Whether it’s Miley Cyrus smoking a cigarette at a Met Gala after party or sloppy bar makeouts on Instagram, Tyrell Hampton’s photographs capture the messy exuberance of nightlife. Having trained as a dancer and choreographer for years, Hampton captures the movement of a night out: a specific dance move, cigarette drag, or sip of beer. He captures what’s so tantalizing to people about nightlife photography, which is equally a sense of FOMO and déjà vu — that even though you weren’t at that party, you’ve been in a moment like that before and can vicariously relive the joy.
You’ve probably seen Hampton’s work, either on Instagram, on the cover of magazines like GQ (he recently shot Zendaya) or for designers like Alexander Wang. Now, Hampton, who says he never took his art seriously while in art school, is putting his photographs in a capital-A art exhibition for the first time. “Go Home” is a collection of Hampton’s photographs of New York City nightlife over the last few years, and will be the inaugural exhibit at SN37 Gallery.
“It's quite nerve wracking putting my work out on a wall for people to view and inspect instead of having it be on Instagram and having it be one of those ‘15 minutes of fame’ sort of things,” Hampton tells NYLON. “It’s really interesting to have it up for a long period of time where people can really sit with the work.
Hampton started his career from an outsiders’ view, sneaking into Met Gala afterparties to capture celebrities surprised by the bright flash of his camera. He might have Dua Lipa on speed dial now, but he says he still approaches his work from a “kid in a candy store” perspective of, I can’t believe I’m here. “The aspect of being a fan really has fueled my participation as a photographer in all these settings,” he says. “Being a fan of clothes and fashion and art and media and people and influencers and all those things. My fangirling over them makes me be like, ‘I need to capture this moment before I lose it.’”
“Go Home” opens at SN37 Gallery on Friday, November 19 and runs through January 9, 2022. Proceeds from the sales of works from Hampton’s show will be donated to the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation to provide scholarship assistance.
This is big, to put your work on display like this for the first time ever. How are you feeling about it?
I’m quite nervous. It's quite nerve wracking, putting my work out on a wall for people to view and inspect instead of having it be on Instagram and having it be one of those “15 minutes of fame” sort of things. It’s really interesting to have it up for a long period of time where people can really sit with the work.
It’s really interesting to think about people engaging with some of the same material they might have seen on Instagram, but in a way where it’s presented entirely differently.
I’m also interested to see who can remember whether or not they've seen it on social media or not, and that goes back to how people are experiencing the work in person and really getting to look at every detail. I’m sure someone might have looked at it on Instagram and looked at it for two seconds and is now being confronted with it in this larger way.
What is so special to you about nightlife photography?
It brings me back to how I was introduced to New York City as a romanticized version, at least watching it in TV shows and media and on the internet. Growing up, I really didn’t experience the correct childhood. I was in a dance studio or in school 24/7 and I didn’t really hang out with friends outside of school, so it was about seeing New York on television and being like, “I want to be a part of this conversation, I want to be a part of this history,” and then moving here and being like, “Whoa everything is, like, at the club.” Everyone you want to see is at the club. Everyone you want to meet is at the club. Every beautiful person is at the club. There’s so much energy, so much fun, so many different places in one space where people are having a good time and being free and I thought, that resonates with my energy really well. I felt at home and it's weird to say, especially with the name of the show, but I feel really at home with the club. I feel like it’s just my place.
Can you talk a little bit about the role of voyeur vs. participant when it comes to party photography? In your photos and in the best party photos, it feels like you get a sense of participation from the photographer, but obviously you are occupying both roles.
When I first moved here, I was 100% a voyeur, because I was nobody. I kind of still am a nobody. So going into spaces and stuff, no one really was aware of my presence, and when I first moved here, not a lot of people were going around with cameras and photographing nightlife, so it was interesting to see how people reacted to a camera being in their face and a bright flash in their face. The majority of photos from when I first moved here were people being surprised and stunned by the flash and the image of that itself. I think as I got more comfortable with maneuvering through the space of knowing clubs really well and knowing people really well, I think it became easier for me. I guess it became like a dance with the subject, knowing when they were going to take a puff of that cigarette, knowing when they were going to laugh or do a dance movie that I would find really beautiful. Now, it’s changed, it’s half and half. I’m a voyeur in the sense that I’m not in the moment, but in a way I’m a part of the moment, because I put myself in the moment by taking the photo. But initially, I’m not part of the moment and those are the moments that I take photos of: things I’m not a part of and I vicariously want to be a part of and live through. And all of a sudden, in a way, I take ownership of that moment and say, it’s my moment as well and I feel as free as the person in the photo. It’s all about a connection I have with the subject and what’s happening.
What is it like capturing your own communities vs. shooting for magazines or shooting Miley Cyrus?
It’s all correlated actually. The majority of the time, I guess I get hired for my fly on the wall aspect I have. The way I think of it is I’m a kid in a candy store and the candy store just so happens to be the club or a fashion show, or it happens to be a music video set and I get to just run around and be surprised by everything that’s happening around me. I feel like that’s what's kind of kept my consistency in all my photos: I’m really honestly just surprised that I’m capturing what’s happening around me because I'm so stunned I’m in the moment and I’m there, so it’s really the surprise factor of everything happening around me. It’s not really a formula happening in my head. You’re going through the experience of me being like, “Whoa it’s Miley Cyrus, I only know her as [Hannah Montana alter ego] Miley Stewart.” These celebrities are important to me as well as they’re important to everyone else, and the aspect of being a fan really is I guess what has fueled my participation as a photographer in all these settings — being a fan of clothes, fashion, art, media, people, and influencers and all those things. My fangirling over them makes me be like, “I need to capture this moment before I lose it.”
“It became like a dance with the subject, knowing when they were going to take a puff of that cigarette, knowing when they were going to laugh or do a dance movie that I would find really beautiful.”
Do you feel like as you get bigger though, you still have that sense of, “Oh, I can’t believe I’m here?”
It’s interesting because I was at the Met Gala — that’s very weird to say — I was there and it was just really interesting being surrounded by all those people that I’ve only ever seen on social media. I saw Mary J. Blige and I fangirled over Mary J. Blige because I'm obsessed with her. I’m running around this place getting photos and I'm getting a photo of her and there’s that moment of me fangirling over someone that doesn’t know me. It changes the conversation a bit when some people know who you are because I can’t get the surprise factor. But it’s about the choreography of the moment and being like, “I need to catch this person when they’re not expecting it to get the best photo.”
Right, it doesn’t mean you can’t elicit that reaction. You just have to change your tactics.
Yeah, work a little harder.
I know you’ve talked about how photography is like choreography, especially nightlife photography. Are there elements of choreography of dance in your work.?
I think I’ve always been attracted to movement, especially like just watching TV shows. This is so random, but I don’t know if you’ve ever had a DVD player, but when you play a movie so many times and it skips and stuff sometimes the DVD will pause on a moment in the movie. This is so weird, I think I got really attached to the things my DVDs would pause on, and those moments I sort of mimic in my photography. Finding moments that are sort of in motion, but it's like a freeze frame of that moment. Being a dancer taught me to look ahead of movement and know people’s mannerisms, which has helped with getting to know them in a 20 second span. If I have 30 minutes with an artist, I have to really understand their mannerisms and their movement in order to get everything that I want. It’s a bit of a dance of moving and sort of getting to know people.
Who are your favorite subjects to shoot? Friends? Celebrities?
All of the above. My main goal — and this is a really big goal — is to shoot everyone in the world. And I don’t mean one-on-one. I mean at a party setting or at a concert, and really getting that sense of community when we’re all together. I’ve loved shooting my friends. I know them really well and I can make them do whatever I want. I’m like, “Do a backflip or a cartwheel!” Some celebrities have become really good friends along the way and that connection is there to make really good images as well.
I want to ask you about your TikTok and your maximalist approach.
[Laughs] No one has asked this question.
It seems like it’s an homage to your friends and your actual life. But it’s very maximalist, which I love. What’s the vision behind your TikTok?
[Laughs] Yes. I don’t know! I feel like when I was in college, Instagram was sort of my safe haven, like I’d do whatever I want. I’d be doing splits in the street, making funny videos, living my life. Again, I feel like I’m a nobody, but getting more and more attention, it feels like sometimes people expect a certain voice from you, and I feel like on TikTok, I can do what I love. The other night, I was walking home and there was the light of the bodega and it looked so good on me, and I was like, this is my moment. I made, like, 20 TikToks and I was having the best time of my life. I love to feel free and TikTok is really where I can be free. I can just be myself. I don’t have to do anything. It has entered my dating life a little bit because Hinge and Tinder people are like, “I know you from TikTok!” and it’s like, is that attractive to you? It's a double-edged sword.
I think there's something cool about having a safe space on the Internet, especially as Instagram becomes more “professional” or curated. People like TikTok because it offers a sense of messiness that Instagram has shied away from.
100 percent. It’s funny because also during lockdown, I made little films and now I just take videos of my friends at parties and it’s just really interesting because it’s another element of my photography that’s me making my friends look gorgeous.
NYLON has a series called FOMO where we post photos from parties each week, and people love it. People are so tantalized by nightlife photos generally. Why do you think that is?
As New Yorkers, especially, and also being in the art world, we really forget that there’s a whole world out there that really is going to work every day and isn’t really privy to experiencing the sort of moments that we get to live every day. We’re really special, and we really are free. I feel like a lot of people, like my mom, especially, or my little brother, watch my stories and even probably experience the NYLON FOMO photos and are like, “I want to be a part of things.” They just want to feel a part of a community they haven't felt before. Like, I just want to go to the club and go to a cute dinner, I want to feel cute. Being in New York, we kind of feel cute every day. As a child, I romanticized New York City so much that when I came here, it was about me taking ownership of that romanticization and that fantasy and saying, “I’m going to make the best of this.” Nightlife photos and photos where people are documenting their friends, especially, there's such a feeling to them that can’t be duplicated. It’s one night only, and I feel like the majority of those times when those photos come out it’s like, “What happened? Who was there?” And, “We can’t do this again.” So it's’ just about all those things coming together.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.