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Dachshunds, debutantes and Donald Trump: capturing the glitzy, bizarre world of 80s high society

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Her face is covered, but you can tell it’s Ivana Trump from her beehive. The picture was taken in 1990, at a fashion show in the gilded environs of New York hotel the Plaza. She sits alone, surrounded by empty chairs, as rapacious photographers press in from behind, while hotel security guards loom from one side. A trio of well-dressed guests appear to laugh in her direction.

The photograph is one of the highlights from a new book by Dafydd Jones. New York: High Life/Low Life features images taken between 1988 and 1999, when the Wales-born society photographer moved to the US to work for titles including Vanity Fair and the New York Observer.

Prior to his move, Jones was best known for his refreshingly unvarnished party pictures of 1980s upper-crust English society (he has released two successful books on this subject – Oxford: The Last Hurrah and England: The Last Hurrah). He did much of his work at Tatler, when Tina Brown was shaking the magazine up as its new editor, and was open to society photos that took a photojournalistic approach. His style has remained constant since. One of the reasons Jones eventually left Tatler a few years after Brown did, was that a new editor “said something about smiling … And actually, around the time that I left, if you look in those copies of the magazine, every single person at a party is smiling,” he says, “which is quite limiting.”

The New York book is an evocative historical document, brimming with nostalgia and menace. Compared with today’s cyborgian beauty standards and levels of PR polish among high-profile people, the images feel refreshingly intriguing and human. Now, says Jones, high-profile people “are more sensitive – they like to control things”. At the time, the balance of power was different: “People liked being in the magazine, so they would appreciate the picture even if it wasn’t flattering.”

It is also, Jones says, quite a dark book at times, particularly when some of the images are viewed with hindsight. Many of those photographed have since died, often too young (the book includes photographs from Robert Mapplethorpe’s last days and a poignant shot of Natasha Richardson with Lauren Bacall and Paul Newman). Some of those caught pressing flesh in the pages have since fallen into disgrace (see: Jeffrey Epstein, Robert and Ghislaine Maxwell). Donald Trump is a frequent presence; Jones says Trump struck him as “gangsterish”, even then. The first time he photographed him, “he had a bodyguard at a funeral – which was sort of strange. Lots of other kind of famous people didn’t have bodyguards. It was a bit mob-like, really.”

Trump’s presence certainly haunts that Ivana picture, which was taken in a hotel he then owned, in the middle of their messy divorce – hence all of the photographers scrabbling towards her. “For a moment, it was too much for her,” says Jones, “though 20 seconds later, she was smiling for the cameras.”

New York: High Life/Low Life by Dafydd Jones is published by ACC Art Books.

Socialite worker: six highlights from Jones’ New York photographs

Dachshunds fighting over doggy canapes, Barbetta restaurant, 1990 (main picture)
When he worked for Tatler, Jones became well known for a 1982 picture of a suited Hooray Henry pushing a debutante into a pond. This 1990 image, he says, in which a pair of dogs squirm wildly, desperate to eat the bone-shaped canapes, felt like his New York equivalent.

Ivana Trump, Fashion Group couture show, Plaza Hotel, 1990. Photograph: Dafydd Jones

Ivana Trump, Fashion Group couture show, the Plaza Hotel, 1990
Vanity Fair ran this picture on almost a full page. It was taken using a camera that was new to Jones at the time, which took square-shaped pictures – enabling the chaos surrounding Ivana to be seen from all sides. One of the photographers approaching her, in the back of the photo, is legendary photographer Bill Cunningham.

Carolyne Roehm’s spring collection show. Plaza Hotel, 1989. Photograph: Dafydd Jones

Front row applauding Carolyne Roehm’s spring collection, 1989
“I call that The Horrors,” says Jones of this fashion show front row. “It managed to look quite scary.” At the time Upper East Side ladies who lunched, such as Nan Kempner, and sometimes their “walkers” (men who accompanied rich women to events; Jerry Zipkin played this role for Nancy Reagan), dominated fashion events in New York. It felt “very old-fashioned,” he says – and this was the beginning of the end. Soon, fashion editors and celebrities would take their place.

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Martha Reed at the Spanish Gold Medal Gala, Pierre Hotel, 1989. Photograph: Dafydd Jones

Martha Reed with champagne twizzle stick, Spanish Gold Medal Gala, November 1989
New York society life could be sad: Jones frequently saw rich society women like Martha Reed alone at parties. Her personal life was rife with dark rumours about domestic abuse. She was lonely – and she was no anomaly: “I noticed more people sitting on their own and looking quite sad. It was tougher.”

Ladies powder room at the International Debutante Ball, Plaza Hotel, 1993. Photograph: Dafydd Jones

Maria Paterno Castello di San Giuliano, Princess Asaea Beatrice Reyna di Savoia, Miss Hikari Ohta and the maid in the ladies powder room, International Debutante Ball, 1993
“I liked that the maid was in here as well,” says Jones. “You don’t expect to see debutantes like this in New York – or I didn’t.” Actually, he says, New York society was more snobbish, and stratified, than England, in its way, in the division between uptown and downtown, and old and new money.

Paul Newman, Natasha Richardson and Lauren Bacall at the Talk magazine launch, 1993. Photograph: Dafydd Jones

Launch of Tina Brown’s Talk magazine, 1999
This was taken on a boat ferrying guests to Liberty Island for what Jones describes as “the biggest magazine launch I’ve been to”. The catering was lavish, the guest list was star-studded; the event has since been described as the end of an era of media decadence. The magazine did not survive the rise of the internet.

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