Clayton Patterson is that strange-looking dude taking photos of everybody at all those art openings and downtown events. He has amassed a history of downtown—warts and all—that really needs its own museum. Ask him about it the next time you see him, but bring coffee and something to eat because you’re going to be there for awhile. A long time ago, I was married to a model, and we decided to go on a camping trip hitting all the major parks out West. At one point, we had been in the woods for about two weeks with only a jump into a cold river for a bath and lentils and add-water type items for food. This story is a story in itself, as my never-camped-before wifey entered the wilderness in a black Azzedine Alaia dress and Chanel boots. She chased a bear cub because she thought it was cute, and I waited for the grizzly mom to eat us, but somehow we survived. Anyway, we emerged from our safari and checked into a real nice hotel for real food, a real bed, and most importantly a warm shower. She went first, and I flipped on the TV to see if the world was still there, and on the national news, there was my bloody friend and club owner Rudolf, who had been clubbed by a rioting police officer in Tompkins Square Park in New York.
This riot, with scores of NYPD cops bashing citizens, was well-documented by Clayton Patterson. You should look this up. Over the years, Clayton, a good friend of mine and a good friend to anyone who likes to see the truth in black and white, photography or video, has been beaten arrested and harassed. He just keeps on snapping away, and all of us in the downtown world owe him for just keeping “them” from getting away with it. He’s always been there, and he has thousands of images that tell it like it was. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Clayton has accumulated billions of words. Check out his documentary ► Captured, which gets shown around town once in awhile, to see some of the footage.
How did you first get started filming everything?
Nelson Sullivan was a genius with the video camera, and he turned me onto it. Before that, I was photographing the dressing room at the Pyramid Club, so I have a large archive of the drag queens from the Pyramid Club from that whole period. And then in August 1988, I was going to the Pyramid Club to document what was happening that night, but there was this huge police gathering in and around Tompkins Square Park, and people were starting to protest, so I decided to film this 3 hour and 30 minute video tape of what was going on. One of the people who showed up was Rudolph, and he got his head cracked—there was blood all over. And I actually got that classified as a police riot.
So you ended up filming a historical police riot?
Yeah, it got classified as that because if you look at the videotape, there’s lots of time where people are getting beaten up—and although that generally happens, the really critical shot in the tape is the ten seconds where the white shirts are trying to stop the blue shirts from running down the street, and they just didn’t pay any attention and ran right by. So the police had no control over the police, and that turned it into a police riot.
And this caused you a lot of publicity and a lot of harm. A lot of people came after you. You’re an activist, and since then you’ve been harassed occasionally?
It was interesting, because there were two people in the Bronx House of Detention at that time for shooting six cops. I was one, and Larry Davis was the other. Now Larry Davis actually shot six cops with a gun, but I shot six cops with a video camera and got criminally indicted. Over the years, I’ve gotten more cops in trouble with a video camera than anybody probably in the history of America, and I was pretty good at it. But after I filmed that specific riot, the chief was retired, the captain was moved out of the precinct; the cops were fired, etc., so I did a good job. But over the years, I ended up getting teeth knocked out a couple of times, getting knocked unconscious, getting arrested, etc.
So what else were you doing at that point?
I was an activist at that time, documenting what was happening downtown and on the LES. At that time, the LES was a heavy drug neighborhood, and there was certainly a relationship between the drugs and the police. Eventually the Mullen Commission came along and proved that, with the Dirty Thirty, etc.—it proved that the cops at that time were totally out of control. It’s a different world now, and it’s hard for people to imagine; even down where your club The World was, it was very brave of you to open in that area because it was a heavy drug neighborhood at the time.
What’s your relationship to nightlife? I see you everywhere, every party, and every art opening. How does your relationship work with nightclubs?
I was really blessed because every time I went to these clubs, I never had a problem. I never had a problem at the Limelight, Palladium, etc.—thank god for Fred Rothbell-Mista, he made it possible, Arthur Weinstein made it possible, and you made it possible. So the clubs I really documented were Limelight, Palladium, The World, and the hard-rock scene at clubs like CBGB.
What do you have footage of, and what do you plan to do with it?
I have tens of thousands of photographs of artists, poets, activists, people being arrested, a lot of drug stings downtown. The other thing I had was a window which was called the Hall of Fame. I used to have two things at my place—the door which kids could sign called the Wall of Fame, and then the Hall of Fame, which was 32 small pictures that I used to rotate and change all the time. It was of the kids in the neighborhood. Now out of anybody that’s photographed on the LES, I’m probably the only person who has photos of all the crews and posses, and I kept them all in a neutral place.
What happens with the archives now?
The major blessing I have is that a couple of kids who grew up in New York City—Ben Solomon and Dan Liven (Dan is a third-generation New York City filmmaker; he’s recently made Mr. Untouchable and the movie Slamming) made a film on Cuban hip hop that I thought was really great, so I did a review of that in a magazine called Mass Appeal. After that, they went to film school and graduated with Jenner Furst, and these kids knew that I had this archive, so they took on my footage and it took a young persons’ point of view; they made it very contemporary. Now the amazing thing about it is that we got bounced from every film festival, Tribeca, Sundance, etc., but the youth loved it. When we showed it on rooftops, 2,000 people showed up, and 4,000 people were turned away. The movie, called Captured, is really about my archives. Kind of about me as the central figure, but it mostly focuses on the archives.
So with the archives, you’ve basically documented 30-something years of downtown, and a lot of the people you’re recording are in and out of the clubs. Where is this going to end up?
Well basically, at this point it’s garbage. Nobody really has an interest in it until the right taker came along. It took Peggy Guggenheim and Clement Greenburg to make Jackson Pollock; otherwise he would’ve been just a crazy guy making pictures. So I’m waiting for someone to come along who really understands what the archives are really about. Now thank god for these kids making the movie, Captured, it was big step in getting some exposure for the archives.
What happened after Captured was created?
Bush happened. Bush came along, and for the most part, I dropped out of activism because Bush made it really dangerous. If you’re out there photographing, and they don’t like it, they can turn you into a terrorist. So realizing now that I have this huge archive that nobody knows about, I’m now starting to look backwards. I did two books, Captured, a film video history of the LES, which is an anthology done by a large group of people, and then I have Resistance Radical Political and Social History of the LES, which is a similar thing. These are both about 600 pages each, but they are mostly word books, not picture books. Anyway, what I’m trying to do is save the history because as we both know, all of this history just evaporates and gets lost.
So your mission is to preserve the history of these places and of the downtown scene?
Yeah, if you look at some of the clubs I’ve documented, like Area, there’s no other history of them. So all of that is history that needs to be saved. There were a lot of people at that time who were famous or became famous, but there a lot of people that we thought were geniuses that didn’t become famous. One person for me is Nelson Sullivan. What happened in the club scene is that there were certain people who really perfected an image and perfected an idea. Like coming out of the Pyramid was Rue Paul and Lady Bunny and a lot of other people who got lost. So what I’m trying to do with these books is put people that I think are really significant and important next to people who are famous. For example, if you go look up Alan Ginsberg, you might find Lionel Zippern, who I think is probably a bigger genius. So part of the idea behind the books is to keep those histories alive and to bring all those people together in one place.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Steve Lewis has lived on or around Springtown Road in New Paltz, NY, since 1973. He and his wife Patti are married 41 years and have seven children and fifteen grandchildren (who call him Chief). He is a Mentor at Empire State College, a member of the Writing Institute faculty at Sarah Lawrence College, El Jefe of the Millrock Writers Salon and a longtime freelance writer whose publication credits include The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, LA Times, West (LA Times Sunday Magazine), AARP, Ladies Home Journal, Beliefnet.com, Confrontation, Commonweal and a long, long, long (biblically long) list of parenting magazines. His more recent books are Zen and the Art of Fatherhood, The ABCs of Real Family Values, The Complete Guide for the Anxious Groom: How to Avoid Everything That Could Go Wrong on Her Big Day and Fear and Loathing of Boca Raton: A Hippies Guide to the Second Sixties.