Party photos are more than ubiquitous– images of gleeful off-duty models chugging champagne and wild-eyed kids of questionable age tearing it up at some after-hours are about as surprising as seeing someone on the subway brown baggin’ it to work. And yet, those once responsible for documenting it all are quickly becoming an endangered species as Instagram and selfies threaten to reveal the party photographer as nothing more than a middle man.
But the guys behind SGU — a sort of photography zine formatted like a tabloid, which you may have seen stuffed into newspaper boxes around town — seem to think party photographers are more relevant than ever. They’ve put together an exhibition featuring a crew of self-taught photogs who couldn’t imagine themselves doing anything but getting buck and documenting the mess that ensues.
Mikhail Sokovikov and Jason Aaron Wall, known as Mint&Serf, met in the mid-’90s in New York while they were expending most of their energy as street artists. They’ve spent the past two decades collaborating on various art projects, one of which is SGU. “It’s our answer to blogs,” Mikhail explained.
“Never Too Young” opened in conjunction with the 7th edition of SGU, and both feature the work of up-and-coming photographers Mike Krim, PJ Monte, Osvaldo Chance “OJ” Jimenez (aka Slutlust), and Harry McNally (scion of Balthazar and Cheche Midi owner Keith McNally). At least three of them identify as party photographers.
The day after the show’s Aug. 21 opening at No Romance (an exhibition space that opened in Chinatown this spring, with the goal of highlighting downtown artists) I met up with the four photographers and Mikhail at the gallery, down the block from Mikhail’s studio. The conversation that ensued was a little bit brunch-brained, but in keeping with the spirit of hangover honesty, also quite revealing.
Mikhail: A lot of us have connected through nightlife and through an ideology of non-conformity, and in a way of never growing up. We are a bunch of Peter Pans in the Never Never Land. You know, you run around New York City nights, eventually you meet so many good people. But Mike [Krim], I just met two months ago, but I think he fits so well into the nightlife crew we got. But I’ve known [Osvaldo Chance Jimenez] OJ for like 7, 8 years and I’ve known PJ [Monte] for like 5. Harry [McNally] I’ve known for probably like 8 years.
Since you go to a lot of the same parties, you guys find yourselves photographing the same things?
PJ: It’s just like reppin’ and documenting. In my mind, if we weren’t taking pictures and doing that kind of stuff, we’d just be complete maniacs and degenerates. So it’s cool to make something of it, to document it, you know. Because also for me, if I didn’t take these pictures, a lot of these memories wouldn’t exist for me. Not only just repping, and being out and going crazy, but kind of just in life, in general.
So do you find photos the morning after that you don’t remember taking at all?
PJ: Always, every single time. Probably 80 percent of it, I’m like… what was going on?
Mikhail: OJ [aka Slut Lust] developed 29 rolls from when we went to Russia and to LA. It’s just like, there’s so much stuff. But he doesn’t develop for a year, and then after that you’re like– Oh wait, that happened!
OJ: And plus I take photos like how I feel. If I’m in love, that’s a good photo, if I’m drunk– it’s blurry. If I’m shy, then it’s only like part of a head, or part of an arm. But my photos are mostly my emotions. And when I started taking photos it was because I got hit by a car. And all I kept thinking about the next day was, if I had died (I don’t live with my son, my family’s estranged), I kept thinking, if I just started taking photos and writing down every day of my life, like what really happens, the good, the bad, whether it’s drugs, or work, whatever I do– but at least the one thing a parent can give to their child is the truth and to know exactly who your father was.
Do you guys see yourselves as obsessive documentarians or do you wait for special nights to bring out the cameras?
Mike Krim: I don’t really like planning anything. Like if it’s thought out or forced, I’m really not that into it. I’m never like, “I’m going to go shoot a girl.” Because it’s just going to be awkward. Everything I shoot, like everyone I know is like a criminal, so it comes from that. Everything is natural, it’s candid. I’m happy that they even let me take a photo of stuff, because like– that guy’s doing life, that guy’s dead.
Mikhail: That’s why I was interested in getting Harry in the show, because he takes the opposite approach of just objectifying really mundane or ordinary things, and sets them up in the studio and kind of glorifies it, in a very Warholian kind of way. Like if you look at the [photo of] the New York Post box leaned over a trashcan, the way that’s set up, and even the photo of the crash, it’s something we see every day, but not in the same light, and there’s something glamorous about it.
But not all of your stuff is staged, some of it’s spontaneous?
So is the staged stuff something you’ve grown into more?
Harry: Yeah, I guess. I like what [Mikhail] said.
PJ: I also consider my life as my full-time job. And I consider real life and real people as the most interesting subjects. I try to always keep documenting that as much as possible, leave my stamp, I can only tell my story honestly. I prefer to tell it through pictures and stuff like that because I’m not really good with words. So I try to see what I see and document that and leave that as my stamp.
OJ: I write, and I have a stupid little blog with all my photos of nightlife. When you take my photos separate from the writing, it’s probably like “What the hell is he doing?” But when you read it, you’re like “Oh, Ok.” I feel like the words is what makes the entire package. Everybody likes to sensationalize nightlife, but my approach has always been a real deep sincerity. Where it’s like, you know, everyone wants to talk about the girl who OD’d, but no one wants to talk about the guy who put her in rehab and cleaned her up. And that’s what I write about.
How’d you guys get your start?
OJ: [Mikhail] found me, and I owe everything to him.
Mikhail: I don’t know about that.
When did you start photographing, though?
OJ: I started photographing like three days after my car accident. I went to the 99-cent store, bought a film camera and just started taking some photos. It took me a while before my first post, I didn’t thinking nothing of it. I would post it on Twitter at first, because people kind of know me from the internet, and then it just took on a life of its own. A lot of people were reading the stories and saying, “Wow, this is real shit, you approach it differently.” And it’s because I’m not writing for them, I’m writing for my son.
PJ: I just started taking pictures, I had a little digital camera. And I just found out more and more about it, what I like. I like shooting on film more than digital now. I shoot on this camera [a small plastic point and shoot], I think I got it for $3. I bought it because I liked the case that it was in. They break, you know, you just get another one. You keep shooting and it’s just the motion of life.
OJ: I’m not the studio rat, I’m not sitting there photo developing, learning how to use all the chemicals, or stuff like that. No, I go out, I have a real shitty photo developer, some Ukrainian dude in Greenpoint that’s dirt cheap.
Mike: Yeah. The problem with digital, is that you’re able to say, “That’s not good.” And then you can delete it and try again. So [with film] it’s kind of tight, because it just is what it is. You never know what you’re going to get. And you might have something that’s really good, but it’s not cropped right or angled right, and you’re like, “Well, that’s toast for that.”
PJ: I’ve gotten a lot of stuff that comes out bad, but turns out good. You know what I mean? I went to Italy last year, and my camera broke the first day, and I went to this little Italian shop and bought a little camera for 30 Euros or whatever and I shot 15 rolls in Italy. I got them all developed and the focus on the camera was completely broken. So every picture, except for one that I took out of a window, was blurry. But at the same time, some of my coolest pictures are completely blurry. I didn’t know until I got all of my film back and I was like, “Aw man.” But there’s some value in there as well.
OJ: My favorite thing is when I take a photo of people and they go, “Hey can I see it?” And I’m like, “Sure, meet me in two years when I develop it.” I still have photos from 2010 that are in my fridge that I refuse to develop because when I write about it, I want to write about what I feel when I see it, and not what actually happened.
Do any of you shoot medium format or is it just 35 mm?
OJ: Yep, 35 mm. The worst camera I could find.
Mike: I recently bought a good camera. And then I went to Coney Island, I shot one picture, and then I was like looking at these people and the camera just dropped and shattered. So it’s like, back to my shitty camera again. It’s better just to keep it under $100. I have [shot medium format] but mostly it’s 35 mm and sometimes Polaroids.
Aren’t Polaroids pretty hard to find now?
Mike: Yeah, there’s certain stores in the city that sell it, but you can just steal it.
OJ: We’re degenerates!
Mike: No, it’s expensive. It’s like $30 a pack.
OJ: Are you a cop?
No. So were any of you interested in art from an early age?
Mike: I was. Well, my grandfather was a photographer, my mom’s an artist, my sister’s a big illustrator. And I would always take photos of graffiti from the next day, I would go on these trips all over the city and I would always have a camera on me. And then once I got older, people started acting crazier and doing more stuff, so then it kind of just flowed into the lifestyle.
OJ: I used to do fine art in college, but go figure, I went to five different colleges. But for a long time I wanted to do this, but I was on drugs, I was in the worst period of my life. But once that car accident happened, I snapped out of it, and I was like you know what, fuck it, let’s just take photos.
And Harry what do you shoot on?
Harry: I’ll shoot on anything.
PJ: I’m from Montauk, originally, but I’ve been here for 6 or 7 years.
Mike: LA, but I’ve been here for 5 [years].
How do you think the city informs your work? Is thee city a big part of your work?
PJ: Definitely. That’s the thing, if you really want to be out documenting everything good that’s going on, it’s like there’s too much good stuff going on, especially in this city, to capture it all. That’s why I try not to, like, weigh heavily on, “I should have gone and shot this or that.” Because I’ll just do what I do, and I know it’s going to be good, even if I’m hanging out with the poorest of the poorest people, or the richest of the richest, or anything in between. To me, it’s all interesting, so I just try to go about what I do in my life and document it. I like the sincerity and authenticity of life.
OJ: New York is a beautiful creature, it’s pretty hard to like frame it in a regular way. The thing about New York, it’s such a beautiful thing– I’m just one story, one moment in a city where there’s 8 million. The fact that somebody listens to me is enough, and the fact that I can speak for my city. When people talk about the history of New York or whatever, and my name’s come up, like OJ was here, or whatever. That’s what I’ve always wanted in my life and now I finally have it. I don’t need money, I don’t need nothing fancy. I just need my name in print, somewhere.
Mikhail: New York is one of the last cities where the bars are open until 4. I mean obviously with the after hours, New York stretches the night out. LA closes at 2.
OJ: I take a million photos of the after-party. I’m like the after-party king. If I go home at like 6 a.m., I’m going home early.
Mikhail: When 4 a.m. hits, drug dealers and DJs are like, “Yo OJ, what’s happening?”
PJ: But it’s also like, New York is changing a lot. Like when I moved here, it wasn’t that long ago, or even in the prime of “Downtown”– or whatever everybody thinks of it as– but it’s changing. It’s getting worse and worse, more gentrified or whatever. I feel like shooting more and more pictures of what’s going on. Because when you take a picture a picture in a place, and now it’s a condominium, it’s sick that you have a picture of your friends, or these people in that place when it still existed. You know, I’m just in to documenting that time before it changes.
Mikhail: You can’t even spin hip-hop at a lot of the clubs in Manhattan. A lot of our friends are DJs, and the parties will get cancelled because there’s too much hip-hop. Everyone wants to enjoy New York City nightlife, but when you put limitations on it… There’s this thing about not allowing the flyer [for the opening after party] to have tits on it. Like how much more square can you be?
PJ: Everything becomes a kitschy version of what it actually used to be. You know, like a “Downtown Restaurant” or a “Downtown Club” opens up, rather than just being a restaurant or being a club that’s downtown. I saw the thing happen in Montauk where I grew up, it went from being a complete blue-collar fishing to now it’s a hot-spot, Hamptons nightlife thing. And every place is a kitschy surf spot that opens up, when before it was just a spot, just a bar.
Mike: It’s a gimmick.
PJ: It’s a gimmick of a gimmick. It’s like they’re trying to recreate some shit they don’t really believe in.
OJ: Everybody wants to throw a party until the party shows up, and then they’re like nah… We’ve been kicked out of parties all over the world now.
How do you approach people to photograph them?
PJ: It’s literally just like this: “Yo!”
OJ: I don’t even stage photos, I just take them. A lot of the dudes I know are like performers, DJs, musicians and I’ve been able to document their growth, so they love it.
PJ: That picture of Chloe [Norgaard]– she’s killing it now as one of the biggest supermodels out there. That was taken three days after she dyed her hair, which was what set her apart and made her famous, and she was about to dye it back blonde and I was like, “No, that’s sick!” And we took a couple pictures and she’s killing it now, she’s crushing it on billboards everywhere. But it’s so sick to take photos of your friends before they do anything, but even if they don’t do anything and it’s just them growing up. A picture of them, that’s invaluable to me.
And how do you approach criminals to photograph them, Mike?
Mike: Well, they’re just my friends. But I choose like what I let out and what I want to show. Because some stuff, obviously, I don’t even want a picture of it, but then the other stuff, it’s cool. But some of the stuff, I let years go by and sprinkle some of the stuff out, because it’s like past its eight-year statute of limitation.
OJ: Well you can be against it, but that’s like being against the world.
Mike: Yeah, I just try not to talk too much on it. I’ll just post a photo without too much information.
OJ: I’m about to write a paragraph on this [Instagram post], “I’ve been crying all morning.” The thing is, I didn’t have any power in my house for the last two days and I was thinking to myself, how did this happen on the same day that I have this ill show? But I remembered, when I was growing up– I grew up dirt poor– I didn’t have any action figures, I used dominoes to fight each other. And I remembered, that’s where my art came from. I didn’t have comic books so I used to draw my own. But if I die tomorrow, I’ll be happy.
PJ: I don’t want to die just yet, I still have a few things I want do.