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Flashback Friday | Alexander Thompson’s Polaroids of New York’s Nightlife Renaissance

Fashion photographer Alexander Thompson takes us back in time to New York’s underground nightclub scene of the late ‘90s/early ‘00s.

Miss Rosenby Miss Rosen
Photo: Brandon, Spa nightclub, c . 2000

As the millennium came to a close, the New York nightclub scene began to heat up. As gentrification began to take hold, the City had its last hurrah, eschewing the superclub scene that made bottle service a thing, in favor of the D.I.Y. ethos of New York in its heyday. Fashion photographer Alexander Thompson was on the scene, spinning records and taking Polaroids, documenting the era in its glory before it was gone. Thompson speaks with Crave Online about his nights on the scene in a candid interview.

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Psychobilly drummer at CBGB’s

Psychobilly drummer at CBGB’s

Please talk about the New York club scene back when you were on the scene. I feel like we all live through an era when our time was “IT” and I’m curious to know what made the late ‘90s–early 00s hot, cool, and edgy. Which clubs did you spin/photograph at?

Alexander Thompson: The New York downtown club scene was going through a bit of a renaissance in the late ‘90s. There was a very heavy rock ’n’ roll /music vibe, with buzz about the fresh new young bands, which included the Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeah’s , Interpol, The Rapture etc. There was also that Electroclash movement as well, with FisherSpooner, W.I.T., A.R.E. Weapons. And all these bands were young and super stylish, and in all the cool fashion magazines. You would see Chloe Sevigny out a lot. Kids were dressing new wave, punk, goth etc. It was all very music orientated.

I would DJ and photograph at various clubs and bars, as well as some fashion/music events. Beauty Bar, Plaid, Coral Room, Don Hill’s etc. Justine D threw the best parties at Spa on Wednesday night, as well as LIT on Friday night. And then there were her infamous glam Motherfucker events. Bands like The Rapture, The Cramps, The Faint and New York Dolls all played at one time or another. Moby and Carlos from Interpol would DJ on a regular basis. She always drew a really stylish, young music savvy crowd. Just great for photos!

Ramones ripped t-shirt

Ramones ripped t-shirt

I love Polaroids. They are a personal fave. Not only do they provide the best kind of instant gratification, but the film is so flattering. When did you first start shooting with the Polaroid and what inspired you to bring it to clubs?

I think the first Polaroid that I ever took at a nightclub was one that I found when moving a few years back. It was a Polaroid of Michael Alig and Robert Freeze together…you know, the notorious club kid killers from the early ‘90s. I don’t remember ever taking it! I think it was from Limelight, maybe Disco 2000?

But I’d say I actually started lugging the Polaroid camera around a lot in the late ‘90s. I was still shooting film for editorials, portraits and fashion during the day. And I really hadn’t grasped digital photography at that point so much. So at night it was easy to shoot with a Polaroid camera. I would just throw it in my big record bag, along with some packs of Polaroid film if I had a DJ gig.

I would get bored in-between spinning at a club. I mean It was fun spinning my favorite punk and new wave records, but I really wanted to shoot Polaroids, more so. The way I looked at it, DJ gigs come and go, but a photograph is forever.

New Waver at Patricia Field party

New Waver at Patricia Field party

After being in photography for nearly two decades, I’ve come to believe that a portrait of the photographer can be seen in every one of their works. What sort of subjects did you find yourself most compelled to shoot? What was it about their personalities and style that drew you to them?

I liked kids who looked like they stepped out of say, Danceteria or the Mudd Club in 1984, or a ‘70s British punk club. I liked a bit of an attitude as well. It was younger people, in their 20s, excited to be going out in New York City, experimenting with their style—those were my favorites to photograph. I’d snap cute rock kids, glam rockers, new-wavers, fashion kids, drag queens, rockabillies, psychobillies…as long as they stood out. It really was about having a strong look.

Glam kid at Limelight

Glam kid at Limelight

Your Polaroids remind me of the work of Jim Jocoy and Maripol, documenting the same vibe at an earlier time. Who are some of your artistic influences (need not be photographers, could be other artists, musicians, designers, etc) and what do you find most inspiring about their work?

Thank you. That’s a really great compliment. I actually wasn’t aware of Jim Jocoy’s punk club portraits at that time. I’d say that book from powerHouse came about after I already had been taking Polaroids at nightclubs for a few years. I really love his work.

I didn’t know of Maripol as a photographer at all. I knew of her as a jewelry designer. I think she was famous for making all those black rubber bracelets that Madonna would wear on each arm back in the early 80s. I’ve met her on a few occasions – she’s a very talented artist. I’d say Maripol’s Polaroid work is much different than mine, though.­

Actually I’d say Andy Warhol is probably the biggest influence with my Polaroids, though I think his Polaroids were done for the use of his paintings. My Polaroids are less celebrity driven, a younger more rock ’n’ roll version of his. Warhol was always somewhat in my mind when shooting Polaroids.

Musician Chantal from Morningwood

Musician Chantal from Morningwood

The New York of your photographs seems to be long gone. There’s a bit of nostalgia in looking back at the past and remembering when. What do you see in your photographs now that you didn’t see then?

I’d say that I see the same thing that I saw 15 years ago pretty much. Kids dressing up and drinking, letting loose, getting high, dancing. I would basically put the Polaroids in my back pocket when shooting, and look at them in the cab ride home or the next morning when I would wake up. Then I would just throw them in a big cardboard box and not really look at them again. And to this day, they’re all still in that same cardboard box collecting dust!

I really only took them out about six years ago when Tokion magazine heard of my Polaroid work, and ran an editorial with some of my Polaroids.

I have Polaroids of Boy George, the musician Antony, Glass Candy, Rufus Wainwright, Alan Cummings, Lux Interior from The Cramps, Kate Moss…I have a Polaroid of Courtney Love being arrested at one of my parties. So a sprinkling of some famous people, only by chance really. I’d have to say that my favorites in that big box are the weird ones of stylish kids snapped at the right time, letting loose and being free spirited. Really have some strange ones! This was all before the Misshapes parties, Cobra Snake and that Last Nights Party website.­

All photos: © Alexander Thompson

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.