Artist Spotlight: John Simone

By Christopher Harrity

Originally published on Advocate.com May 17 2014 4:00 AM ET

“If you want to conquer the world, you must move to its capital, New York.” — Quentin Crisp

John Simone moved to New York City in 1986 from Toronto to step through the looking glass into the shameless self-promotion and nightclub narcissism of the 1980s. He also became the mascot photographer of the Club Kid scene. This amazing archive of images evokes a special time: cocaine was still king, the throbbing beat of Marshall Jefferson's "Move Your Body" was pounding in your ears, and you dressed to go out.

"Legends of N.Y. Nitelife: Photos by John Simone" is a retrospective of over 60 classic images, from 1987 to 1990, hanging in the Antechamber of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander St., Toronto, June 21–29.

The show features images of RuPaul, Michael Alig, Madonna, Cher, Michael Jackson, Liza Minnelli, Miss Loretta Hogg, James St. James, Leigh Bowery, Nina Hagen, Miss Guy, Miss Perfidia, The It Twins, Lady Bunny, Sandra Bernhard, Joey Arias, Kenny Kenny, Divine, David LaChapelle, Susanne Bartsch, Eddie Murphy, Mike Tyson, Halston, Lypsinka, Barbra Streisand, Sister Dimension, Quentin Crisp, Harry Connick Jr., LL Cool J, Keith Haring, International Chrysis, John Sex, and Michael Musto.

Coinciding with this exhibit is "Exploding Pink Inevitable: Photos By John Simone," an installation of 12 monumental classic images hanging in the Ballroom of the Gladstone Hotel, 1214 Queen Street West., Toronto, June 21-26, as part of Nuit Rose, a queer contemporary art event celebrating WorldPride 2014 Toronto.

The exhibitions are curated by Kelly McCray of Artbarrage.com, former codirector of Edward Day Gallery.

For more information, check out the Facebook page.

Above: Michael Musto and John Simone at Tunnel Club for James St. James’s birthday, 1987

John Simone tells his own story:

I left Toronto in 1986, after graduating from the University of Toronto, and New York was more accessible than Rome.

In Toronto I had sold Polaroids to approximately 20,000 people at Sparkles disco in the CN Tower, The Copa Nightclub in Yorkville, The Diamond on Sherbourne, and the party boat, Mariposa Belle. That was a gig that I could repeat in New York, so I left Toronto on a quest for glitz and glamour.

In New York I set myself up as house photographer at Club 10-18 (The Roxy), after a short stint at the Cat Club in the Village. This club was one of the biggest in Manhattan, attracting the high-end Bridge and Tunnel crowd. They were the top echelon of the drug world, with yards of thick gold chains and medallions, embossed Gucci leather sweat suits and gallons of Cristal. For two years I supported all of my artistic activities in New York with ten hours a week selling Polaroids at 10-18. For a short time, October 1987 – January 1988, I even moonlit at the re-opened Studio 54, where on Halloween and New Year’s Eve, I sold more than 800 photos. At that point, I was willing to do any type of work in order to remain in the city and finance my curiosity about a cut-throat but fertile creative environment.

My career as a photojournalist started with the original Details magazine. I began getting invited to club events and I photographed the fabulous, almost-famous people that I met, developing a liking for the subtleties of 35mm. I met Stephen Saban who was the legendary nightlife columnist for Details and he asked me to show him my contact sheets. No-one captured the flavour and zeal of clubland better than Stephen Saban. His taste shaped my approach to the Details material, because he was particular about whom he selected for his column, but honest when it was time to acknowledge people’s transition from wannabe to celebrity.

My big move from Polaroid hustler to party hustler came courtesy of Michael Alig, whose promotional talents tapped into the pulse of a Manhattan youthquake. This happened in the nick of time, because Club 10-18 closed following an explosion of gang activity. One patron was found stabbed in the men’s room. At an all-ages event featuring La Toya Jackson, on Christmas Day 1988, gangs had a shootout there; I ran for my life as bullets were flying. I had already been working with Alig as Chief Photographer on his Project X magazine, supplying photos for his Club Rub column, my Celebrity Sheet column, fashion spreads, and the magazine’s covers, so Alig said to me, “John, you know people, bring me parties.”

Above: Leigh Bowery at Susanne Bartsch's Bentleys night, 1988

Alig had organized a show of my club photographs, called Subterranean Society: The Photographs of John Simone, at the Tunnel nightclub in 1988. The first party I produced and promoted for Alig was a publishing event for Lee Tulloch’s novel Fabulous Nobodies at the Red Zone in 1989. It was a novel about a girl in love with her clothes and it was set in the New York nightlife scene. The event featured a slide show of my photos of just such fabulous nobodies, who happened to reign over New York nightlife at that time. Many of these mavens are the people represented in my work. They were the fiercest, most fascinating fashion freaks to hit New York nightlife in a decade. Not since Studio 54 and the Mudd Club’s heyday had so much energy been put into dressup after dark.

But the shamelessly self-promoting club denizens were no less important to me than the mainstream celebrities who were the other subjects of my work. The tension between pose and personality captured my interest, whether it was Michael Jackson or Cher, or club kids like Fuschia Baby Doll, Harlequin Romanzes or club kid patron saint Leigh Bowery.

When Anthony Haden-Guest published his history of Studio 54 and nightlife The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of Night, it inspired the group exhibition "The Last Party: Nightworld in Photographs" that launched the Serge Sorokko Gallery in New York City in 1997. To illustrate 100 years of nightlife history, curator Helen Varola chose 37 images from my archive, in a show with over 200 other photographs by artists as legendary as Arbus, Avedon, WeeGee, and Warhol. The show was captured in its very own special edition of American Photo magazine. In 1998 I subsequently exhibited 69 slides in a show called "New York Media Whores", in the Walker Court at the Art Gallery of Ontario, during the opening night Warhol Party, for "The Warhol Look" exhibition. In 2004, the Flash! Show at Edward Day Gallery showed 58 of my images spanning my years in New York, in a group exhibition.
 
Over the last two decades, the range of my creative interest has enlarged, to include nature photography and documentation of world cultures. Thus, I have built my archive by traveling to 70 countries, using my work to illustrate my own photography course, which I have taught to thousands of people.

It is twenty-five years since I took the New York photos, but these images are not merely nostalgic; they revisit a unique milieu, recording social history of particular relevance to the gay community.

Michael Alig at Club Lotto,  1988

Dean Johnson and one of his Weenies perform at the World Club, 1988

Designers Marc Bouwer and OJ Jumean flank Angie

Divine at last NYC performance at Club 10-18 (the Roxy), 1988

Harry Connick Jr. performs at Peter Allen's birthday, 1988

It Twins at Copacabana, 1988

Leigh Bowery at Club Savage, 1987

Leigh Bowery at Copacabana Club with KennyKenny and Charles Atlas in background, 1988

Liza Minnelli and Halston arrive at Paramount Hotel for Vanity Fair's Fifth Anniversary party, 1988

Lypsinka at MK Club, 1989

Michael Alig at Red Zone Club, 1989

Michael Alig celebrates his 23rd birthday at the Tunnel Club, 1988

Michael Musto at Tunnel Club for James St. James’s birthday, 1987

Nina Hagen at the World Club, 1987

Photographer David LaChapelle lifts Javier Figueroa at Red Parrot, 1988

RuPaul outside of MK Club, 1989

Sister Dimension the night she relinquished the crown of Queen of Manhattan at the World Club, 1988

Sister Dimension the night she was crowned Queen of Manhattan at the Tunnel Club, 1987

Sister Dimension spins at the Roxy, 1989

Susanne Bartsch and clone, Halloween at Red Parrot, 1988