By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
The most popular fashion accessory in the clubs isn’t a bag, or shoes or even a piece of jewelry, though the way it’s being worn, it’s not unlike a bling thing.
It’s a camera. And whether it’s a big black pro-zoomer, a cutesy pastel trinket or conveniently part of a cell phone, you can’t stand near a rock stage or in the middle of a dance floor these days without flashes fluttering to the music like feisty, funky li’l fireflies.
It’s a sign of the times. Reality TV, YouTube, blogs, MySpace .?.?. big brother is not only watching us, we’re watching him. And each other — catching foibles, falls and fights, dance moves, hookups and getups — and digitally archiving everything for all to see in cyberspace. Forever. And that’s just us normal folk. Consider the paparazzi-celeb love-hate bond, and there’s no denying it: We’re in the midst of a photographic free-for-all.
Which makes the photo booth an appealing alternative. Though its resurgence is definitely an extension of the flash fury, the booths — and we’re talking about both the lights-and-a-backdrop snap spaces set up at clubs and events, as well as the original, sit-in-a-cubicle kind that spits out a strip o’ pics — have a more old-school sensibility. You enter them purposefully, prepare poses and do it all over again if you don’t like what you see.
Seasoned clubsters mugged for the camera in makeshift photo-shoot-ready corners at dress-up events like the Fetish Ball, Club Makeup and Club Cherry back in the day, but almost a decade later the snapping spaces seem much more in sync with the times and — thanks to advances in technology — the short attention spans of a new generation.
“Did we even have digital cameras back then? It was such a process,” remembers DJ/photographer Apollo Staar, who created glam backdrops and a Warholian photo-shoot atmosphere for clubs like Makeup, Beat It (still going) and goth gathering Coven 13. “I had to take the rolls of film in, then scan each photo, then upload them onto the Web site. Now it’s instantaneous.”
Staar, who now confines his picture passion to his own Hollywood photo space, Ultrastar Studios, also notes that club photography has a whole new purpose. “It used to be about promoting the club. Now people want pictures to promote themselves.”
Twenty-two-year-old Rony Alwin of Rony’s Photobooth knows this only too well. His work is all over social-networking sites like MySpace, Facebook and Buzznet, and since the subjects are often popular — singer Uffie, designer Jeremy Scott and promoter Keith Wilson — Alwin sees it as flattering free exposure. “It’s pretty neat when like 50 people are using my shot as their default photo.”
Though Alwin is best known for his Polaroids — he started out shooting with an Instamatic at hip-kid cave Club Moscow about two years ago — he says there’s never been any competition with Mark “The Cobrasnake” Hunter, whose site was called Polaroidscene when he first started. “We’ve been friends from the beginning. He was one of the first people to enter my booth.”
The undisputed king of the club snappers and a regular Weekly photog, Cobrasnake may have inspired a handful of wannabes (some of ’em even look like him, while others have forged their own style and fan base — see Shadowscene.com), but there’s a big difference between the wandering photog who snaps you sipping and sucking face in the crowds, however artfully, and the booth shooter.
“I really want people to look good,” says Alwin, who briefly studied photography in community college and played assistant to the likes of Rankin before going out on his own. “I always make sure people are happy with the photo before they leave the booth because it’d be a drag to get all excited about seeing your picture and then go to the Web site and not like it.”
You may not be model skinny, or model tall or even model attractive, but you can still channel your inner Kate Moss (complete with blaring rock and electro soundtrack) when you step into Rony’s booth, set up regularly at Dance Right Thursdays at La Cita and Banana Split Sundays at LAX. “Some people have never even had their picture taken professionally,” he adds. “For them it’s a treat.”
Even more of a treat than a well-lit shot of yourself frolicking at your favorite hotspot? How about becoming the centerpiece of an intricate art-directed fantasy environment? That’s exactly what Joe Miller and Joe Rubenstein, the duo behind Polite in Public, have created with their elaborate backdrops and digitally enhanced images. The pair, who started out shooting mini atmospheres at parties in their downtown loft about a year ago and then branched out to the underground speakeasy parties of the Bohemian Society’s Victor Wilde, have garnered quite a following for their vibrant images, often themed according to the event: An Andrew WK gig at Check Yo Ponytail had a Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride theme, while a bash at the Playboy Mansion featured a sexy hospital setup.
Incorporating elements of installation art and performance art and often dressing the participants as well as the sets, the Joes (both of whom have graphic design and filmmaking backgrounds) aim for an interactive experience. “We let the crowd dictate the backdrop,” says Rubenstein, who recalls a spray-paint-splattered alley motif they did for a recent night at Club System at the Knitting Factory. “We knew there’d be a lot of cool kids in American Apparel–style clothing, so we went for a street feel.”
Rubenstein notes that their most interesting shots so far have come when they limited the room in which subjects stood. “In a small-box-type space, the person becomes more dominant,” he says, citing one of their early shoots inside what looked like a toilet stall. “People worked harder on posing, and gave us more, doing their little dance inside. They understood their context better.”
Which brings us to the cozy confines of the real-deal print-while-you-wait photo booth. It may be less glamorous than mugging for a flesh-and-blood photog, but it’s no less fun. Plus its privacy often makes for more provocative and entertaining results. And its popularity seems to be permeating pop culture: at our favorite bars (see sidebar), as home décor (Dave Navarro and Bret Ratner boast booths at their abodes), on television (TLC’S LA Ink uses one to groovy effect in its promos) and at corporate-sponsored events.
Big biz, always down to co-opt a cool trend, has also benefited Polite in Public (a cigarette company sponsored their latest tour, and they’ll be doing stuff with Box Eight and Fashion Week this October) and Rony’s Photobooth (alcohol brands paid for his nifty setup at parties connected with this year’s Coachella). And the fashion world is falling all over itself for a book of photo-booth shots from NYC nightclub MisShapes.
So what’s next for these skilled soiree snappers? The Joes and Rony talk about making their sites even more interactive, offering visitors the ability to connect, link and exchange ideas. But maybe the bells and whistles aren’t really necessary. After all, when it comes to the retro photo booth, its simplicity is part of its charm, and despite every technological advance, a picture alone is still worth a thousand words.
Beauties and the Booth
On the Web
In the Bars
Cha Cha Lounge, 2375 Glendale Blvd., Silver Lake
Beauty Bar, 1638 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hlywd.
Short Stop, 1455 Sunset Blvd., Echo Park
The Standard, 550 S. Flower St., dwntwn.
BAR 107, 107 W. Fourth St., dwntwn.
The Scene, 806 E. Colorado St., Glendale
Rent Your Own
Redcheese.com (color shots with red backgrounds)
Capitalphotobooths.com (old-timey black & whites)
Apluspartyrents.com (tiny sticker pics with funky borders)
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