“I used to have a diary where I would put photos up just for myself and then eventually some people found out about it and asked me to email them photos, so I decided to make a website. That way, everyone can view it and take whatever photos they like and it’s also a good way to remember things. It’s a fun way to remember the night,” Kathy Lo, founder of Kathy Is Your Friend, wrote via email.
Those of you too young to remember Kathy Is Your Friend might not remember just how controversial party photography was when Lo imported it to Vancouver. The seemingly simple process of taking pictures of people at parties and putting them up on a website was a surprisingly polarizing issue. Some of the biggest sites in this genre are Last Night’s Party and the Cobrasnake, who became popular in the early 2000s when the cheapness of digital photography made it possibly for an enterprising photographer to quickly take hundreds of pictures and document a party. The sites’ popularity stemmed from a combination of human vanity, curiosity and the desire to document social gatherings. Only Magazine called the sites running party photography in Vancouver out in an uncredited 2007 editorial that declared the existence of these sites to be “uncalled for and retarded,” citing that the photographers running the sites were talentless, unartistic fame seekers.
Lo has let her site disappear citing not enough time and too much competition as a reason, but she has used her experience to help herself launch a career in New York (she was even profiled as an up-and-coming fashion photographer by New York Magazine in 2009).
Lindsay’s Diet was singled out in the comments section of that Only article. Lindsay Elliott began her own site in a format similar to Lo’s.
Though Elliott clearly enjoys doing it, she is surprised how serious her detractors make it out to be, “It’s much less pretentious than people think it is. It’s just fun,” she said.
Elliott doesn’t see herself as hugely creative, but merely as someone who who filling a need.
“[Party photography is] a really easy fun service to provide for people,” said Elliott in a coffee shop on Main.
“I discovered digital photography … when my parents got me this shit camera and I’d bring it to the bar,” Elliott said while sitting next to Nicola Hillbrandt, who also shoots for Lindsay’s Diet. Elliott started out just shooting her friends, but worried that people would start creeping her Livejournal account, so she got a friend to help create a site modelled after the Cobrasnake.
“Everyone loves a photo of themselves,” said Elliott. It’s a way they can say to themselves and others, “Look I’m not boring. I’m out and having fun,” Hillbrandt said. If you do happen to see them out, “Let us take your photo,” Hillbrandt added.
Local promoter Jason “my!gay!husband!” Sulyma regularly hires party photographers for the primary reason that party photography is a valuable service for an event promoter. He said it provides “history and documentation.” The sheer act of documentation adds a sense of permanence and importance to an event. This legitimacy can be bought—most of the party photographers in town are more than willing to work for money—but whether someone was paid to take a photo of you at a party or not doesn’t seem to stop partygoers from being interested in seeing themselves and their friends having a good time while they nurse their hangovers and use photos to jog their memories of what took place.
Sulyma also pointed out that party photographers have a unique skill set that many (including himself) don’t have. “Who wants to see a big sweaty club promoter take your picture?” he said over the phone.
Whether or not it’s art is a topic that the general public may still be debating, but all the photographers I spoke to are of the opinion that it is.
“I treat it like it’s art,” said Jash Grafstein a.k.a. Swashbuckle, one of the founders of party photography photo blog, the Futurists.
“I really like to capture the essence of what is going on,” added his partner Kheaven Lewandowski, a.k.a. Hartbraker. The two decided to start their own website in 2008 after meeting in an Emily Carr photography class. Originally their site was designed to be a street style blog, but they decided this was too much work. They quickly turned to party photography due to its popularity.
“We covered a few parties and we saw our numbers skyrocket,” said Lewandowski. It wasn’t that far from their goal of doing fashion photography, either.
“Parties are usually where people dress up [anyways],” added Grafstein. They use the site as a way to launch their careers and have expanded their site to work with nine photographers.
“We bring in people who are keen on using the site to get their work out there,” Lewandowski said.
It’s worked so far. Lewandowski has used the connections he’s developed with the Futurists to start shooting music videos with Hot Hot Heat, and Grafstein has recently been shooting bands such as Seattle indie-rock heavyweights Minus the Bear.
Despite detractors, it is hard to imagine that a busy club night would be complete without a skinny hipster shoving his or her camera in drunk revelers faces and whether or not party photography is “cool” or “art” seems unimportant as it is clearly something that there is a strong desire for. As Sulyma pointed out, how else are we going to remember our young hedonistic days? And if the photos happen to be tastefully selected by talented photographers like those at Lindsay’s Diet and the Futurists, then so much the better.
“I think there’s losers doing it and there’s really cool people doing it,” said Sulyma, and that statement seems to make it clear that just as with any craft or art form, it’s up to its audience to separate the quality from the crap.