A night to remember: in February of 1980, the photographer – with his Leica M3 – shot dozens of rolls of film, capturing the buzzing atmosphere at the legendary Empire Roller Disco in Brooklyn. The series can now be rediscovered in a wonderful photo book. The timing could not be better: after a forty-year hiatus, the classic roller skate – the four-wheeled quad – is experiencing a renaissance within the Tik Tok and Instagram generation. Pagnano's images do not present an in-depth analysis of roller skating culture; instead, they offer an exciting visual testimony of the particular energy that reigned in a rather special venue.
The story of that venue began in 1941, when the Empire Rollerdrome opened at Crown Heights No. 200. It soon became the place to go for the district's recreational and competitive roller skaters. The rink's cult status was not reached until the late seventies, however, when the disco craze saw the replacement of the original organ with live DJs! They played popular disco music, using complex sound and lighting technology, and transformed the centre into the Empire Roller Disco. The skaters, who had previously just been moving leisurely across the floor, were now invited to create a unique new locale in Brooklyn, inspired by the atmosphere of clubs located mainly in Manhattan. The Empire Roller Disco became a sensation, and was drawing prominent party-goers to Brooklyn. Pagnano, who was already a renowned street photographer, was among them, assigned to produce a series there for the magazine Forbes.
“The moment I stepped inside, I was transported into another world,” the photographer remembered in an interview four years ago. “The skaters, their talent, their enthusiasm, their joy and their dedication: everything inspired me.” With a flash system and his Leica M3, Pagnano set to work: individual dancers were singled out; and he succeeded in creating a rather theatrical mood, focusing entirely on his chosen protagonists, who obviously enjoyed the photographer's attention. His many years of experience as a street photographer meant that he was, intuitively and quickly, able to capture the decisive moments and movements of the roller skaters. As is evident, Pagnano's pictures also imbued the glamour of the disco era with an intimate social dimension.
Even after more than forty years, the joie de vivre and happiness conveyed in the club atmosphere have lost none of their visual power. These images are a successful tribute to, and rediscovery of, the remarkable series that was created in just one night. Presented now in compact form for the first time, the book also serves to honour the photographer, who died three years ago. In fact, the magazine that gave Pagnano the assignment never published even one picture, and the Empire Roller Disco has been closed since 2007 – which makes it all the more delightful that these images have now been taken from the photographer's enormous archive and given a new lease on life. (Ulrich Rüter)
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