The Glorious Return of the New York City Party Photographer

·4 min read
Photo credit: Quim Llenas - Getty Images
Photo credit: Quim Llenas - Getty Images

Photographer Neil Rasmus will never forget the last big bash he worked before the coronavirus pandemic shut down events for over a year. It was an event for the Brooklyn Museum’s Studio 54 exhibition in March 2020, and during the time it took to celebrate the show, two things happened: “Tom Hanks got COVID, and the NBA shut down,” says Rasmus, who co-founded BFA, a boutique photography agency. “I literally walked out of the event and was waiting for the car, and I remember reading that on my phone. And that was the last event.”

In time B.C. (before coronavirus), photographers like Rasmus, the late Bill Cunningham, Ron Galella, and Patrick McMullian were as centric to the New York City social ecosystem as event-goers themselves—if not more. For years, they captured the essence of New York and its society, somehow making it more exclusive by doing so. In the age of “pics or it didn't happen,” searching a photographer's site for photographic evidence, proof they were there, became a morning-after ritual for party goers. Yet another small piece of life that nobody realized they would miss before it vanished last spring. But now, at last, the comeback is imminent.

The role of the party photographer within the rebirth of New York might be summarized by BFA's slogan: “Images matter.” It’s true; Everyone loves a comeback story, and no story is complete without visuals. Undeniably, 2020 goes down in history as a monumental year, but the cultural revival in its aftermath will be just as historic. “The documentation of New York City after a pandemic that essentially shut New York down for a year is some of the most important work these photographers are going to have the chance to do,” says Stephanie Ketty, vice president of business development for BFA. “Seeing everyone so excited to be out and getting that documented is gonna tell such a bigger story about New York as they write it in the history books. I don’t think we even realize how big this moment is because we’re in it.”

As the pandemic forced us to trade professional shots for selfies and screenshots, photographers (like everyone else) adapted to survive. “What [the industry] has been for the past 14 months, if nothing else, is just confused about what they could do, and how to do it right—how to do it respectfully,” Rasmus says. For their part, BFA pulled it off well, consistently working on virtual events for brands like Coach, Burberry, and Chanel. Then came the Grammys. Ketty says their “biggest moment” during the pandemic was producing a portrait studio at the Grammys. Guests included Dua Lipa, Harry Styles, and Megan Thee Stallion.

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One of their Miami-based photographers worked with Alexander McQueen, shooting footage of the in-store safety protocols. The hope was that the videos would make customers feel comfortable shopping in person again. Therein lies another way photographers are proving crucial to this comeback; to lead by example, leaders need to be seen. “It’s gonna take some leadership to show people it’s OK to go out and have fun again and see people and hug people you haven’t seen,” Rasmus says, reporting that this June is the busiest of his 17-year career.

It’s evident that virtual events are here to stay in some capacity. Ketty, Rasmus, and Darin Pfeiffer, a socially prominent event producer who specializes in hosting premieres and red carpets in Los Angeles, New York City, and the Hamptons, agree that remote elements will continue to make sense for clients with certain circumstances. “We saw so much results from the virtual events that I think they’re here to stay in some form via the hybrid event,” Pfeiffer says. Still, the role of the photographer is far from obsolete. “The need for photographers isn’t going anywhere,” Pfeiffer says. “Yes, it’s evolving. Yes, there are other layers to it now. But the photographer tells the story. If you don’t have the photos to prove it, it didn’t happen. A good photographer, especially in New York, can convey the atmosphere of the event to the people that weren’t there.”

Now, after 14 months of an unimaginable reality, socialization is back with a vengeance. Things are ramping up fast. Summer’s schedule is heating up, and the fall is guaranteed to be one big jubilation. As for the in-person event Rasmus is looking forward to the most? “The first packed, sweaty after party with live music.”

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