Nylon; Lexie Moreland; Matt Weinberger

The Art Issue 2022

Instagram Didn’t Kill Party Photography. It Just Made It Evolve.

Photographers like Tyrell Hampton and Mark Hunter aka The Cobrasnake share the new rules of capturing nightlife

by Emily Kirkpatrick
Originally Published: 

In the early 2000s, Mark Hunter — aka The Cobrasnake — documented Los Angeles' burgeoning hipster scene, taking high-flash photos of current and future It Girls partying in all their flip phone-wielding, Juicy Couture-clad glory. But for a while there, as the decade turned, he thought the golden age of party photography might have been behind him. “There was a shift where I'd been doing this for so long, and then I kind of felt phased out by social media,” Hunter says. Despite helping cement the aesthetics of the American Apparel generation, as captured in this year’s The Cobrasnake: Y2Ks Archive, with iPhones flourishing and Instagram taking off, “there was an idea that the party photographer was a bit obsolete.”

But all of that has changed over the past few years. Now, he says, “I've been re-embraced, and it's because of social media that I thrive.” Some of that is a post-pandemic nightlife renaissance: Hunter has observed an increasing desire among young people to “put the phone away a little bit and dance and actually have fun and leave it to the party photographer to capture the energy.” Other photographers, like Tyrell Hampton and Matt Weinberger, say the smartphone era has only highlighted what a professional can do — and given more opportunities for artists and documentarians to leave their mark on the medium.

“We're coming at it from a different place in terms of intention,” says Weinberger, who got his start shooting concerts. “We're trying to do things that are a step above your typical iPhone photo — not that there’s anything wrong with an iPhone photo.” Nightlife photography, after all, isn’t just for the people who show up. Lexie Moreland, a staff photographer for Women’s Wear Daily, says part of her job is to “make the viewer feel like they were there at the party, too.”

Hampton — a photographer who is quickly becoming as much of an It Girl as the Hollywood starlets he shoots — describes his work as capturing what the average clubgoer can’t. “Everyone’s a documentarian of their own life, so the [visual] language is from the first-person perspective,” he says. That puts him in a role akin to an omniscient narrator, taking the pressure off everyone’s shoulders: “Like, just trust me. You’re going to get a good photo. Just enjoy yourself.”

According to the pros, there are a million ways to get a good photo — find your characters, whether they’re famous or not; look for moments that feel relatable or spark emotion — and only a handful of ways to totally screw it up. For Hunter, the cardinal sin is showing up too early. “No party is ever full when it starts,” he says, “and you can lose momentum because then it’s not as stimulating.” Hampton, meanwhile, warns of being too polite when approaching subjects: “Taking no for an answer is definitely a big mistake,” he says. “I don’t really ask permission. It’s always, ‘Apologize later.’”

Weinberger compares party photography to being a cowboy in the Wild West: “You have a limited amount of ammunition, you've got your weapon of choice, and you have to always be on the ready for that quick draw, because you never know what good shot's going to come your way.”

These days, however, there’s room for everyone to get in on the fun. “There's so many different platforms now that we need to capture content for,” Hunter says. “It's actually a little bit of a weight off my shoulders because at some of these events, I'll be shooting now alongside three or four other people. I don't feel as much pressure as I once did to capture everything because I know somebody's going to get it. There's just been more cool kids with their cameras out.”

That’s not to say the current era of nightlife photography is without challenges. Social media has undoubtedly made many partygoers pricklier about photos, Moreland says. “People are more guarded, less free,” she says. “They’re trying to control how they look, or don’t want to be shot at all. They want to manage their image.”

Hampton likewise has diagnosed Gen Z as suffering from “their Sex and the City moment” — in other words, trying too hard to live out a particular fantasy. “I sound old” — Hampton is 25 — “but back when I was in college, it wasn’t really about that. It was more about sharing these tender moments with a friend, whereas kids nowadays are seeking to make their TikToks and make their videos. I think it’s more interesting when you stumble upon [that life] instead of yearning for it.” (Hunter has noticed a less glamorous version of this phenomenon himself: “A lot of these venues in New York, people are smoking inside, which is backwards to me — and so gross to leave a night smelling like an ashtray,” he says. “The things that people might have been nostalgic toward or saw on a Tumblr page, they’re trying to recreate that in modern day.”)

Still, capturing the times for future generations is part of the job.Whatever I'm shooting, I'm thinking about our role as image makers in terms of recording and creating history,” says Weinberger, who compares nightlife photography to the work of Nan Goldin and Bruce Davidson — legendary photographers famous for depicting subcultures and underground communities. “We have a lot of power to collectively decide what is remembered. So I try to use that power wisely and with respect and capture things worth remembering. I’m hyper-aware of the mythology that we’re all collectively creating because, at the end of the day, that’s what we’re doing: building a story out of reality.”

And there are few better time machines than pictures of people having fun at parties. “When I look at Studio 54,” Hampton says, “I immediately see myself in those images although I’ve never been there. I feel so connected to that time period.”

So whether it’s MoMa-caliber material or just your average Instagram dump, there’s a reason we can’t stop scrolling through shots from last night: “Everyone wants to be part of the action,” Moreland says. For Hunter, it all boils down to the same thing he’s been documenting for the past 20 years: vanity.

Someone the other night was like, ‘I can't wait to show these Cobrasnake photos to my grandkids in 30 years,’” Hunter says. Even now, his iconic early-aughts images of party girls taking flip phone videos in their American Apparel unitards “are just getting riper and riper with age.” And if we already feel this strongly about the bygone era of indie sleaze, Hunter says, “who knows what it's going to be like when we're all living on the moon in 20 years.”

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