In September 1999, Talk magazine debuted with the celebrated editor Tina Brown at its helm, following her successful tenures first at Vanity Fair and later The New Yorker. Though it would fold just a few years later (“No big career doesn’t have one flame-out in it and there’s nobody more boring than the undefeated,” she told The Telegraph in 2002), its launch, marked by a mammoth party under the Statue of Liberty, was a highly anticipated affair. “It was the New York party of the year and the place to be,” recalls photographer Dafydd Jones, who a decade earlier had arrived in the city from Oxford on Brown’s invitation. “There was a great feeling of optimism on the journey there, it was a happy moment,” he tells me.

Peninsula Hotel, 700 5th Ave, Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club Benefit party on roof., June 1992. © Dafydd Jones

This vibrant sense of anticipation is embodied in one image in particular: photographed on the ferry over to the party, the actor Natasha Richardson tilts her head wearing an expression of joy, her mouth open and her eyes bright from the scene beyond the camera. She’s flanked by Paul Newman and Lauren Bacall on either side, Newman in mid-conversation and Bacall sharing Richardson’s view; each assumes a celebratory energy befitting the occasion of a late summer outing. 25 years on, the picture spills out across a double page in New York: High Life / Low Life, a new monograph from Jones published by ACC Art Books.

Dachshunds fighting over doggy canapés. Iris Love (holding Just Desserts) and Brooke Astor (holding Dolly Astor) at a dachshund party, Barbetta restaurant, 1990. © Dafydd Jones

“The best party photographers are like snipers…Dafydd Jones is the sniper’s sniper—the best of the best,” observes Graydon Carter, Brown’s successor, with whom Jones worked for three decades, in the book’s foreword. “His New York book… captures a time and place better than any published folio.” Shot between his initial month try-out in 1988 and the Talk party in 1999, the book offers a specific portrait of a version of the city, filled with indulgences and grandeur. The characters that inhabit each frame are invariably rich, famous—or both—associated with Hollywood, publishing, politics and fashion. In one image the author Candace Bushnell, dressed in a velvet mini and fishnets, stands on a table at the Dada Ball; on the opposite page is the rapper Lil Kim, adorned with a smile and a fur coat at The Costume Institute. Elsewhere Kate Moss and Johnny Depp make an appearance, while the AIDS epidemic surfaces in the mood of Robert Mapplethorpe’s birthday party in 1988 (he died four months later).

Jonathan Canon and Wayne Anderson arriving for a benefit, Southampton, Long Island, 1989 © Dafydd Jones
Ivana Trump, Fashion Group couture show, The Plaza Hotel, 1990 (in the middle of her divorce from Donald Trump © Dafydd Jones

While Jones describes his work as “pictures of several different worlds,” his initial stomping ground was the Upper East Side, and the benefits and fashion shows that what the writer Tom Wolfe called ‘social x-rays’ inhabited. “The men were secondary characters at the parties but had serious jobs,” notes the photographer, alluding to figures like Henry Kissinger and Rupert Murdoch. By 1993 the vogue had shifted from high society to celebrity and the fashion world appeared anew. “Front rows were more diverse and had many celebrities,” he says of the changing dynamic. “Magazines wanted pictures of celebrities, losing interest in the old crowd. This obsession grew through the nineties until pictures would only be published if they were of celebrities, and brands became obsessed with being linked to famous names.” This relationship has only accelerated in the decades since. Subsequently, Jones’s pictures feel especially important, as a vital document of a place and time lost to history. 

New York: High Life / Low Life is out now published by ACC Art Books. Dafydd Jones will be exhibiting images from the book at Photo London in May.

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