“If you don’t know Patrick McMullan, you ought to get out more.”
Ever wonder what it is like behind the scenes of those star-studded parties that you see plastered on the cover of US Weekly? Patrick McMullan, one of the world’s most celebrated party, fashion, and society photographers is just the person to offer you a peek inside. With a career spanning three decades, McMullan has obtained status on par with his subjects. McMullan got his start in the early 1980s shooting the downtown New York City scene for the original Details magazine, with nothing more than an Instamatic camera and the encouragement of Andy Warhol. Nowadays, McMullan has upgraded to a Nikon and parties guarded by velvet ropes. His photographs appear daily on his website www.patrickmcmullan.com and in his weekly New York Magazine column, the “Party Flash.” I spoke recently with A-list insider McMullan to get the dish on the city that never sleeps.
Harbus: What got you interested in taking pictures?
Patrick McMullan: I was always into photos and taking pictures. Growing up, pictures were always around. I come from a big Irish family so there were a lot of parties and pictures. My mother made photo albums out of all the different pictures. Looking at the photo albums is what really got me interested in photography. I have a lot of good memories associated with those photos.
Harbus: Would you label yourself a paparazzi?
PM: No. I think of myself as an event photographer as opposed to what some people would call a paparazzi. I’m not really interested in photographing stars. Most of my pictures are of regular people who do not mind being photographed. In fact, I get hired to be the photographer of record at a lot of the events I attend. Occasionally, I make money from selling a celebrity photograph. For instance, someone called me and asked if I had a photograph of Martha Stewart with Sam Waksal and I did.
Harbus: How did you meet Andy Warhol?
PM: I met Andy during my Studio 54 days. My roommate at NYU, Ian Falconer [author of the children’s book Olivia] was invited by a friend to The Factory (Warhol’s art studio). Ian invited me to come along, so I ended up meeting Andy and hanging out.
Harbus: Did you learn anything about photography from Andy Warhol?
PM: Andy often said “You should always have a camera on you. You never know what you might see”.
Harbus: What were the 80’s in New York City like?
PM: The 80’s in New York City was a big party culture. I worked for Details magazine, which at the time was a nightclub magazine, so I was always out at the nightclubs. It seemed like people lived to go out to places like Studio 54, Danceteria, and The Mud Club. There was this large culture of people who worked during the day and lived at night.
Harbus: Has the New York City party scene changed over the years?
PM: I used to do more nightclubs, and that scene was a lot later at night. The scene today is mostly centered around charity events. Now most of the parties I cover are from 6 p.m. until 12 a.m. Interestingly, most of the charity events have a tie-in with corporations. There is this branding thing occurring to get people to come out. For example, there will be a party hosted by Absolut Vodka, presented by Aveda, benefiting AIDS, in honor of Katie Couric.
Harbus: Does the rest of America party as hard as New York City?
PM: Yes and no. Yes, because wherever there are young people there are going to be parties. No, because New York City, and maybe Miami Beach, has a taxi cab culture, so people can party harder because they can just get in a cab and go home. In other places like California, where people have to drive their cars, they can’t get smashed at a party because they will get a DUI or could kill someone.
Harbus: Is the era of sex, drugs, & rock-n-roll over?
PM: I don’t think it will ever be over as long as there are young people. The idea of it being “in” might be over, however. I think people are more art driven rather than drugs and rock-n-roll driven these days. People are more interested in being creative and not just interested in getting high. In the 70’s and the 80’s the counterculture involved a lot of drugs, but today I don’t think the counterculture is based on drugs.
Harbus: What is the most memorable event that you have attended?
PM: Every year Vanity Fair has an Oscar Party. I still remember my first time going. Everyone in the movie business was there. It was a room filled with the super famous. It’s my most memorable event, not so much because of the celebrities, but because Vanity Fair threw a great party.
Harbus: Speaking of celebrities, who is your favorite to photograph?
PM: I like Julia Roberts. It seems the more glamorous they are, the easier they are to work with. Stars like Julia Roberts already have their look down so they are always ready for you to shoot them.
Harbus: Do you ever get tired of the constant parties and events?
PM: I get tired of answering that question. Of course I get tired, but I sleep later than most people. I wake up at around 2 p.m. and go to sleep around 5.am.
Harbus: What was the inspiration for your new book InTents?
PM: It’s the tenth anniversary of 7th on Sixth, the organization that hosts New York’s Bryant Park-based Fashion Week, so I wanted to do something to mark this period. I have always had a great time under the tents. The best fashion shows are those with a lot of space, beautiful models and beautiful clothes, that allow me to run around taking pictures of everyone. Everything about the tents is invigorating. I call it fashion ecstasy. I work backstage, so the pictures in my book are about being backstage and up close to my subjects during the fashion shows.