From 1976 through the present, British photographer Paul Hartnett has been consumed with documenting the moths and butterflies of London’s underground clubs. What began as a way of developing a rapport with the exotic personalities of the nightlife as a teenager has now turned into a riveting document of three decades of excess, eccentricity, and, above all, cutting-edge style.
Hartnett continues to be obsessed with the new and the now, but currently splits his time between the denizens of the dark and Haworth in West Yorkshire, beloved territory of the Brontë sisters. Following the recent wrap of an exhibition of his photos, Hartnett: ’76 > Now, at London’s groundbreaking youth culture archive PYMCA, we asked Paul to talk about some of the settings and stars of his legendary snaps.
Read the full interview with Paul Hartnett.
1984: Scary Monsters, One or Two Super Creeps
Lana Pelay sits in the center, one of London’s queen bees back in the ’80s. Around her, the fighters and fuck-ups of ’80s clubland. Princess Julia, Scarlet, Mike Nicholls. Oh, I could tell so many stories... Which one was the thief, the whore, the junkie. So many of the dancefloor crowd seemed set to self-destruct.
1978: Myra and Hilda, Billy's, SoHo, London
Myra and Hilda were the first two women to grace the dancefloor at Steve Strange’s and Rust Egan’s ’78 club, Billy’s, where the vibe was all things Bowie, Roxy Music, and Kraftwerk. I would invariably be the first to arrive at a club, setting up my cameras (Nikon), and awaiting the beautiful butterflies and moths as they came down the stairs. I loved the theatricality of the Steve Strange clubs–it was all very playground.
1995: Jo Reynolds, Polaroid
I have had the good fortune to photograph so many wild flowers, exotic butterflies, and moths. Jo Reynolds was the ultimate club kid back in the mid-’90s. She was the door girl at the drag king club I hosted in Leicester Square, where around 150 women would come dressed as men each Thursday night. Jo had such pale skin, the most dilated pupils. Can’t imagine why… ahem. Jo was a star, and bands loved to have her as an atmospheric darling in their videos. She went kind of, um, you know... discovered God. Jesus. Then started making jewelry out of feathers. Lord knows what has happened to her. She probably became one of the weirdest things imaginable: quite normal.
1985: Polaroids of Leigh Bowery
I first started taking Polaroids at the age of nine. I loved the instant quality of those tear-off strips that had to be kept warm for one full minute under my hairless boy armpit. My first subjects were my dog, cars, birds in flight. In the ’80s, I was sponsored by Polaroid UK Ltd., who provided me with three fabulous cameras and a non-stop supply of film. Imagine my surprise when, at £1 a click, a postman came knocking at my door with box after box for me to use. I was sponsored for 10 years, and [I] documented with a variety of Polaroid mediums. I loved the fact that people could personalize their images. Of course, there was a slightly ironic touch to using a Polaroid camera–my feeling was that the medium was trashy and disposable, like so many of the people. Oh, I was so cruel back in those days.
1979: The Fist Fuck Guy, Earl's Court, London
My first subjects were clubbers, and queers. Hard-core queers. I was an instant hit with the fist-fuck set. S&Mers loved the idea of a teenager documenting them, and they still do. I heard this guy died soon after this picture was taken, found in an appalling condition. Maybe a queer club rumor,
I don’t know.
Paul Hartnett, Self-Portrait, 1988