Bathroom at the TR3 Club (All images courtesy of Frank Rispoli)
May 4, 2021
Shoe fetish: Revisiting stiletto style from NYC’s grimier era
Frank Rispoli's photography documents the high heels and hedonism of the new wave 1970s-‘80s—plus the Bushwick of today
At age 72, Frank Rispoli is about to publish his first book of photography. “High Heels,” which comes out this fall, collects the photos he shot during the feverish 1970s and ‘80s in New York’s grimy Lower East Side, just as punk and new wave were in full stride. Rispoli, who is from Brooklyn, was a club denizen at the time, a photographer who documented the decadence and excess of the era through vibrant portraits of women. Specifically their shoes.
In his photos, Rispoli will usually cut the vibrant subject’s body off and do so with a bright flash in the dark of night on a street, or inside a wear-and-tear club or bathroom, or on top of a kitchen sink where the contrast is clear and true. The images are eye-popping, sensual, and mysterious. Who are these women? Could they be you? Me?
Brooklyn Magazine spoke with Rispoli about his work from that era, his book “High Heels” and the work he’s doing now shooting a sequel in Bushwick. Excerpts (and photos) below:
How did ‘High Heels’ begin?
In 1977, I purchased a camera. I was at my first industrious design job and I never wanted to do just one type of design. So I was working on 57th Street and on my lunch-breaks, I would take my camera out and ask women if I could photograph their shoes. I realized I could probably get better stuff at night and, man, was I right.
What’d you find and where did you find it?
I’d go where the music was because that’s where the people were. At the time, it was all punk and new wave and I was really attracted to this anti-establishment culture, so that’s where I wanted to be. Lines were crossing at different speeds of light, color, heights, sparkles, feathers, levels of androgyny. It was awesome.
Where did your first fascination with shoes come from?
I came from a working-class, uneducated, Italian-American household with a strict Catholic religious background—with no consideration for individuality, personality, or creativity. It was the NYC school system that recognized my talents and then I found that individuality I was searching for when I started listening to rock ‘n’ roll. My generation questioned everything and the music gave me permission to do that where my home couldn’t. And then coming out of this repressed environment, I was never able to look at women at eye level. I always looked down to the ground.
Do you remember the first pair of shoes that had an effect on you?
I know it was junior high, but it was never one pair of shoes. I remember girls wearing tennis sneakers, peg-leg jeans, it was interesting and cool in regards to accessories. If they wore ankle bracelets or laced their tennis shoes from bottom to top, it meant you were going steady.
What are you hoping to say with ‘High Heels?’
My style is bright, bright, vivid color. I’m an NYC kid. I’m an artist and designer, architecturally oriented. Shapes, forms, materials have always interested me and with my particular background, shoes had introduced itself into the composition. That’s the designer part of me that’s gravitated to the aesthetic and then there’s the psychosexual aspect I aim to explore—so both, in the emotional and physical places.
You almost look at a shoe as a piece of architecture then?
Almost, but then there’s the psychosexual aspect which you can’t ignore.
Fair. Would you say that you have influences?
Yes, the stiletto of course, by Vivier. Guy Bourdin and then Helmut Newton brought in sexual sophistication to the age of photography for me. William Eggleston’s luscious color-use too. Working with Kodachrome in general for that matter.
You’ve been returning to Bushwick more recently for inspiration. What is it that you like especially?
Bushwick represents a creative enclave similar to the likes of the Lower East side in the ’70s and ’80s. Just look at you, you’ve got pronounced style—it makes you feel comfortable, it’s what excites you, it gives you personality as you go out into the world and interact with people professionally. The artists are here now.
What shoes do you like to photograph in Bushwick?
I’m attracted to bright color, patent leather finishes, but I’m attracted to creativity and people first, essentially.
Why do you think the artists came here?
Artists are always looking for neighborhoods. They’re always defining neighborhoods because they’re looking for space. They’re here for the prices, stayed for the company, and ya know, we can only hope the yuppies don’t come. In time though, the developers come.
What new shoe trends have interested you?
Stockings. Socks with heels I’ve been into lately— current stuff. Though, I always love a classic.
Circa Press will be releasing “High Heels” in stores and online this summer for purchase and then I’m currently shooting, “High Heels II: Bushwick.” That’s a funny question at my age though.
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