20 Questions With Nyc Night Life Photographer Rebecca Smeyne
From out of nowhere NYC photographer REBECCA SMEYNE caught our eye, now get ready cuz shes gonna catch YOURS!
We had a virtual chat and delved into Becky’s kaleidoscopicÂ world:
Becky, when did you start taking pictures?
When I was 27, in 2005
What was the first party you photographed?
It was a party at a hotel in NY with Sonic Youth in 2006.
Whatâs your scene and how did u get into it?
Mostly I cover the arts scene and creative culture. Within the arts, I’ve maintained an ongoing focus in multiple areas; for example: the art-punk scene, the freakier and more avant-garde edges of the nightlife scene, the Brooklyn drag scene, the ball scene, extreme gatherings like the West Indian Parade and Bronycon and Fashion Week and Art Basel and SXSW and other festivals. It’s a bunch of different scenes that are fluid in some ways, and totally distinct in others. It’s fun to observe how they do and don’t overlap, evolve, and inform each other.
I started in this direction organically, as a product of my combined interests and hobbies. Before I ever had a camera, I was interested in the sociology of style, i.e. the presentation of self as a communicative device — in college I wrote my thesis on the sociology of t-shirts, and after school worked as a fashion stylist for a few years. And I’ve always been into music and art and curious about exploring NYC nightlife and events – that’s something I’ve been doing for 17 years, but once I started shooting, the frequency increased dramatically. Shooting at events added a layer of purpose and engagement that made the experience of going out more enjoyable for me, as I’m somewhat introverted by nature and would tend to just stand around awkwardly before that, not quite knowing what to do with myself. After a year obsessively developing a portfolio, I was lucky and managed to find a few loyal clients who paid me to continue exploring this direction, so that fed the beast.
Do you party when you take pictures?
Often I do because integrating into the environment in that way makes it easier to get candid and character-revealing shots – it’s usually easier to get honest shots when you are part of the scene yourself because people are more comfortable with your presence. And although “partying” doesn’t have to involve drinking or substances, a few drinks can make me feel more relaxed. Truthfully, I still experience a small amount of anxiety when taking all these candid shots, since many are at close range and with a flash – it’s an awkward process. Many of the parties I shoot have free booze too, and it seems like a shame to waste such opportunities. But, when it’s a high-pressure or more challenging job, or something out of my comfort zone, or for a big-budget client who is on-site, then I abstain.
Participant or observer?
Always observing; participant depending on what the subject/scene is and what the nature of the job/client is. I try to fit in as best I can, in terms of style and attitude and energy level. In some scenes I fit in better than others, like the underground music and nightlife and art world stuff. I’ve been doing this long enough that I am friends with a lot of the people I see out at those types of events, so in that sense I am a participant because I’m part of the community. But I also don’t feel like I totally fit in anywhere.
How do your pictures happen?
I research through the internet, especially Facebook, and also via word-of-mouth to find places and people who I think will make good subjects. Once I’m shooting, it’s like a sport in that I’m responding to and interacting with the moment and the environment on the fly. I lurk, I pay attention. I’m looking for vibrant, authentic character and energy, esp when it’s off-kilter or untraditional in some way.
Whatâs with all the musicians youâre shooting?
I’ve shot a ton of musicians – over 800 of them. The only reason I’ve shot so many is because I have had a lot of jobs doing that — most live bands aren’t really that interesting to shoot, regardless of how good or bad their music is. The exceptions, the ones that are interesting to me to shoot, are the kinds of bands I show on my website – bands with colorful, unique visual style that’s ideally a bit weird and doesn’t feel cliche. Examples would be Hunx and His Punx, Prince Rama, These Are Powers, Dark Meat, Monotonix, CSS, Quintron and Miss Pussycat. I’m not finding these types of bands quite as much anymore and I’m not doing many live music jobs anymore in general. The character of the environment â the venue, the crowd â is key with the music work too.
Where are all those backalley shots going on?
Not sure which ones you meanâ¦but prob some of what you’re talking about is from the bike parties, though others are probably just from various band tours and house parties. There are lot of bicycle clubs around the country with a very punk aesthetic – they build their own bikes – tall double-decker bikes and mutant bikes – not the kinds of things you’d ever see in a store. They throw crazy parties where they get wasted and play dangerous games – tall-bike jousting being the best-known example, but there are many others. A NY club called Black Label Bike Club hosts an annual event called Bike Kill which I’ve shot almost every year since I started shooting, and I went a few years to a post-SXSW party in Austin hosted by a club called the Skidmarxxx. Another time, I photographed a gathering in Virginia called Slaughterama. I was dating a guy when I first started shooting who introduced me to this bike scene, he was an insider.
What mindset are u in while you’re shooting?
Hunting and collecting.
What line donât you cross?
If people explicitly tell me not to take their photo, then I won’t. And I’ll delete or take down a shot if someone asks me to, with rare exceptions. And I don’t want to shoot people who are visibly distraught, it’s too insensitive. I would have a hard time being the type of news photojournalist who shoots the aftermath of tragedies, grieving families, etc. That’s too creepy.
What line do you cross?
Taking photos of people without their permission, especially with a flash, at close range, is crossing a line of propriety and I do it constantly. It is sometimes uncomfortable. I wish I were brave enough to do it on the street, outside of an event context, like Bruce Gilden or Mark Cohen or Martin Parr. Maybe someday I will do more of that. Early on, in my second year of shooting when I was doing more street work, I did a bit of that in China and a man attacked me — he threw me on a table and started beating me on the head – the photo is on my site, in the travel section, of the shot that set off the incident. It’s much easier to get away with this style of shoot at events vs on the street because people are more accustomed to having cameras around at parties, they notice less in heavy crowds, and care less when they’re drunk.
Every time I take “smile for the camera” type of party photos, which I only do because many event clients want that. I feel like it contaminates my vision. Also, one time I got physically attacked by a musician who had issues with flash photography. I published a story about it and the consequent barrage of negativity on the internet by his fans and photo trolls was not fun, nor was the incident itself. Although, I pursued legal action and actually got a nice settlement, so it wasn’t all bad, in the end. Also I’ve had a fair number of accidental equipment casualties in wilder settings. I also have been groped in some crowds.
Every time I get a shot that I’m really excited about. Also getting paid to go to so many amazing events that I wouldn’t otherwise have access to. I get some crazy perks occasionally too – luxurious sponsored press trips and stuff like that.
Place to be right now?
Club going off right now?
I’ve been spending a lot of time at Steel Drums, a warehouse/diy dance club in Greenpoint.
City to be right now?
Assuming you mean in terms of nightlife, either Brooklyn or LA. A lot of artists are moving from NY to LA because NY rents have gotten out of control in the last 5-10 years, so the scene there has picked up a lot. I hear that London and Berlin are pretty fertile as well, but my personal experience is limited.
What environment makes you shoot better pictures?
Many factors â visually interesting subject matter, energy level, the decor (or lack thereof), the quality and intensity of available lighting.
Are you on a mission?
Yes. I’m creating a specific vision of the world â my mission is to keep expanding that vision. Not all the photos I shoot fit into this – some things I shoot just for jobs, but in terms of whatâs on my website, thatâs my vision.
Whatâs your work mantra?
Just to follow my instincts and intuitions, and to keep pushing forward.
How do you perceive your environment and your subjects?
With affinity and fascination.
How would you describe your take on photography?
Itâs raw, dynamic, and colorful with a documentary soul.
Would you work as a paparazzi for the right money?
If it were a one-off thing that fell into my lap and I needed the money, yes. Not ongoing.
Which artist do you dig right now?
I’ve been listening to a lot of Death Grips and Future. Also, the photo book/autobiographical novel “And Everyday Was Overcast” by Paul Kwiatkowski.
We say fizzy, you sayâ¦dizzy.