Naomi Watts thinks I’m a paparazzo. This is clear because she’s peering at me from the corner of her eye, warily eyeing my camera with its big flash affixed on top. It’s Friday night, and she’s standing in the doorway of Lit talking to actor Gabriel Garcia Bernal at the closed wrap party for Michel Gondry‘s next flick, Be Kind Rewind. I wait patiently to ask nicely for a shot, but instead get the Talk to the Hand gesture as she dashes out the door. Nice girls finish last.
Better luck with Mos Def, who grins easily with members of the crew. But I can’t blame anyone for being uncomfortable in this day and age, when shooting the star is big business. With blogs like perezhilton.com, tmz.com, and goldenfiddle.com adding to the already crowded glossy magazine market, celebrities must feel that everyone wants a piece of them for free.
You can see from the clips on tmz.com that the paparazzi are beyond unpleasant. There’s one shutterbug in town who is banned from more than a few clubs, and one night I found out why: When he couldn’t get into a venue he became so enraged that he pounded the metal barricade and screamed at the top of his lungs, requiring not one but four very large men to hold him back. Amazingly, eventually he called the cops on the club, and not the other way around. No, I can’t blame Naomi Watts for running away. I would too.
With non-stars, the situation is reversed. Friday night I was desperately seeking Susan at the Pyramid Club on Avenue A, but all I found were a few hundred gay men doing their best frat-boy imitations and dancing to Madonna songs. And they all wanted their picture taken, even though they weren’t a) doing anything interesting or b) dressed like Madonna. I was at this Madonnathon for a scant 30 minutes, but in that short time I was poked, prodded, and pushed by countless men who insisted I take their picture. There’s nothing more annoying than a drunk person poking you and shouting, “Take my picture!” I poked back, “No!” and turned to shoot the one Madonna look-alike I could see in the dark club. Snap.
Patrick McMullan, one of the original nightlife photographers, is more diplomatic. “Drunk people are often annoying, but I have always enjoyed direct people,” he says. I’m still inclined to support the method used by Alexander Thompson, a commercial photographer who shoots for Motherfucker: “I tell them I don’t have enough film, even though I’m shooting digital.”
The photoblogging phenomenon has helped convince regular people they are amazing enough to get their photo taken. (Merlin Bronques of lastnightsparty.com and Mark Hunter of thecobrasnake.com, I’m looking at you.) Coupled with the digital-photography boom and the prevalence of photobloggers, a paparazzi-type feel has erupted at every nightclub—places where not too long ago, anyone, famous or not, could let loose anonymously. Now people don’t just want you to take their photos, they expect it. Nightclubs are their red carpet, Motherfucker and Rated X are their movie premieres, and lastnightsparty.com and thecobrasnake.com are their Us Weekly and Star magazines.
“The first time I ever took pictures at Happy Ending, there were no other photographers there,” Bronques says. “People asked, ‘Why would you want to take pictures here? There are no celebrities here.’ But I love blurring the line between celebrity and the kids. A lot of the kids I photograph are as cool as any celebrity that I photograph.”
Bronques sees party photographers as an addition to the nightlife experience: “You have a cool DJ that plays good music, go-go dancers that hype the atmosphere, a host that makes it look cool, and a photographer who adds that sense of glamour to it. It helps a party.” You can trace that idea to Studio 54—all of us are in some way paying homage to the documentation of that glitzy era. But back then, nightclub photography wasn’t so commonplace. It meant something to get your picture taken.
Maybe it still does. At MisShapes, they have their own paid in-house photographers to document every kid’s fabulous outfit and divalike pout. On Saturday, a media-release sign was posted outside Don Hill’s, where the parties are held. And this summer, MTV Books will publish a MisShapes photo book. The party’s posed portraits have become so iconic that Scott Meriam, who shoots the images, says that during Madonna’s famous visit last year, she seemed to know precisely how to look for her “quote-unquote ‘MisShapes photo.’ She knew exactly what the photo was.” Indeed, on Saturday night I was standing next to a wall so unremarkable that I was stunned when an obvious newbie shrieked, “Oh my God! Is that the famous white wall?”
People even fake their own Last Night’s Party pictures. “People will tag digital photos taken in their bedroom in Bumfuck, Ohio, and put the lastnightsparty.com tag on the bottom,” says my photog friend Nikola Tamindzic, who takes shots for gawker.com. In digital club photography, he says, “There’s Merlin and then there’s everyone else.” (Merlin’s site now gets 35,000 unique visitors a day.) The unstoppable one-man machine, with his wig-and-sunglasses getup, has reached such heights in the public consciousness via lastnightsparty.com that he’s nearly a celebrity himself. One fan flew from Germany and went on a wild goose chase that ended with a happy ending at the Annex—when he finally met Merlin. When Bronques started snapping a few years ago, he was one of a few; now, he says, there are so many photographers, “It’s to the point I just stop taking pictures.”
Maybe that’s why the plebes do not take well to being turned down. When I was out at Cain with Zelda Kaplan, the 90-year-old club kid, I was trying to capture her ordering a drink at the bar when two thuggy types demanded I take their picture. When I turned them down, their menacing response was to play with my hair. “People who will go out of the way to grab you are not the people you want to have photos of,” Tamindzic says. “They are not interesting, and they aren’t going to be famous.”
Sometimes clubbers simply take matters in their own hands and insert themselves in the frame. Or they do what one drag-queen did to me at Rated X Saturday night—after assessing the result on my camera, she made me take another shot. Snap.
“(MisShapes DJ) Geordon and I have a saying,” Meriam says. “‘Just shoot everyone.'”
As for actual celebs, even local luminaries like Carlos D and Nick Zinner are notoriously finicky when approached with a camera. Even though they are public people, in New York they’re also just a face in the crowd at an East Village bar. Sometimes it’s easier to ask rather than shoot, and it’s always nicer. “I don’t like stealing pictures,” Bronques told me at Rated X, where there were at least three of us shutterbugs for the Halloween party. “I ask. I’d rather get a good, clear shot. I’ve only been denied twice, once by Keanu Reeves.”
For me, one denial stands out. The much photographed ex-Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha once requested I delete a photo I had just taken. “I’m so tired of being on blogs,” he said—and watched as I erased his picture from my camera forever.