Clayton Patterson: Pyramid Portraits

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“You just had this kind of spontaneous, unraveling creativity every weekend. The club was like a crystallization of the Lower East Side. Unlike SoHo, which was more of a careerist place for artists, the Lower East Side was an expressionist place, where it was more about just being an artist than being famous or rich. Also, in that period, it was one of the most racially integrated neighborhoods in the world: It had Chinese, Indians, Bangladeshis, blacks, Hispanics, Jews, as well as lifestyle diversity—the Hell’s Angels, skinheads, drag queens, religious zealots. And at the Pyramid Club, security would be people from the hardcore scene, which is supposedly very antigay, but all of these stereotypes didn’t apply there. It was like a free zone.”—Clayton Patterson 

In the mid-’80s, photographer, videographer, and activist Clayton Patterson found inspiration in the inventive drag performers—including the likes of John Kelly, RuPaul, and Lypsinka—at New York City’s legendary Pyramid Club. “Pyramid Portraits” features 25 of these fascinating portraits along with an interview with Patterson by Esopus editor Tod Lippy.

Born and raised in Calgary, Canada, artist and activist Clayton Patterson emigrated with his partner, Elsa Rensaa, to New York City in 1979, eventually moving to a two-story sewing factory and storefront on Essex Street on the Lower East Side. In the early ’80s, Patterson began exhibiting the photographs he took of local residents in the space’s front window. Over time, he amassed an exhaustive photo, video, and audio archive of every aspect of the Lower East Side, including his pioneering videos of the Tompkins Square Park police riots in 1988. Patterson has published several books, including Captured: A Film/Video History of the Lower East Side and Resistance: A Radical Political and Social History of the Lower East Side. His photographs were the subject of the exhibition Clayton Patterson: L.E.S. Captured at Kinz+Tillou Fine Art in New York in 2009, the same year Captured, a documentary about Patterson by Dan Levin, Ben Solomon, and Jenner Furst, was released. A selection of his Pyramid Portraits were shown at Esopus Space, New York, in 2010.