The Rise and Fall of Party Photos

When everyone was a celebrity

For most party people, photographs capturing wild nights out are as much a fact of life in clubland as CDJs and Red Bull-Vodka. Whether it’s the gaggle of girls grinning manically for a drunken smartphone selfie, or the amateur video auteur watching the DJs entire set through his touchscreen, it seems that every moment of last night’s party is pushed out in real time 3G on a million Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts.

Not everyone is happy about this development. A few venues have banned cameras, including the notorious Berghain in Berlin and Brooklyn’s new techno temple Output. And several DJ, including the always outspoken Francois K, have made their dislike of cell phone snaps known.

Highbrow experimental festival Unsound recently announced their intention to ban all video and photography as part of the festival’s theme of “Interference,” and even asked the crowd to be self-policing of the policy.

“Our aim is to encourage our audience to focus on being in the moment, and not distract others out of that moment,” said Unsound Artistic Director Mat Schulz on the festival’s website. But asking a few hundred music fans interested in abstract shades of electronic sounds keep their phones in their pockets is a lot easier than convincing the girl with “DUBSEX” tattooed inside her lower lip not to mug for the lens at the Mad Decent Block Party.

Unless you have a time machine to take you back to 2001, the days of nights out sans megapixel memories are long gone.

Nightlife photography has never been so ubiquitous, but it’s hardly something new. Throughout the decades, party pics have not only archived various scenes, they have influenced the ways in which people party themselves. This feedback loop is inevitable in almost any cultural endeavor, but it seems particularly striking within dance music. Perhaps that is because even at its wildest popularity, clubbing is a mysterious ritual to the uninitiated. During the period of initial exposure, most new partiers are highly susceptible to having their behaviors influenced by the media that surrounds the event itself. To quote club expert James Murphy, “trying to get with the plan.”

This isn’t exclusive to dance music of course. Styles from hippy to punk have all metastasized via photographs into the wider public sphere. Dance music, however, has it’s own unique history with photography that is worth considering.

In the 80s, the UK acid house explosion was fueled by a mixture of salacious mainstream media reports and embedded scene publications such as Boys Own, the later of which offered up snaps of scene stars like Paul Oakenfold and Danny Rampling, along with random party people caught in the act — all in Kinko’s photocopy quality. Although most musicians from this era remained purposefully shrouded in secrecy, these zines, along with the more traditional UK music media, began etching out the first notions of superstar DJs through repeat exposure to these grainy images.

In America, similar regional publications like Milwaukee’s Massive zine would visually catalog localized scenes — in this case, the hardcorps techno community that centered around promoter/record label Dropbass Network. Distributed through similar channels as the punk rock zine movement, these homespun documents would find their way across the country in limited quantities.

Others regional pubs, like Southern Cali’s Lotus and New York’s Flyer magazine found larger distribution in the country’s largest markets, but it was a scrappy publication from the media mecca of Los Angeles that broke through to a national audience, and in doing so, begin affecting the rave aesthetic on a much broader scale.

That publication was URB. Founded in 1990 as a free newsprint publication, URB released its first national newsstand issue in 1997. Dubbed the Rolling Stone of electronic music by the New York Times, URB’s growth reflected the expanding American rave scene. However, despite it’s effort to cover the national and international scenes, the publication by nature of it’s location it was still undeniably SoCal. Each issue featured impressive photography that captured candy-laden Los Angeles rave scene that by this time was the largest in the country.

Suddenly, throughout the country, the LA party kid look became the American party kid look. Even cities like Detroit, with it’s rich and lauded history of dance music, was overrun by a new wave of kids whose introduction to electronic music was accompanied by an LA-written rave bible that instructed them on what to wear — pacifiers and furry backpacks.

This fad would swell along with the late-90s electronica wave in America, cresting around the Millennium and quickly receding as laws like the RAVE Act and the awful events of 9-11 cooled the public interest in candy-colored celebrations.

The next wave of club music would take a far more ironic (and skinny-jeaned) stance. Pinned to a conservative sense of nostalgia rather than a forward-thinking futurism, the sound eagerly aped ‘80s disco, new wave and punk. And the look was equally and aggressively retro. This new style was also disseminated by the far more pervasive platforms of blogs and early social media on what would be known as Web 2.0.

In 2004, a Brooklyn born musician named Merlin Bronques joined in when he launched a website called Last Nights Party to showcase the photos he was taking inside New York’s burgeoning hipster party scene. A blend of trashy ‘80s revival, indie rock cool and gay fabulousness, the scene captured by Bronques was loaded with colorful characters who seemed made for the camera. Around the same time, an underage shutterbug named Mark Hunter christened himself The Cobrasnake and began posting thousands of images daily from similar parties in Los Angeles.

Bronques and Cobrasnake

Within a few months, both sites were getting millions of page views around the world. People couldn’t get enough of the candid photography of epically wasted youth that was perfect for wasting time at work. And like URB before it, a new generation of kids (this time sporting fresh wolf tattoos and slamming cans of Sparks) sought out these parties for their own chance to emulate the scene they were viewing though the photographer’s lens.

Even URB recognized the tastemaker power of this online phenomenon, hiring The Cobrasnake to shoot its weekly Loose Tooth parties with hipster DJ/promoters Steve Aoki and Franki Chan in an effort to rebrand the aging magazine and step away from its ravey past. (Full disclosure, I was an assistant editor at URB during this time and was intimately involved in Loose Tooth)

Pretty much every old-media tastemaker outlet fell over itself to get a whiff of the cool emanating from the army of party photographers who quickly popped up in every major city, from Los Angeles to London. The demand for party photography became so big that marquee shooters began sending interns armed with SLRs to cover all of the events in their region — sometime dozens on a single week.

A well-known photo-blogger’s logo on the flier became mandatory for throwing a successful party. Top-tier shooters began traveling globally to point their lens at parties that, due to the homogenizing power of the Web, looked pretty much the same whether taking place in Phoenix, Arizona or Paris, France.

By 2008, the cottage industry of photo-bloggers was exploding with coffee-table books and branded clothing being sold along with a billion mouse clicks. The amount of photo content was unlike anything pop culture had seen before. However, it would be exponentially dwarfed as better quality camera-phones and mobile social media apps would soon put the next photo explosion into the hands of the partiers themselves.

This next wave, like previous ones, would start in Southern California. An intermingling of aging rave professionals, hipster Daft Punk fanatics, Burning Man bass worshippers and neon-clad SoCal teenagers would culminate in the largest dance music surge since the European rave explosion of the 1990.

[The European scene, having remained relatively stable throughout the past 25 years seems significantly, if not completely, immune to the extreme shifts in aesthetic seen in the American dance music community. One need only look at the extremely rare Wolfgang Tillman photos taken inside Berghain/Panoramabar in 2004 to realize how little the look of that scene has changed in the past nine years]

Ground zero for EDM can in many ways be traced back to Electric Daisy Carnival, the large-scale Southern California event held over from the ‘90s rave era. A visual smorgasbord of eye-melting LED displays, Cirque du Soleil-inspired dancers, Burning Man large-scale art (much of it with pyrotechnics), and tens of thousands of nearly naked young people, EDC was custom built for Twitpic. And as images emerged en mass from the annual event via social media, the demand for such sensory overload quickly spread across the country. Soon, the standard–issue outfit for young female EDM fans consisted of nipple pasties, neon panties and furry boots — regardless if said raver was rocking a Miami beach bod or a more typical Midwest muffin top.

The musical act also stepped up to the challenge of this new visual-first party paradigm, building their own massive stage shows and striking superstar poses to the glee of both fans on the field and, perhaps more importantly, fans online.

Which brings us to the small but potentially potent backlash currently being felt in, at least in the more underground quarters of dance music. When any music scene starts to be about the eyes more than the ears, it is raving on thin ice.

Mini-movie files such as animated GIFs and apps like Vine are the current capture du jour for party people who insist on broadcasting their fun to the fans at home. How this new format will affect the aesthetic of club land remains to be seen. What is certain is that wherever young people gather to look good and have fun, someone will point a lens in that direction.

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