Night Fever

Click to follow
The Independent Online
From punks, Goths and New Romantics to today's Ecstasy-driven ravers, the photographer P-P Hartnett has spent 20 years documenting midnight's children and their club culture. Sheryl Garratt recalls the faces, while overleaf, Alix Sharkey traces how their private world has become part of national life

P-P Hartnett took his first picture in a club in 1976, when he was 18. He was in Bang, a gay club in Soho, when he saw Sue Catwoman, who was about to become an icon on the London punk scene. He had his mum's Kodak Instamatic in his bag, and asked if he could take her picture. They started talking, and he discovered that she lived in the next road to him in Ealing, sharing a house with one John Beverly (later to become notorious as Sid Vicious).

"Having a camera seemed like the perfect excuse to approach anybody and get talking to them," he found, and so, for the next 15 years, Hartnett began obsessively documenting the characters in London nightlife. From punk venues like the Roxy and Vortex to New Romantic haunts like Billy's, Blitz and Club For Heroes, he documented faces adorned with make-up, masks and piercings, faces desperate to be seen, to make their mark if only with a Polaroid in the style press. He used equipment bought from jumble sales and car boot sales (the most expensive piece he ever bought was a tripod for pounds 20), and stresses that he never saw himself as a photographer: his interest wasn't in technique or in getting his work published (by design, his main outlets were in Japan and Europe, not the British style press), but in meeting his subjects, looking at them and talking to them.

The pictures overleaf were all taken in 1985-86 at Taboo, a Thursday night event at Maximus, a disco on Leicester Square. Hosted by the larger- than-life Leigh Bowery, it became a focus for alternative London, a club with a door policy so strict that only the extreme could enter. Hartnett was there every week, "lurking in the corner with my camera like a serial killer", recording the club's regulars. It was he, in fact, who got the club closed by casually mentioning - in a piece in the Mail on Sunday, which used his pictures - that the women's loos there were the best place to take drugs. The club was raided, and then closed.

The meaning of these photographs has changed over time. Looking at them now, the feeling they evoke most is sadness. Within weeks of Taboo's closure, Leigh Bowery's lover, Trojan, had died of a drugs overdose, as did the club's charismatic doorman, Marc Vaultier. Many more in this gallery are now gone, including Leigh himself, from suicide, asthma, meningitis and, most of all, Aids. Gradually, Hartnett found it hard to continue partying like nothing had happened, particularly since his own boyfriend had been diagnosed HIV. He spent two years at home, reading books, before moving from "documenting people's outsides, their make-up and accessories, to investigating their fetishes, their inner fantasies." He began answering and placing contacts ads, documenting what he found in what eventually became a novel, Call Me, published by Pulp Books last autumn. His investigations into "loneliness, isolation, sexual compulsion" even led him to contact serial killer Dennis Nilsen, visiting him in Whitemoor Prison and receiving more than 100 letters and paintings from the man who murdered over a dozen young men.

Hartnett also began taking photographs again, but not of the mainstream club culture that emerged after acid house. He turned once more to the margins, the underground of gay and fetish clubs. He even ran his own night for a while last year: Naive was for "drag kings", or women who dressed as men. His pictures, however, have an appeal that extends beyond the marginal. As part of the British Festival, an exhibition of his work is planned in Tokyo next year.

P-P Hartnett will be reading from his novel `Call Me' (Pulp Books, pounds 7.99) at the Birmingham Readers & Writers Festival on 13 May, and also at Dillons, Argyle St, Glasgow (17 June ); Waterstones, George St, Edinburgh ( 8 June ) and Books Etc, Charing Cross Rd, London (3 July )