Studio 54 gets top billing at the Nordic Museum's exhibition of Hasse Persson's photography, and while the shots of that über-trendy and exclusive New York nightclub are fascinating, the real highlights may be the "Beyond" material, which the museum has placed in the first part of the exhibit.
A Swede working in the United States during one of the country's most turbulent cultural and political eras (roughly 1968 to 1980), Persson insinuated himself into some highly evocative situations. His black-and-white shots of major cultural and political figures include Muhammad Ali, Coretta Scott King, Bob Dylan, Jesse Jackson, and Richard Nixon. (Nixon is captured in a caustically funny triptych.)
The Coretta Scott King photo is particularly striking: It features Martin Luther King Jr.'s widow speaking to her daughter... while the latter points a toy gun in her mother's direction and a painting of MLK hangs in the background. Another highlight is the 1973 photo of the World Trade Center in which a bird eerily flies next to the building and over the church that abutted it, inducing a premonitory chill.
Persson also worked in the precarious zones of the Vietnam War. The most memorable works from this excursion are the soldier wearing a peace-sign necklace while flashing a peace sign and carrying a rifle and troops looking casual around an enemy corpse—both from Da Nang circa 1971.
And how odd it must have been for the black folks whom Persson portrayed in Mississippi from 1968 to 1974 (mourners reflected in the window of a hearse, the veiny hand of a pianist tickling the keys, etc.) to countenance a Scandinavian photographer in their midst. Persson's trip resulted in a handful of poignant pics depicting dignity amid poverty.
When finally entering the Studio 54 segment, one notices disco-ball props, atmospheric lighting, and several square mirrors—about 10 by 10 inches—scattered throughout the exhibit. Were these actual coke mirrors from the club? No, according to the museum employee I asked. Rather, they serve to remind you of how humdrum you seem compared to the photos' characters. One also must surmise that the Studio 54 pics are shot in black and white because we wouldn't be able to handle their dazzlement in color.
Persson's shots of this notorious venue are slightly defocused to emphasize the disorientation and altered mental states that doubtlessly clouded the minds of Studio 54's patrons. We witness a diverse array of freaks, exhibitionists, debauchees, and the odd horse. One spectacular shot looks as if it's snowing cocaine on the crowded dance floor. It's nothing to sniff at.
Studio 54 apparently was a haven of casual nudity, people of all sexual orientations in bizarre, ornate gowns and flamboyant lingerie, and indoor smoking. The expected ultra-famous icons—Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger, pre-catastrophic-makeover Michael Jackson—figure here, but more interesting are the glamorous rank and file. Even the nobodies seem like celebrities. (Side note: You could spend many minutes debating the genders of the subjects.) The unintended effect of these photos is to give viewers extreme FOMO—especially, in my case, that shot of the extravagant DJ booth.
As you're walking out, hanging in the little doorway/exit area that leads to the rest of the museum, is a color portrait of Nancy and Ronald Reagan. I don't want to tell the Nordic Museum how to do its job, but they should include a large bucket nearby in which to vomit.