DJ Steve Aoki crowd surfs at a party in Sydney
© Pat Stevenson
Nightlife

Behind the lens of club photography

Photographer Pat Stevenson has seen Sydney nightlife reinvent itself more than once. Here, he reflects on the magic of documenting a good party.
By Katie Cunningham
Published on
How do you capture the glory of a good night out? In some ways you can’t -- part of the magic of clubbing is tactile. It’s the feel of sweat on your skin, the heat your body generates dancing, the static created by a room full of people coming together to worship the same music.
But a good photo comes pretty close. A lens pointed at the right moment can document the joy of a certain track dropping, a friendship blooming on the dancefloor or a crowd being surfed. Nothing evokes the feeling of being there (or stokes your FOMO) quite like flicking through an album of incredible party shots.
Photography has gone hand-in-hand with clubland since the beginning -- think of the legendary photos of New York’s Club 54 in the 1970s -- but it reached new heights with the dawn of home internet. In the mid-aughts, blogs like Cobrasnake and Last Night’s Party devotedly photographed the coolest party and club crews abroad, immortalising the hedonism that happened after dark in cities like L.A. and New York. Both of those publications inspired photographers here in Australia, including Sydney’s Pat Stevenson.
Stevenson has been shooting Australia’s best clubs, festivals and parties since the mid-2000s. In that time, he’s seen both Sydney’s nightlife and the way we consume photography go through elemental changes, and come out strong on the other side. Right now, Stevenson is combing through a decade of club shots for a book he’s working on, set to be titled The Gutter Confessions. It will showcase the evolution of Sydney nightlife, starting from the electro-soaked days of 2008.
While he trawls through hard drive upon hard drive, we asked Stevenson to speak to us about why he loves club photography -- and clubbing itself. Here’s what he had to say.
You’ve been doing this for a long time. What makes a good club photo, to you?
I hate taking posed shots, I think it’s the most boring thing in the world -- two people smiling. There’s just no connection to it. I like to see someone dancing, or doing something off the wall, and I’ll just sneak up on them and take their photo. I really love that candid, fly on the wall moment. Capturing people in their element, having the best time of their lives.
Or shooting a long lens in a club, so you’re kind of spying on them without being creepy. You just get them with their guard down and capture the one moment where they’re on the club floor having a good time with their friends. Or someone doing something ridiculous, like crowd surfing. I’ve got some epic crowd shots where people don’t know they’re having their photo taken because you’re all the way up on the stage and have got this big zoom lens, but they’re doing something ridiculous out in the mosh pit. And it’s so good.
Scenes from Sydney clubland.
Scenes from Sydney clubland.
What do you like about clubbing?
Well, the older I get the more it changes. When I was younger I could be out all night long, until 6am at Club 77. Just being amongst it. I really loved making the friends -- it was a different circle of friends, because back then all of my friends were just from high school and maybe some from work.
But then you’d go out and meet people whose eyes were really open to the world. I never had any gay friends before I started going out clubbing; I never had any trans friends. But it’s a real melting pot when you’re in a nightclub. Because it attracts all the interesting people, the people who are a little bit left of centre, the ones who are out there and exposing themselves to the world. They’re the people I love to hang out with because usually they don’t have any judgement; they have open minds, they’re usually funny and great to hang out with.
[Clubbing] attracts all the interesting people, the people who are a little bit left of centre, the ones who are out there and exposing themselves to the world
Pat Stevenson
So the thing that really attracted me every week to go out was meeting new people and I’m still friends with today a lot of those people. And if you’re going to a club night and your favourite DJs there, and that person goes to a club night and their favourite DJ is here, you’ve both got similar tastes in music, so you’re bound to get along. No matter what race, religion, ethnicity, any of that, it’s irrelevant. As long as you’re into the same song, all that shit means nothing.
French DJ Gesaffelstein sits outside Sydney's now-shuttered Flinders Hotel.
French DJ Gesaffelstein sits outside Sydney's now-shuttered Flinders Hotel.
Back when you started shooting in the late noughties, was club photography already a big thing?
Club photography was really big, because if you got your photo taken and you made it into 3D World or Brag Magazine, you could sort of boast about ‘oh my god, I made it into the social pages’. Because a lot of people read street press back then, so it was kind of cool to get your photo taken. Or you’d be featured in an inthemix gallery. You could share it on MySpace, or whatever. Everyone was like ‘oh my god the club photographer, hopefully they can get our photo!’ But that’s not the reason I got into it, I did it because I really loved it.
And in that pre-Instagram era, was photography really important to clubs? Did they really want photographers to come and shoot their parties?
Oh, for sure. They needed it. They needed to showcase that their club was doing well. And because they would have paid a lot of money for whoever the DJ was coming by, Ajax or Tonite Only or whoever the big DJs were back then. They really wanted proof that that DJ was at their venue, so they could use that to then promote the next week’s event and get more people in the door. Because people paid proper cover charges to get into nightclubs back in the day -- $20 or $30, just to get in.
What trends or eras have you noticed going through all your photos?
2008, 2009 and 2010 was a lot of fluoro, a lot of bright colours, a lot of statement tees. A lot of Billionaire Boys Club. But then everyone got into deep house and everything got much more minimal with what they were wearing. A lot of blacks, block colours, earthy tones. A lot of those side sweeping fringes -- I think everyone had one of those.
And you can definitely see it in the festivals, stuff like Stereosonic. That definitely really highlighted the different trends, but that was more of the mainstream EDM crowd. The Sydney club scene was a lot more stylish and fashionable. And when I’d go down to Melbourne and take photos of different Melbourne venues, everyone was so cool down there. So far ahead of Sydney people, they just looked so rad.
A punter crowd surfs at a festival in Australia
A punter crowd surfs at a festival.
Are there any standout parties or clubs that were just incredible to shoot?
Halfway Crooks was really cool, they were doing some incredible parties back in 2012. Modular, when they were running their parties -- anything Modular was untouchable. They’d always have great people performing. Early days of Motorik, definitely. They still pull it as well. They have always put on really great parties. In terms of club nights, Candy’s Apartment, that’s just where I cut my teeth. That was so special to me, those days. Oh and Bandits, at Spectrum, near Q Bar.
What makes a good night out?
The music has to be on point. The tunes, from beginning to end, have to be incredible. The warm up DJ has to be a good warm up DJ and ease you into the night. The lead up DJ to whoever the headliner is should definitely grab your attention. And then the headline DJ needs to melt your face off.
But it’s also the venue -- the venue has to be set up right. The lighting has to be really great. It can’t just be a room with a laser. Some effort has to be made. That’s why I love the Motorik parties -- they’ve always gone above and beyond with their soundsystem, their DJs, the lighting. The stars need to be aligned, there’s many elements that go into it.
A Motorik party of yesteryear.
A Motorik party of yesteryear.
Before this current lockdown, did it feel like nightlife was coming back in a big way in 2021?
Yeah, I was at Boiler Room last month, at Lost Sundays. It was the best night of my life, almost. And Poof Doof are doing a really great thing at Ivy as well. Ivy are really forward-thinking with their music policy at the moment, they’re doing a really good job.
Places like Coogee Pavilion and Beach Road Hotel on Wednesdays have consistently been booking awesome local talent. I know Cliff Dive were coming back in a big way after last year; The Marly and Oxford Art Factory were also throwing some great events. The Lansdowne has been fantastic, too.
I feel like Sydney’s on the up. We needed 2020 and we needed everything to be the worst for us to pick up the pieces and build it back up again, and I think it’s got to a really great place.
Blogs aren’t really a thing anymore. Where does club photography live these days?
Yeah, the only way photos are being seen these days are on Instagram or a Facebook gallery that would be forgotten about in a week’s time. So I wish there was some other form. Things just come and go on Instagram; on people’s websites they last a little longer.
But outside of that, you’ve got nowhere to display your imagery, which is really sad, because some of these photos are incredible. We have some of the best photographers in the world, in my opinion, in Sydney.