Patrick D. Pagnano’s Empire Roller Disco
Photographs of a 1980s roller disco are a lesson in how to capture abandon.
Empire Roller Disco
(Anthology Editions, 2023)
In 2007, Brooklyn’s premiere skate rink, Empire Roller Disco, closed its doors after nearly seventy years of operation. At its height it was dubbed the “Studio 54 of the roller-skating world.” Page Six would regularly spotlight celebrity recreational skaters in attendance, like JFK Jr., and it became known for innovations such as having the first live DJ at a rollerdome. One particular night during its peak in 1980 was memorialized by the late street photographer Patrick D. Pagnano. These photographs are gathered in the new monograph, Empire Roller Disco, from Anthology Editions. Pagnano was originally commissioned to document the 36,000 square-foot space and its denizens for Forbes magazine, but the story was never published. Though some of the photographs he took were on view at the Benrubi Gallery in New York for the 2018 exhibition Patrick D. Pagnano: Empire Roller Disco, this new book is the fullest documentation of his legendary evening photo session at the rink.
The monograph is composed entirely of black-and-white photographs taken on the photographer’s Leica M3. In many of his photographs the edges of the rollerdome’s floors—nicknamed “miracle maple” in early advertisements for the venue—are out of frame, creating the illusion that the floor is edgeless, endless. Thanks to a light rig he set up to dramatize the rink’s standard lighting—a disco ball whose sphere is encircled by intertwined protective rings that make it look like Saturn—the skaters find themselves under spotlight. The resulting contrast, as noted in the book’s introduction by New York-based art critic Miss Rosen—who also offers some of the history cited here—leaves the rest of the rink darkened so each skater who passes Pagnano’s lens is illuminated as if on a stage. This dramatic lighting also has another effect: it makes the skaters’ shadows look as alive as the bodies that cast them.
Empire Roller Disco is a lesson in how to capture abandon. The book opens and closes with an image of a lone Black skater wearing a cowboy hat and cropped muscle tee, wielding a prop gun and—over the course of several non-sequential pages—we follow the evolution of his dance moves as they become progressively looser, freer. Though skating is, and should necessarily be, about footwork, Pagnano’s photographs place subtle emphasis on hands; their blurring indicating speed and movement, fingers caught mid-snap, reaching up with open palms as if in worship. His minimalist but stark lighting choice draws attention to sweat as it glistens on the necks of skaters, creating contrast on the drenched shirt-backs. Skaters occasionally make eye contact with Pagnano, but for the most part this visual essay is about seamless crowd capture.
Though roller skating is now synonymous with Black and queer communities and culture, it wasn’t always. Since their inception in the late nineteenth century, rinks were segregated spaces where Black skaters were not allowed. Like public pools, segregated rinks became one of the many public spaces Black communities had to boycott during the Civil Rights era. And, according to the African-American Roller-Skate Museum, they were among the toughest to desegregate. Things shifted quickly and irrevocably in the 1970s and ’80s when both disco music and roller disco had their golden ages. Disco music was birthed in queer spaces by Black, Latino, and Italian Americans. The genre was a reflection of the era’s zeitgeist which was defined by countercultural activity and openness. Rinks became among the most inclusive hangout spots in the nation, a gathering place for people of all races and sexualities, and an alternative scene whose innovative dances and sounds—the famous "Brooklyn Bounce” was invented in a rink—and charismatic figureheads helped catapult roller dancing to the mainstream. Empire Rollerdrome—renamed Empire Roller Disco in the seventies—was where Bill Butler, the “Godfather of Roller Disco,” introduced a “Bounce Night” that brought dance music to the roller disco scene. In an iconic snap alluded to in the book’s introduction, Butler is pictured skating arm in arm across Empire Roller Disco’s miracle maple with rising queer cultural icon Cher, who wears a complementary shimmery mesh top.
Empire Roller Disco shows pairs of people of unspecified connection to each other holding hands, pulling each other across the rink, and synchronizing skate choreography like birds about to take flight. While faces aren’t obscured, names aren’t provided. The night, like Pagnano’s photography, wasn’t about capturing individual people, but rather capturing a collective energy.
The book’s introduction quotes from an artist statement Pagnano wrote for the original series. The series, he reflected, “became an essay that represented an era that cannot be recreated.” Over forty years after the images were taken and at a present time when Black and queer communities again find themselves, their freedoms, and their gathering spaces under attack, his words feel especially resonant. The photographs from this one ordinary and exemplary night in the winter of 1980 at a rink in Crown Heights are a time capsule of a community in communion. In them, the converging movements for racial and queer liberation are glossed through the medium of skate. Pagnano’s images keep the night and the defiant spirit that animated it alive.