Prince of the Polaroid opens his album of horror and ecstasy from Soho nightclubs

Cole Moreton meets the man who spent 20 years snapping clubbers
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The Independent Online
"HE'S dead," said Peter-Paul Hartnett, who has spent the last 20 years taking photographs of nightclub culture. Scrawled under the Polaroid of Mark Lawrence, former DJ at the Taboo club in London, were the words: ''I exist. Love Mark.''

From safety-pinned early punks through the DIY glamour of the New Romantics to today's Ecstasy-fuelled ravers, P-P Hartnett has documented them all. Anonymous clubbers with outlandish styles have been captured by his camera alongside stars like Boy George and the dancer Michael Clark.

Now this unique record of British street life and the subculture of clubland is to be put on display, with an exhibition at the Levi's Store Gallery in Regent Street, London next month. The centrepiece will be a massive collage of 110 snapshots recording the flamboyant regulars at Taboo, the club in Leicester Square where Hartnett took photographs every week for a year in the mid-Eighties.

The club was a nurturing ground for talent such as the designer John Galliano. But the collage also holds sad memories for its creator. Alongside the DJ are at least half a dozen others who died too young, because of drugs or Aids, or accident: Jill who had an asthma attack; a gifted young designer called John; the doorman, Nicky; a regular by the name of Mark whose decline was documented in the collage. And Taboo's two leading lights: the performance artist Leigh Bowery and his lover, known only as Trojan.

"The message of my show is very much anti-drugs," Hartnett said. "I hope that by looking at these images, people will realise that all that glitters is not good."

One of the key images in the exhibition will be a portrait of Trojan, wearing metallic make-up that turned his face into a Picasso painting. He was killed by heroin at the age of 21. "At Taboo we would watch people changing, but we just enjoyed the freak show," Hartnett said. "I regret that I never said to Trojan, 'Stop taking that junk'. But it was none of my business."

Clubs like Taboo were not the place for intimate conversation. "A lot of the time it was down to, 'Hi darling, how are you? Fabulous. Must get to the bar - see you later. Amyl Nitrate? Nothing like it,' and that was it."

Hartnett took his first "street" picture at a punk disco in Charing Cross Road, London, in 1976, when he was 18. It was of Sue Catwoman, a friend of Sid Vicious and one of the crowd that followed the Sex Pistols. Her hair was cropped on top, with the sides dyed black and swept into wings, and she wore a mock-horror outfit. "I thought she looked fabulous. I wanted to say hello, and having a camera on me seemed a good excuse."

He became a regular at clubs around London, standing in the shadows and asking to take Polaroids: one for the subject and one for him. "People rarely say no. Nightclubs can be pretty boring places, and having someone come up to you and say 'Can I take your picture?' is like them saying 'Hey, you look good'."

One of his strongest early pictures was taken in Earls Court in 1978. It shows a middle-aged man in denims, leather jacket and cap, with explicit badges. "I found the Leather Queen scene and that West Coast biker look really quite shocking," said Hartnett, who had been used to avoiding unwanted attention to his own homosexuality. "The idea of going out dressed so openly stating your sexual preferences, right down to having a red handkerchief in your back pocket, was then quite new."

After punks and the black-clad Gothics that followed them, came a completely new approach to fashion and glamour. The New Romantics gathered to look at each other in clubs like Blitz, run by Steve Strange of the band Visage. With the Eighties came a new interest in "style", and a host of magazines trying to define it, led by The Face. There was a lot of demand for a photographer who could document these rapidly changing fads on the street.

"Blitz was inundated with the St Martin's School of Art brigade, and the wannabees. And I often found the wannabees - people who had read about it and driven in from Ealing or somewhere - more interesting. I've always been more interested in followers: as a child, what made me shiver was not John, Paul, George and Ringo singing, but seeing the fans at Heathrow Airport, screaming."

His collages consist of hundreds of Polaroids, signed by the subjects, meticulously arranged in rows. They show street styles merging through the Eighties far more than fashion editors allowed, as individuals took body painting, piercing or decoration to new extremes. "A lot of people were fashion victims," he said. "Playing with make-up, playing with style, is developmental and exploratory. People go through an awful lot of bad looks before they come to something good."

It all went sour for Hartnett in the mid-Eighties, when Trojan died and Taboo was closed after a newspaper article he was involved in revealed that there was a drug problem at the club, and it was raided by the police. He packed all his photographs away and became a teacher of children with special needs, until Bowery died in December 1994. There was a posthumous exhibition for the artist, who had latterly gained some critical recognition and who had been a favourite subject of the painter Lucien Freud.

Hartnett now runs his own club and his exhibition will include recent photographs, although he has grown disenchanted with what he calls the "end of the century melting pot" that constitutes modern club life: "Too many white, floppy, cotton clothes."

He has written a novel, about "a photographer who has been documenting street fashion, and like so many of his subjects he's lonely, he's isolated, he's sexually compulsive". Asked whether it is autobiographical, he raised one eyebrow and said the answer to that was "pretty obvious".