Before the era of TikTok and Instagram, if you wanted to see what the world’s most coolest cool kids were up to you had to turn to websites like the Polaroid Scene, where party kids like Mark Hunter, aka The Cobrasnake, would share garish candid photos of the weekend’s happenings. If you don’t remember it, trust us — it was a thing.
This was a special time in history that has since been lost to the all-seeing eye of social media. But we still fondly recall an era when the world’s biggest stars, like The Weeknd, Katy Perry, Steve Aoki, Taylor Swift, Kid Cudi, and Kanye West weren’t yet institutions (peep a young almost unrecognizable Kim Kardashian below) — they were just young kids, up and comers ready to take over the world.
It took a keen and quick talent like Hunter to see what was happening and to capture it. Now, nearly two decades later, the party-kid-turned-in-demand photographer has compiled many of those photos in a new book known as The Cobrasnake: Y2Ks Archive. The volume serves as a sort of yearbook for the hipster glam era of the early 2000s, compiling together hundreds of Cobrasnake’s favorite photographs in all their Pabst-drinking, flip phone-having, MySpace-using sweaty glory, as well as concert tickets, backstage passes, and other bits of cultural ephemera from the era.
We linked up with the Cobrasnake to talk about the book, the resurgence of party culture in the wake of Covid-19, and whether things have really changed all that much since the days before social media. Hunter was also nice enough to some of the photos you can expect to find in the new book, which is available now.
Tell me about the book, the Y2Ks Archive. Why was now the right time to put that together?
It was funny because I’ve been a photographer since 2004, officially, and I felt this itch where people started saying, “Man, your photos, where are they? I want to see them again.” But the funny thing is the process with Rizzoli took years and years and years and years. And so then it was just serendipitous that we waited until after COVID to drop the book and then it really sort of popped off.
What was the hardest part about putting it together?
I would say I was bored on the internet and so where on the internet you have unlimited space and storage and can post as many photos as your heart desires and in a book, you’re limited to the print pages and also dealing with the designer and the publisher. Another headache was that we tried our best to get everyone’s permission because we live in a world of consent. I wanted everybody to be excited about the book and so 99% of all the photos in there are model-released and everything, and that was very tedious.
I want to ask some questions about what it was like taking photos nearly 20 years ago. Back then, how did you embed with celebrities? Was it just the right time, and the right place? And now that you’ve started up a lot of party photography again, how do you embed yourself with a new flock? Are things different? I imagine your access is a little bit easier now because you have a reputation.
I’d say in the beginning it was a lot of right time, right place, and the energy was truly fresh and creative. I literally just was combing through maybe like ’05/’06 era and found photos of Katie Perry I didn’t even realize I had taken. I’m looking at how cute she was dressed and how much fun she was having, and I was like, “wow, I got to post these on Instagram probably next week with my Manic Monday throwback series.”
But it’s just funny because it was truly this chaotic, fun energy that I was so lucky to be a part of. At a certain point, I was then traveling with people like Aoki and Katie, and those were relationships that were formed in a very organic way through just being out and about.
Fast forward to the modern day, as you said, I have a bit of credibility now and I have my book out, so the next-gen recognizes that, and certain people are really drawn to the work that I had done in the 2000s and are reaching out to have me bring it forward, so that’s been really cool. And music artists especially, I love seeing what’s next and that’s been really, really fun.
You mentioned having to get in contact with a lot of the people you took photos with in the past. How did they feel about those photos now? I think about the way that everything now is so curated and people have this opportunity and the technology to really glamorize themselves to a point where they look otherworldly, but your photos have this rawness to them. How do they feel about seeing old, sweaty photos of themselves?
Yeah, well I think everyone’s secret is that we wish we could be younger, right? So these photos are already dated, so most people, I think, look better at that age. The funny thing is people, I’m not bragging, but people see me now and they’re like, “You look better now than you did in the party days,” well yeah, because I think I was bloated and staying up all night. But most people, that was their era, so it’s also a very special time because they’ll say, “Wow, I like when things were simpler or we didn’t have social media. We didn’t have Uber. We didn’t have this sort of cloud over us of control with,” — as you said — “Facetuning and Photoshopping images.”
And again, it’s mostly positive. We had trouble tracking it down… I wanted this photo of Lindsay Lohan and we just couldn’t get her to agree to it because she was busy and it wasn’t the most flattering, but it was a cool image. So it’s things like that where I wish that everybody would’ve been on board, but you can’t win them all.
Is it different photographing this new generation of talent because they grew up with all this access to all this technology where they can really curate their images? Do you still approach things with a sense of rawness or have you adapted some of that technology yourself?
Well, the funny thing is, my style of shooting is rarely asking to take a photo. I usually like to just hop in and take some photos. So I would rather not interrupt somebody dancing to ask if I could take their photo. I’d rather capture the moment. That’s always been a little abrasive and I admit it, especially a flash in the darkroom. But I’ve been basically battling that since I started, so I’m used to it.
It’s not every night, but once a month somebody gets mad being like, “You didn’t ask. Why are you taking my picture?” And then once I explain, they usually are more than happy and ask for more photos, so that’s the funny thing. But yeah, I still am raw.
I shoot the photos and I post them the same night from my camera, so there’s no editing involved and I’m very mindful. I want to make sure everybody’s happy. It’s a celebration. It’s not exploitation. And so when you go to the website, these photos are getting shared more than ever. They get uploaded and then the next morning, I’m tagged in Instagram stories, hard posts, TikToks, or whatever with those images. And so I feel like the party photos are living in an even more dynamic way in 2023.
Are you shooting on your phone now?
I shoot with a DSLR.
So you’re using the same technology you’ve always used?
Yeah. I haven’t really upgraded much. I think that’s the secret sauce people like that hard flash. It’s almost impossible to capture any kind of action shot at nighttime on a phone with a flash. It’ll be blurry or light trails or whatever. So it’s that solid camera setup that really gets you that kind of classic Cobrasnake feel.
How has party culture changed from a decade ago to now?
I think the main thing is, and I’m glad for it, is just people are trying to take care of each other more. With the rampant fentanyl issues, and again, I don’t really participate in the drug culture, but I see it and now you go to parties and there are test strips and Narcan and stuff so that you can party safer. I think that’s super important.
And then everyone’s there looking out for each other. I think one of the main things looking at in the Rizzoli book is the phones were so different or very not present. And now if you go out, everyone, including myself, so I’m not agnostic to this, but I have my phone in my hand because I’m usually getting a video at the same time or something. But there are way more phones in their hands and in most cases, they turn on for the camera and then they go back to whatever they’re doing.
That’s a sad state of things, whereas in the original days, they were just going crazy for the fun and it wasn’t for the Gram or anything.
Has party culture lost anything? I think that people who are in the previous generation, as they’ve gotten older, look back at the way a new generation does things and says, “Oh, well they didn’t do it like us. It wasn’t as fun as it was when…” Is that bullshit? Isn’t it the same?
It’s funny because I think there’s going to always be a new emerging scene and they won’t know about it. That’s where I have been able to transcend and tap into the new gen and I’m going to these DIY events that truly do feel like 2007. I’m not joking. I’m not manifesting it. It’s truly from the way they’re dressing to the way they’re acting, whether they watch too many movies or what, they’re playing the part.
So the events that I’ve been capturing lately are actually fun. I don’t think… Again, most people, I don’t know if aging out is the word, but most people evolve and they don’t want to be in a smoke-filled club till two or four in the morning. That’s just not their cup of tea. And so of course, they’re not going to think things are fun if that’s what they were doing when they were in their twenties or whatever.
Has COVID made all of this stuff harder? I mean obviously two years ago, I could see it being a big issue, but does there still seem to be a concern about that lately?
Honestly, no. I mean, it’s sad because there were all these underground events happening during COVID even, and they were sort of the response to the lockdown. They were like, we’re going to party anyway. The funny thing, and again, people are… I’ll still see today, people in masks at parties, and I think that’s pretty hardcore because you’re dedicated enough to go to the party, but you’re scared of COVID. So it’s kind of counterintuitive or something.
I think that you came up in a time when party photography was very sought after amongst people. People wanted to see, “what’s happening here? What’s happening there?” How do you view party photography in the wake of apps like Instagram and TikTok? Do those apps empower party photography because you’re able to share it more immediately and more directly, or is it harder to compete with people’s attention?
Yeah, for sure. I admit that I felt like I was almost obsolete in probably the year 2014. Previous to that, I was being flown all around the world, which didn’t even make sense to me, to shoot parties. And as social media sort of grew up, it wasn’t as necessary to have me there because you had everyone with their phone or a local guy was doing it or whatever. So for a while, I felt a bit disenfranchised, but now I feel even more empowered, kind of like what I was saying earlier, there are TikToks that have gone viral with my photos and they’re getting that much more exposure than what my website would’ve done.
So I feel like if you embrace social media, and I’m actually constantly trying to figure out new ways to share my photos, it works for you. And then also it’s almost like… It’s on steroids because I also get invited or hired to shoot influencers’ birthday parties, and then the collective social media reach from that party is insane. So then those photos are getting even more exposure and it’s sort of like, yeah, it’s definitely, I think, more helpful than it is harmful.
What was it like photographing Anna Delvey? How did that whole Club House Arrest thing start?
Yes, I think that was about her third event and she did a New Year’s party and maybe a Christmas party, so she’s not allowed to leave the house and has the ankle monitor, so there’s definitely some sort of kitsch, pop culture moment there. They hit me up saying if I’d be available for it. The event actually felt a bit punk rock because her apartment was a New York apartment. It’s not huge. It was just jam-packed with all of the cool downtown kids from the scene. Everyone was sitting on her bed and jumping on the bed and the DJ was in her bedroom and the fridge was full of random alcohol that people would bring, house party style. So it basically felt like a hipster house party, but with Anna Delvey hosting.
What are some of your favorite photos from the book and also some of your favorites that didn’t make it?
There’s a photo that I posted on Instagram and then was recently in the New York Times of Taylor Swift with this little point-and-shoot camera, and she’s at Katie Perry’s birthday. Again, it’s so cute because those cameras are coming back into fashion, but also very outdated technology. And then in the book, there’s an abundance of photos of myself and I was joking about being younger and so it’s cute to look back on my style.
It’s very personal, this whole project. Then there’s Andre 3000 holding the Polaroid Scene flyer, which was the name of the website before the Cobrasnake, and that was at a Grammy party where he just won for the Shake It Like a Polaroid Picture song, so that felt very serendipitous.
It’s almost like a personal yearbook of my friends, and so it’s nice to see them in there. Yeah, it’s just a really good mix. Obviously, I had way more photos that couldn’t make the cut just with the pages, so I’m hoping to do a second volume or something in the future.
How long are we going to have to wait for a volume of this current generation’s party photos?
Right? That’s a good question. It’s almost like the way they do these TV shows or movies where it’s like, oh, we’re going to jump back 10 years to tell you a story and then we’re reversing to the future. So yeah, no, I would be really interested because even for this book, people were like, “you capped it at 2010. You have amazing photos of Bella Hadid and that whole gen.” There’s Kendall Jenner, or I don’t know, all the Kardashians and stuff. I shot all of that from 2010 till current and so that’s a book in itself. Then there’s already another book. So it’d be interesting to strategize to figure out if it would be fun to put out almost a really quick 2022 recap or something if that made sense.
They could almost be yearbooks in a way.