Steve Eichner was the photo king of NYC mega-clubs. He is also a chameleon who moved seamlessly through the multiverse of colliding worlds that was New York City nightlife in the 1990s. Cree McCree talked with the photographer about his career and a handsome new book collection of his work for PKM.
Long before Instagram made all the world a stage for smartphone-wielding celebs and wannabes, photographer Steve Eichner aimed his camera at the proto Insta Influencers of the phantasmagorical ‘90s club scene in New York City, where outrageously dressed Club Kids vied for the spotlight with the A-Listers that mega-club impresario Peter Gatien hired Eichner to shoot.
In the Limelight: The Visual Ecstasy of NYC Nightlight in the 90s, a lavishly produced Prestel book compiled with photography editor Gabriel Sanchez, out October 20, gives you a ringside seat for all the action. Ranging far and wide throughout Gatien’s domain — Limelight, the Tunnel, the Palladium and Club USA — Eichner also club-hopped to other hotspots, from the Roxy and Glamourama to Club Expo and Reins, and turned his lens on the “outlaw parties” that could pop up anywhere in oft-dangerous dark corners of the city. Packed with flesh-on-flesh bodies cramming the dancefloors and converging in VIP rooms of multi-tiered pleasure palaces, the book is the perfect wish-fulfillment fantasy for these dark pandemic times, when we’re all craving to be in the limelight instead of stuck inside at home.
“I didn’t plan it this way, or shop it around with that in mind,” says Eichner of a project that was years in the making and involved countless hours of digging through vast archives of negatives, photos and slides. “But people now are just so longing to be in a crowd, because when you don’t have something, you want it so much more.” And whether you were just a kid in the ‘90s, or actually lived through that era in NYC and wax nostalgic about those times, In the Limelight teleports you inside the bubble of an ecstatic fever dream that could probably never happen again.
“All these clubs were the breeding ground for a cultural revolution,” says Eichner, who was always “looking for the best party” on his nightly mission to document it all. “It was a petri dish, a primordial slime of musicians and designers and artists and LBGTQ. There were no cellphones, there was no social media. You couldn’t be part of it on your phone from your basement. You had to show up. The only way to build your following was to get out in the clubs. That’s how I built my photography career. I would hand out business cards in the clubs, I would give people photos.” And thanks to Eichner’s sharp eye, and his party-hound’s instincts, his old-school self-promotion worked like a charm.
Eichner also lucked out when he set up his first photo studio on 27th St. at 11th Avenue after moving to New York from Long Beach, Long Island in 1987. Auspiciously located just blocks away from the Roxy on West 18th St., it put him within shooting distance of one of the hottest clubs in town. His career initially took off when Roxy owner Gene DiNino rolled out the red carpet and gave Eichner access to every VIP nook and cranny. And it went into overdrive when Peter Gatien handed him the keys to his four-club kingdom. “The fact that I was willing to get beeped in the middle of the night and run to any club to get the shot was a big selling point,” recalls Eichner, who was on call 24/7 so he wouldn’t miss a single Page Six-worthy moment, like Julia Roberts making a surprise 2 AM entrance on the dance floor at Club USA.
“My job for Peter Gatien was to capture celebrities to get publicity for the clubs by selling the photos to newspapers or magazines,” explains Eichner. And he delivered in spades. He snapped Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson canoodling in a dark corner of Limelight, caught Mickey Rourke goofing around backstage at the Palladium with House of Pain, and scored a stupendous close-up of Brendan Fraser giving a big, fat finger to the lens at Tunnel, where he also shot Boy George striking a Christ-like pose in Tunnel’s famous ball-pit. All these and other boldface ‘90s NYC scenesters, including Donald Trump in full predator mode scanning Club USA for chicks, are sprinkled throughout the book. But In the Limelight is also a labor of love, where the wildly creative Club Kids, colorfully-clad cigarette & candy girls, imperious clipboard-wielding door people, hefty bouncers and regular old club-goers all take center stage.
“80% of the photos in the book are the photos that I shot for myself,” says Eichner, who was free to roam around freely once he met his celebrity quota. “Either artistically, or to document the era. Those are the unpublished photos that I really want to share. The Club Kids all got dressed up for the cameras, so I was their window on the world, I was the social media. When I rolled in with my camera, I was like a rock star. Everyone would pose for me.” It was all pretty head-spinning for a 20-something photog, who came out of the tour-centric jam band world of Grateful Dead psychedelia and landed smack in the middle of the Gatien ground zero of mega-clubs. “I was new to New York City, I was new to the club scene, so to have all of this…..it was like Halloween on acid,” Eichner recalls with a laugh. “The photos in this book are really an expression of a young photographer finding his voice and having great subject matter.”
In his alter ego of Psychner, Eichner was also deeply immersed in the young jam-band scene spearheaded by Blues Traveler and Spin Doctors in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, which was exploding downtown everywhere from tiny dive bars like Nightingale to the neo-hippie mecca of Wetlands. And he never abandoned that. In fact, he continued to immerse himself in both scenes simultaneously, toggling back and forth between the gritty black-and-white world of bar bands and the flashy technicolor stage sets of the Club Kids’ domain.
I know, because I was right there with him, crammed up against the bands on the Nightingale floor, while he was shooting and I was scribbling notes on the dancefloor for several downtown rags. As semi-official BT family historians, we became quite the dynamic duo, often going on the road with the bands as they grew. And we circled back to those years together during the pandemic this summer, when Steve started posting archival photos of that crazy Nightingale/Wetlands era. His ongoing Big Scan project also unearthed other random gems, like a shot of Hunter S. Thompson arriving to speak at Columbia’s druggy Delta Phi, and a meet-your-hero moment with famous African wildlife photographer Peter Beard, who borrowed a roll of film from Eichner at Club USA.
So when PleaseKillMe assigned me to cover In the Limelight, and the photographer who shot all those stunning photos, I jumped at the chance. During the course of multiple conversations via Zoom, phone, email and texts, we discussed everything from Steve’s growing up in a family with his younger half-brother Billy Eichner, the comedic genius behind Funny or Die’s Billy on the Street, to his sunrise epiphany as a photographer during an epic Grateful Dead tour, to his take on Club Kid ringleader Michael Alig’s gruesome murder and dismemberment of Angel Melendez, an Altamount-style death knell that heralded the demise of the Club Kids’ scene and Gatien’s clubs themselves. (With typical Eichner luck, Steve himself had already made the transition to his nearly two-decade stint as a staff photographer for Women’s Wear Daily and NY Fashion Week shutterbug before time ran out on the Gatien clock.) We also talked about the infamous riots in Tompkins Square Park, not far from the 11th St. studio where we often worked together, and much, much more.
But before we set the wayback machine to the ‘90s, I want to circle back to the process of creating In the Limelight and Eichner’s serendipitous connection with former BuzzFeed photo editor Gabriel Sanchez, 24 years his junior, without whom the book may never have come about.
PKM: You and Gabriel Sanchez getting together seems like real kismet.
STEVE EICHNER: It was. Gabriel was too young to have done what I did, but apparently he became enthralled with that period. He was doing a BuzzFeed story about the craziest photos of 1990s club life, and my name kept coming up, so he found me on the internet and interviewed me. He was very knowledgeable about the era, and we really hit it off, and after that BuzzFeed piece got something over a million views, we discussed doing a book. That was two and a half years ago, and it’s taken this long to actually get around to releasing the book. The funny thing is, when I worked for WWD, I would go to so many book launches, and people would get up and say, this has been such a long hard process. And I’d think to myself, how hard can it be? But now that I’ve been in it, I realize that it’s a long, difficult process [laughs].
PKM: Well, especially in your case, when you had such a vast archive of photos. How did you decide what to use?
STEVE EICHNER: It was thousands and thousands of photographs, many of them in filing cabinets for years. Choosing was really difficult. I was lucky to have Gabriel, who’s a very talented photo editor. He kind of had a vision of what it would be like to walk through each club, where around each corner you’d see either a music performance or a drag queen or somebody making out or a celebrity. Because in Peter Gatien’s clubs there was so much going on all the time.
One room might be playing techno with a bunch of ravers, and you’d go into the Limelight chapel and they’d have a punk band and people crowd surfing. So the photos we chose were based on what it was like to be me in the clubs.
PKM: And the Gatien clubs weren’t the only clubs you were going to. When I first met you, on the Blues Traveler scene, you were constantly shooting everywhere I went, which was a completely different circuit from the Club Kids’ scene. How did you manage to pull that off?
STEVE EICHNER: Yeah, when I look back at my work now, in the ‘90s archive, I have one role of film with 10 frames of shooting Blues Traveler at Wetlands, and another 10 frames at the Roxy shooting Club Kids, and then there’s 10 frames of shooting random models for a portfolio. Because A, I was poor and had to economize on film and processing cost money. And B, I was going from place to place to place. I’d be at Wetlands and Nightingale and end the night at the Limelight. I was working literally 24 hours a day, no sleep, with coffee and stimulants.
PKM: And I’m sure all those stimulants helped. But you also managed to segue back and forth between the scenes so effortlessly that it never looked like work.
STEVE EICHNER: Well, I’m a chameleon. Whatever I’m photographing, I feel like I can blend into almost any situation. When I was doing all that in the ‘90s, it was almost like the Wizard of Oz. There was the black and white world of the jam bands, and the dirty, gritty downtown scene. And there was this technicolor world of the Club Kids like Really Denise and Richie Rich and James St. James, who dressed up every single night of the week, in the most creative, outrageous, outlandish, upside down costume-y kind of outfits they could think of, and pranced around the clubs hoping to get photographed.
PKM: It was also a lot easier for all of us back then to cross over into different kinds of nightlife. As a fashionista, I appreciated what the Club Kids were doing, but live music venues were always where my heart was. I was always on the dance floor, taking notes in these little notebooks filled with doodles of what the music sounded like, and what I was feeling. Like you were always shoot, shoot, shooting, I was always write, write writing. But I also went to the clubs, especially Limelight, where I was a regular worshiper at Rock and Roll Church and which was conveniently located near Tramps, one of my favorite live music venues.
STEVE EICHNER: In ‘90s New York, there weren’t ghettoes. You weren’t just a Wetlands kid or just a Club Kid. You could go see Fishbone at Rock and Roll Church and the next night go see a hippie band at Wetlands. Or Tramps or Mondo Perso. As a ‘60s hippie child, Wetlands was kind of where my heart was. It wasn’t about glitter and glamor. They had their eco saloon and their activism and their petitions. Wetlands was anti-excess. Minimalist. Live with less. Grow your own. And on the other end of the spectrum, I was going to Club USA on Times Square with neon lights and porn booths! And the highest fashion and the most expensive handbags!
PKM: Only Psychner could bounce back and forth between those two extremes without getting whiplash!
STEVE EICHNER: I was definitely ping-ponging between worlds. But New York was also that kind of place in the ‘90s. There were so many different cultures and people didn’t just stay in one. That was the beauty of it. In the nightclubs you saw Wall St. suits and ties, next to drag queens, next to people from the Bronx, next to hip hop artists. And the Wetlands didn’t just have hippie bands, they had their punk Sundays and other types of music every night of the week. I also went to CB’s a lot, and that wasn’t ghettoized either. I shot Henry Rollins at CBs, but I also shot Dave Matthews Band at CBs. Same with Nightingale. I got some great shots of Patti Smith performing on the Nightingale floor.
PKM: Yeah, those are classic! Tom Hosier, the Nightingale temple guard, was a huge Patti Smith fan. And you never knew who might turn up wherever you went. You shot Madonna dozens of times throughout her career, and yet one of the most famous photos you ever shot of her was actually at Wetlands!
STEVE EICHNER: Yeah, I was tipped off that some big shot was coming to the club that night so I was watching the back entrance. And the first person who came out was Liz Rosenberg, her publicist, so now I know it’s Madonna coming in. She pokes her head out and I snap a few pictures. And remember in those days, you couldn’t really see what you got, it wasn’t digital. So I take my film to the lab and drop it off. And the next morning I get my slides back and put them on the light table, and I’m like, she’s wearing a nose ring! And I had never seen anyone wearing a nose ring before in like 1993. So I was like OK, these are great for the newspapers. And the Post ran it, and the Daily News ran it: Madonna seen with her brand new nose ring! It was a big news story.
PKM: I feel like you establish a sense of trust with people, too. You get some kind of intimacy in so many of your shots, even all the supermodels and celebs you shot for WWD. And that’s hard to achieve. You never turned into a paparazzi.
STEVE EICHNER: Well, there are aspects of my work that are paparazzi-esque. But I always try to do it in a respectful way, and an artful way. And in that world, there’s a lot of give and take. Celebrities do a lot of things for press and for publicity. But I consider myself more of an event photographer than a paparazzi. I’m not jumping out of a bush, trying to catch someone in the wild. I’m invited to be there, and the celebrities know I’m there, and I’m introduced to the celebrity or the celebrity’s publicist as “here’s Steve, he’s our house photographer.” And they know I try to show people in a good light, and make them look good. It’s not a gotcha moment.
PKM: Like that time Leonardo DiCaprio asked you not to use one of the photos you took of him.
STEVE EICHNER: That’s a perfect example. I thought it was a cute picture. He was in Club USA, standing by one of the cigarette and candy girls, who were always colorfully dressed. And I just saw him buying something and snapped a photo. And I’m going about my business, and Leonardo DiCaprio taps me on the shoulder and says hey man, would you mind not using that photo or publishing it anywhere? And I was like OK. He said, you can take pictures of me all night, and he was a real sport about it, I got a great shot of him with Dennis Hopper. And at the end of the night, I said can I just ask you why? And he’s like well, I was buying cigarettes and I don’t want my mom to know I smoke. So I buried that photo for 30 years.
PKM: Aw, that’s so sweet! And speaking of moms, I’d like to rewind way back to your childhood and talk a little bit about how you ended up becoming a photographer. What was it like growing up with Billy Eichner, who became a pretty famous entertainer himself?
STEVE EICHNER: I was born in ‘65, when my mom was about 20, and my dad was 35. My mom was a bit of a flower child, who wanted to go out and enjoy life, and my dad was an accountant who wanted to stay home and watch sports. So when I was five, they got divorced. My mom stayed in Long Beach and I grew up there skateboarding and surfing. And my dad moved back to Queens and remarried, to Billy’s mother Debby, and started a new family.
PKM: So you and Billy have the same father, but didn’t grow up in the same nuclear family.
STEVE EICHNER: Yeah, we’re thirteen years apart. Big age difference. And we didn’t grow up in the same household. But Billy was always into entertainment. On Oscar night, he’d dress up in a tuxedo and sit on my dad’s floor in the living room in front of the TV. He wasn’t at all into what I was into, as far as music goes. I remember I gave him a Led Zeppelin CD, and when I came back a month later it was still wrapped. But he had like Barbra Streisand and Madonna. [laughs]
PKM: When did you first get interested in photography?
STEVE EICHNER: In junior high school. My mom was like, you need a job. And there was this little photo and electronics shop in Long Beach that sold vinyl LPs and stereo equipment, and also had a photography department that sold cameras and did film developing. I loved to tinker and I love music, so it was the perfect job for me. I would change all the singles out each week for the Top 40, and I learned how cameras work, how film developing works. The owners encouraged me. You want to borrow a lens, borrow a lens. So I would borrow stuff and try it out. And I’d have my developing all done wholesale. I had some advantages there.
PKM: What were you shooting?
STEVE EICHNER: I love music, so I would buy tickets to concerts as close as I could to the stage. I’d sneak my camera in. The first shows I remember shooting in New York non-professionally were The Who at Shea Stadium and The Clash at Shea Stadium, and through trial and error I kind of honed my skills. But I never really thought about photography as a profession. So I decided to study accounting, because my dad was an accountant. And just by luck and happenstance, I chose to go to SUNY Freedonia, which had a top music school. So there were a lot of musicians there.
PKM: Is that where you became a Deadhead?
STEVE EICHNER: Yeah, in like ‘83 I saw my first Dead show in Buffalo and fell in love. So I started photographing the Dead and the Dead scene. Fast forward about six, ten months. I fail out miserably from Freedonia, because I start to take statistics and business math, so I decide to go on Dead tour between semesters. And I’m in San Francisco, about to see a Dead show, when I call home on a pay phone and my mom’s like you’re not going back to college! They just sent me a letter, you’re gonna be on academic probation, and I’m not paying for you to party at school!
So I took a semester off and toured with the Dead, just as a fan. And we were coming back toward the East, and we were in Colorado and we’d been up all night tripping, as you do. And the sun was rising, and I had my camera, and we were in the Rocky Mountains and I was shooting the sunrise and I had this epiphany that I should be a photographer.
PKM: Bingo! During this time, you also hooked up with the band Dreamspeak, which eventually brought you to New York City and the Delta Phi frat house at Columbia, which was like the fertile crescent for the jam band scene.
STEVE EICHNER: Yeah, Spin Doctors played their first gig ever in the basement of Delta Phi, and the Nightingale/Wetlands scene you and I know all grew out of that. One of the brothers at Delta Phi was David Graham, the son of Bill Graham, the world-famous concert promoter. So even though I didn’t go to college there, I was part of that scene and they said Steve, we’ll let you build a darkroom in our house, and gave me gallery space.
PKM: When I met you, a couple years later, you were living in your storefront studio on E. 11th St. and Avenue A. That’s where we did that big cover shoot for Tangle magazine, with Blues Traveler’s John Popper, Spin Doctors’ Chris Barron and Trey Anastasio from Phish, right before we went on the first HORDE tour together to promote the magazine.
STEVE EICHNER: That was such a fun day! The three lead guys from the biggest jam bands of the time, and somehow we got them all in my studio. I did a lot of fish-eye shots, and we took them to Tompkins Square Park and shot them goofing around in the playground together. Those photos are really stellar.
PKM: Your 11th St. studio also gave you a front row seat for the Tompkins Square Park riots, which you photographed as well. That must have been wild!
STEVE EICHNER: Yeah, all the protesters and the squatters had been amassing hundreds of glass bottles for hours. Then the bottles start flying, and there’s fires raging in the streets and police in full riot gear start coming in from both sides to crush this riot. And I’m in the middle of this now, it was like holy shit! In that screenshot of me, some poor kid just got bashed with a baton and has blood gushing out of his head. I’m not really a hardcore news photojournalist. But that was what it must be like to cover wars.
PKM: There was also a lot of blood years later, when you were still working for Peter Gatien, and Michael Alig and his roommate killed that drug dealer and later dismembered him to get rid of the body. That was a pretty sordid story, which I always thought of as the Altamount of the Club Kids scene.
STEVE EICHNER: I think it’s an excellent analogy. The Club Kids were constantly pushing the limits of fashion and art and in your faceness and pop cultureness. But they were also pushing the drug use: how high can you get? And Michael Alig, being like the ringleader of the Club Kids, was fully leading the way in drug overuse.
But there were two things going on. The other one was the Giuliani crackdown on the clubs. When Giuliani came in and decided he was gonna clean up NYC, he made Peter Gatien public enemy #1. He tried to infiltrate Gatien’s clubs with undercover police officers. They were never able to link Peter to any of the drug dealing, but they started closing his clubs, and that also put a damper on the scene.
PKM: What were your impressions of Alig at the time as a photographer?
STEVE EICHNER: Well, It’s hard to admire a murderer. But in those years before the murder, he was a genius. He came up with the most brilliant ideas for parties and events. He worked directly with Peter, he organized Disco 2000, and if you look at the artwork and the ephemera of those days, and the magazine they started, Project X, Alig was a genius. And like a lot of geniuses, he started getting more attention, and started to push everything he did. He would parade in front of the camera, and he was always someone I focused on because he was constantly there, he was constantly on. And he was constantly moving culture.
PKM: You also had a kind of premonition of what might happen that time you stopped by his place in the afternoon to drop off some photos.
STEVE EICHNER: Yeah, it was one of those places in the East Village that were basically Club Kid crash pads. So I went in and the place was a wreck. There were like piles of vomit, the floor was sticky and there was a terrible stench. And when I looked into one of the bedrooms, there were blood stains on the pillow, it was soaked in blood. Probably because they were snorting so much heroin and ketamine and everything else they were having constant nosebleeds. And they never cleaned up after themselves. I mean, I partied, but never like that!
PKM: How did you feel about the murder personally?
STEVE EICHNER: As a human being, I felt a little dirty about having put Michael on a pedestal and photographed him so much. I didn’t know Angel [Menendez] but he was a human being who lost his life. For no reason except drugs. And I thought wow, man, this is getting out of control. In a way it was inevitable. Because when you’re pushing limits, like a rock star, everyone’s kissing your ass and you’re kind of in a bubble. Michael was living in a bubble, but it was still shocking. No one expected it to end in murder. Luckily I was able to step back from it, and I moved on to a different life.
PKM: And before it all collapsed, the creativity of that time was truly magical. Do you think there’s any way it could ever be reborn? Or is it just a time set in stone, that we can only long for? That no young people could ever do again now, especially in New York City?
STEVE EICHNER: My hope is that real estate really tanks in Manhattan, which it is. Artists always go to where there’s cheap rent.
PKM: That’s true! So there’s hope!
STEVE EICHNER: Yes! There’s hope that these big megaclubs spaces could open again. People are craving to be in crowds again. People are craving to be entertained. People are craving to entertain. People are craving to create. So maybe the pieces will fall together and there will be big spaces and people will want to congregate and get back to this circus-y kind of creative atmosphere with all kinds of people mixing together, like it was in the ‘90s. Because the way it was going [before the pandemic] was little groups, like who could spend the most money on a bottle of vodka, and who could be the most exclusive. So I do think that something all-inclusive, and fun and entertaining and social that’s this Instagrammable, could come back.
Virtual Book Launch Party: Steve Eichner and Gabriel Sanchez invite you to celebrate their new photography book In The Limelight with a virtual time travel to the 90s: Tuesday, October 20th, at 6 pm. Sign up here.