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Snaking Through the Garden of Delight

Photos by Mark Hunter

Mark “the Cobrasnake” Hunter can pop up suddenly in front of unsuspecting partygoers and temporarily blind them with the flash from one of his Canon digital cameras, just as his nickname implies. For five or so nights a week since January, Hunter, 19, has photographed the coolest of the cool at parties, fashion shows and concerts mostly in L.A. but on occasion in New York City. Then he uploads the chosen few — beautiful, nerdy, egomaniacal, disinterested, naked, pissed — onto his Web site, www.polaroidscene.com. Through word of mouth and a network of contacts seemingly as extensive as an al Qaeda operative, the site has become a virtual society page for hipsters.

Hunter’s gregarious personality and respect for personal space, an anomaly in a profession tolerant of paparazzi, has parted many a velvet rope, including the one to the green room at the Vanity Fair In Concert benefit last month, where his focus strayed only slightly from the nameless to accommodate the faces — sexpot Gina Gershon; musicians Lou Reed, Dave Navarro, that human beat box with a mighty ’fro, Rahzel; and actor, model, musician and son of a musician Donovan Leitch. Gatherings for Fader, Filter and Black Book magazines, among others, have also helped ratchet up the Cobrasnake’s cachet to underground legend. “The amount of people who know me is crazy,” he says.

2004 Party Planning Guide: Wish you were here? Snaking through the garden of delight: MICHAEL HOINSKI follows photographer Mark “the Cobrasnake” Hunter on his party rounds. Dreaming the theme party: BRENNA SANCHEZ on what you can do with a little research and a lot of glue. The 50th birthday party: MICHELLE HUNEVEN creates a backyard paradise. Turkey among friends: JONATHAN GOLD finds family values without the family at his pre-Thanksgiving party. The comfort of tea: MARGY ROCHLIN learns to stop worrying and love the tea party. Beyond the barbecue: JOE DONNELLY on how to throw a serious party without blowing your budget ... or your marriage. Move it, pal: JUDITH LEWIS on the active party. Get close, very close: PETER GILSTRAP on Cuddle Parties. PC mommies: LIBBY MOLYNEAUX on surviving a children’s birthday party. Plus, MOLYNEAUX on potluck nightmares, CHRISTINE PELISEK on classes for the cooking-impaired, and a list of the city’s tray-chic catering services.

My first Cobrasnake sighting is the night of Ashlee Simpson’s gaffe on SNL. Earlier that day, over the phone, he invites me to a party at a warehouse on South Santa Fe Avenue, a seedy stretch just west of the L.A. River. Because he doesn’t expect to arrive until after midnight, I don’t commit to showing up. But after some ribbing from my girlfriend in the form of her singing ”Old man take a look at my life ...” (it’s a game we play), I get in the car and drive downtown, past the Staples Center and into an abandoned district along Olympic Boulevard. Heading north on Santa Fe, I find the warehouse next to The Play Pen, a totally nude establishment that I imagine is a base camp for cowboy dealers selling eight balls. A couple of 20-something entrepreneurs man the table at the warehouse entrance, asking for $5 and an ID if I plan to drink. Everything checks out so I am given a wristband, a symbol of legality in a lawless land.

Once inside, I instantly realize how much of a hipster I am not. Members of the Mean Reds, a youth spaz band with an Audrey Hepburn infatuation, mill about in torn stockings. Severe but carefully cut Flock of Seagulls haircuts compete for the night's perfect coif with the bowl cuts of Ramones fans wearing supertight jeans and leather jackets. A few kids don bunny ears in what I can only suspect is homage to Harmony Korine’s cult film, Gummo. I soon became jealous of a circle of dancers getting off in a way that only drugs allow. Hunter later tells me that people as young as 15 are in attendance. Where was this palace of sophistication and iniquity when I was growing up?

Standing in line for keg beer, I spot a bespectacled, skinny, little guy with lamb chops mutating into a beard and a bush of brunette ringlets bound by a white headband — a look befitting John McEnroe circa the early ’80s. Instead of the pink Paul Frank hoodie he occasionally sports to show off his Magnum P.I. chest hair, the Cobrasnake wears a three-quarters T-shirt, jeans and sneakers. On his shoulder, however, is a Paul Frank tote bag, a gift from his friend, Paul Frank. He points and shoots at a gaggle of kids as casually and haphazardly as we all wish the inevitable shutterbug at family functions would. He then briefly exchanges greetings before moving on to the next gaggle, which he shoots the very same way — from the hip and without need of a pose. He knows practically everyone in the joint, a worthwhile trait for a society photographer, and spends at least 45 seconds making each person feel that the world appreciates him or her. Finally, he disappears outside into a swarm of smokers and I don’t see him again the rest of the night.

 

The following night, at Star Shoes on Hollywood Boulevard, Paper magazine hosts a party to celebrate the release of a book documenting its 20 years of style coverage. Hunter is generous enough to put my girlfriend and me on the list — he’s got carte blanche to come and go as he pleases at a lot of places around town given the numerous relationships he’s cemented with PR folks and event planners. The vibe is monumentally tamer than the warehouse party, but includes complimentary vodka drinks. We sip screwdrivers while waiting for the Cobrasnake to finish shooting a Vice magazine fashion show at the Standard Hotel Downtown. Huddled around us near the entrance is a swarm of photographers looking for guests worthy of their film. They let a bald-headed transvestite strike some poses, as well as a redheaded actress from M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, but the money shots are of filmmaker Pedro Almodovar and the drop-dead gorgeous Penelope Cruz.

Eventually, Hunter arrives escorted by a bleached blond model from the Vice show. She bears resemblance to a young Courtney Love at the onset of a relapse, awestruck and blissful. Her eyes are coated in a raccoon’s mask worth of gray makeup to match her gray frock. “I have a stable of five girls who are my muses,” the Cobrasnake says. Translation: Hunter has a handful of women friends who routinely accompany him to functions, lending legitimacy to his gig. Tonight, in lieu of his Paul Frank tote bag, he carries a Louis Vuitton purse, in which he stores photo equipment. I ask him what’s up with the bag. “Louis Vuitton is pretty ridiculous ...” he says. “I can sort of get away with it; I’m a little flamboyant, but not in a gay way.”

A native Angeleno, Hunter graduated from Santa Monica High School and then dropped out of Santa Monica College his freshman year when he realized his calling. He initially promoted www.polaroidscene.com with fliers and posters depicting an actual Polaroid instant photograph. When the Polaroid Corporation found out about this gross misappropriation of its brand, lawyers sicced the Cobrasnake with a cease and desist order for trademark infringement. Rather than litigate, Hunter proposed a partnership, but Polaroid’s higher-ups weren’t interested. The company’s loss was the gain of Virgin Mobile, who has licensed Hunter’s images for print advertisements. As a result of the Polaroid debacle, the Cobrasnake will re-launch his Web site later this month as www.thecobrasnake.com. And while he admits that he’s not the only one doing what he’s doing, he says, “I’m the only weird, Jewish, hairy guy I know doing it.”

For all his obvious cool, Hunter doesn’t come off as self-absorbed or difficult. He’s not overtly malicious toward his subjects, and doesn’t aim to catch them in uncompromising, unnatural stances. Moreover, he’s willing to remove any photograph from his Web site that a subject deems unflattering — or perhaps they’ve been caught cheating on their lover — and replace it with “CENSORED.” He even considers nudity a relative no-no. “I don’t like too much nudity because then you turn in to Terry Richardson.” Despite it all, he does rub certain people the wrong way. Once, a graffiti-head whose photograph had been taken without proper authorization put the hurt on the Cobrasnake.

When I ask him what constitutes a good party, Hunter cites the obvious — kick-ass music, interesting people and free stuff (“booze, swag, hookers”). Real estate is also important. “If a space is too full and hard to move around in, it can be a disaster,” he says. “And there should be at least one celebrity so everyone can have something to talk about that night and for like the next month,” he adds. The Cobrasnake concedes that his photos can make a lame affair appear fun, a slight of hand attributable to his impromptu style of shooting, which is in direct opposition to the rigid, full-body, frontal poses that have become the norm for photographers co-opted by legendary nightlife photographer Patrick “Studio 54” McMullan. What Hunter does have in common with McMullan, though, is a desire to expand his operation to include multiple photographers working in various cities under the Cobrasnake brand.

Despite admittedly amateur Web design skills, Hunter is excited about his plans to expand his site to include Onion-esque editorial content other than the grab bag of e-mails he answers with stream-of-consciousness prose. Until then, he’s going to take it as it comes, and if he ever finds himself without direction, he can consult his mentor and former boss, Shepard Fairey. For two years, the Cobrasnake served as the guerilla postering sensation’s assistant, gleaning Fairey’s marketing acumen and absorbing his manifesto of phenomenology. Ruminating on his protégé’s work, Fairey says, “I always think of the Mick Rock party shot of Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and David Bowie, with Iggy wearing a T Rex T-shirt. The photo appears very casual, but the people there are collectively mostly responsible for art rock, punk and glam. Mark will have a photo like that under his belt at some point.” The Cobrasnake — Mark — intends to obey.


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