attitudes are changed and we start seeing legalization become a reality. You know, as progressive as we like to think America is, itâ€™s not as liberal as a lot of other countries in Europe. Itâ€™s just insane to me that people wind-up in prison for marijuana. Overall, itâ€™s just a big waste of our resources because our government is locked into this perspective that cannabis is bad, especially the individuals behind the conservative movement. That being said, I do have hope for the future.
You can find all of Bobby Millerâ€™s books at: