Chances are you've seen one of Nikola Tamindzic's photographs. The 34-year-old, Serbian-born photographer's images—the visual lynchpin of Nick Denton's notorious Gawker Media empire since 2004—have become synonymous with New York nightlife. Armed with a Canon EOS 5D camera and a LumiQuest softbox flash, Tamindzic can usually be found immersed in throngs of sweaty partygoers or infiltrating high-society social affairs. The moments he captures in his photographs are both vividly alluring and at times mind-boggling. As for the allure, there are the beautiful, scantily clad women that are the cornerstone of Tamindzic's portfolio. But it's the mind-boggling shots that are often more intriguing, like a photo he snapped several weeks ago at the release party for Arianna Huffington's new book, Right Is Wrong. It's a photo Tamindzic titled "Clusterfuck" (included in the above slideshow) and it shows Charlie Rose, Mortimer B. Zuckerman, Huffington, Jann Wenner, and Rupert Murdoch all cheezing for the camera. Bizarre? Perhaps. But standard fare for a night on the town with Tamindzic? Of course.
"Human experience is complex, and a party is a contradiction," Tamindzic says. "There's always joy and sadness in the air. And with all the energy and intoxicants, all of those things are heightened." It's the look and feel of these heightened experiences that Tamindzic is looking to capture, or more aptly, manufacture. It is the reason he uses a digital camera, because of the ability to maniplulate imagery on the fly. Tamindzic admits he has no interest in documentary photography. He says he is attempting to capture what his subjects see through inebriated eyes, the euphoria of altered states.
More recently Tamindzic has shifted focus from nightlife photography to fashion and editorial. This shift has been echoed in his online presence as well, having shuttered Ambrel.net—the nightlife-centric photo archive he's maintained for nearly four years—to launch Home of the Vain. Approached more like a photo diary, HOTV is the evolution of Tamindzic's work. It situates him in a more flexible space, allowing him to nurture artistic ambitions that lie beyond the walls of a darkened club or star-studded cocktail party. But that's not to say Tamindzic won't be seen snapping photos at such events. Once you gain access, it's hard to relinquish that golden ticket.
What first attracted you to photography, and when did you become serious about it as a profession?
My dad used to have a Nikon film camera. I was fascinated with how these unnatural situations—‘Okay, stand here, look this way… look natural!’—would result in beautiful photos that seemed to encapsulate the moment better than the moment itself. So I was very drawn to it—to the way that photos stop time, the way that good ones indicate an emotion in subtle ways, or the way the suggest the story happening before and after that slice of time they're displaying to you.
I remember reverse-engineering the technique that British music photographers used in late '80s on bands like My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth—multiple exposures, multiple flashes, long exposures, big pools of color. If it sounds familiar, that's because it is, to those who are familiar with my nightlife work, at least. It's still the same approach I'm using to this day.
It's a little funny, because [of] all the colors and light squiggles, and blurred faces, the photos don't look very photojournalistic. But I feel that they're very true—true to the moment in which they were taken. You're drunk, or high, it's three o’clock in the morning—what you see, what you remember—well it sure as hell doesn't look like something a camera would take on auto settings. So for me, when it comes to nightlife, it's been a quest—figuring out a way to photograph these situations in a way that would be truest to how it felt. And I think that's behind the success of those photos. People respond to them because they suggest a strong feeling, and sometimes a story that goes on outside of frame, both literally, and in time.
And me taking it seriously? Well, that's all Nick Denton's fault, really.
So it was Denton who really encouraged you after seeing your work?
I don’t think Nick would think of it in those terms, and I don’t really either. Nick grew up in England, and the English don’t do encouragement. He gave me a place to play in, and being in a position to cover nightlife as an editorial assignment, rather than working for promoters, made a hell of a lot of difference, and made that part of my career much more enjoyable.
You’re well known for your photos of New York nightlife, where you're often capturing images of half-naked party-goers, celebrities, and drunken brawls. Can you tell me what you got started with this?
[The] desire to shoot people, and capture their moments and stories. Why nightlife specifically? I did some street photography before that, and I loved a lot of those shots; I was impatient, however, and wanted to be Garry Winogrand within 20 minutes, and that just wasn't going to happen that way.
And then I chanced upon nightlife—it connected in my head with photos of parties that Lee Friedlander used to take in the '70s, with the photos of Paris nightlife that Brassai used to do in '20s and '30s, and even further back, to Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings. There's a rich tradition there. [Shooting nightlife photos is] fun in itself and it's also a lot of fun figuring out how to tell a story, and [to do so] in a way that would make it interesting and compelling to people who were not at the party.
Human experience is complex, and a party is a contradiction, there's always joy and sadness in the air. And, what with all the energy and intoxicants, all of those things are heightened. At 3 am, a sort of desperation is in the air, people are still dancing and having fun, high or drunk, all is good. But it's time to make decisions, [the] night is coming to an end, what now? Go home alone, take someone home, go to an afterparty because there's nothing else to do, or go to an afterparty because you don't want it all to end?
Not to mention the whole anatomy of desire—both sexual and hedonistic, and desire as wanting more from life than what you have at the moment. You go out, and you're a star—and then you return to your shitty tenement studio. So there's more than enough conflict there, in thought and emotion, to make nightlife an interesting subject—so many layers.
There is a certain element of fantasy you’re able to capture then. What I mean is, this sort of twilight world you’re describing, where people are teetering between being blissfully unaware of the lives they’ll return to after the weekend or the night is over, and those who are well aware the party is about to end. What do you think this says about the way we all feel about our normal, everyday lives?
That’s a wonderfully put question, and if I had an answer to that that is any less contradictory or scattered than our normal, everyday lives, I wouldn’t be try to uncover it through photography. Does it all come down to the simple desire to be happy? Different ideas of what will make us happy? Enjoying the moment we’re in, or yearning for a sort of immortality by living in the future, in things we’ll achieve? There’s so much room for great and horrible things within these parameters, outlined by the desire to be happy, or by questions like: 'Is this all there is?' 'Is this all we are?'
Your photos often reveal candid, very private moments—usually with beautiful women as the subjects. Is earning a subject's trust something that comes easily for you?
It's easy if you genuinely have nothing to hide. You sit down, you talk about things, what the person's loves and fears are. The questions you need to ask just materialize then—you find where the person is coming from, what makes them sad and what makes them sing, and you go for the sensitive place—the one that will throw your subject out of balance, and help them bring down the wall.
There are few things as powerful as seeing someone start owning things they previously hated about themselves. Leading them to that point. That's why the portraits are minimal and unassuming, because I didn't want my name scrawled all over them. In a way, they look effortless, like what was there was just captured. But the artistry in portraiture, as I see it, is in the moments before the shutter clicks; in setting up the stage on which the subject will be comfortable with revealing something hidden about themselves, where they know they'll be loved for it and never judged.
That's the idea behind recent self-portraits too: 'Can I do that to myself too? Turning the camera on myself, and being as relentless and demanding of myself as I am of people I shoot? Will I flinch when I see the result?'
In your bio it says, "the photos you'll see [on this site] will be sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, often beautiful, or even repulsive, and on a particularly good day, all of the above." What is it you look for in every photo? Is there one quality, or is it a more intangible feeling you're looking to discover?
Simply put, the photos I like tell contradictory stories [and] have contradictory layers. That's how things are, wherever you look. No one has ownership over one single Truth, be it emotionally, intellectually, politically, in any way imaginable. And even when it comes down from 6 billion people to just one person, to ourselves, the contradictions continue. So it's an endless source of inspiration.
Are you still shooting for Gawker? If so, can you tell me about your working relationship with Nick Denton?
You know, I always run into these stories online, written or told by former Gawker editors, and they're always hilarious—even though (and definitely because, that sweet schadenfreude!) they're mostly stories of suffering and woe.
So judging by that, I might just be the only person out there who can say this without a hint of sarcasm: Nick and I had a great working relationship. He loved my photos, and he wanted to have them on Gawker. Simple as that, and end of story—I never had any meddling from him or anyone, a perfect working relationship really, and it left me a lot of space to figure out what I wanted to do in those photos, and to evolve as a photographer.
But we're rarely doing stuff together these days. Gawker shifted focus, and so did I. And shooting editorial stuff for Gawker would be great. We did some stuff, like the notorious Julia Allison and Brooke Parkhurst shoot (image below), and coming out session for Tracie "Slut Machine" Egan (in slideshow above)—but that's an investment for them that they don't see an immediate payoff on, so we're not doing that at the moment.
“Notorious” seems to be a label often used to describe your work (or at least the situations depicted in your work). What are the type of responses you’ve received to your photographs?
I’m actually pretty proud to say—sure, there are people who love them, people who hate them, or who simply don’t give a damn about them; but from feedback I got so far, people get it. They pick up on duality and contradictions that I love and care so much about, and from that point on, it’s really up to them to project whatever they want into them.
Photography is beautiful, because it leaves so much room to dream. It presents something that seems factual, documentary, of this reality, and of this world. But it’s an infinitely small slice of time, and best you can do is suggest a story, rather than tell it. And that leaves so much room for the viewer.
Tell me about the idea behind the name Home of the Vain?
I'm always two years ahead of myself: Home of the Vain was originally intended for Ambrel.net, and it was great for a nightlife-centric site, but by the time I launched it, I already moved on past nightlife, through portraiture, to editorial and fashion photography.
It's still appropriate, though: there are still so many portraits there, mostly of non-celebrities, and it refers to vanity that we discussed earlier. The pride that you feel when what you hated about yourself is revealed as beautiful, as worthy of love, that you're perfect just as you are. So in that sense, it's very earnest. At the same time, what with ridiculousness of nightlife, for example, it's also somewhat ironic. And last but not least, it's a tribute to my adopted country.
Had you been to America before moving here in 2000? I would imagine moving here from Serbia created some culture shock in and of itself. But then being exposed to New York nightlife as a photographer, was the shock increased?
No, never. My first time in the US was when I got off the plane at O’Hare [Airport in Chicago]. I’m glad I came here as late as I did. Because at 27 I had enough knowledge and patience to be able to remind myself that things are different here compared to there, are just that—different. Not better, or worse. So you keep reminding yourself of that, and then it’s fine. And I was fortunate enough to come across some amazing people right off the plane, pretty much/ That helped immensely.
And moving to New York… actually, the culture shock diminished, if anything. Through pop culture you’re prepared for New York, you know what to expect. And emotionally you’re prepared. You come for the same wired energy you found in Velvet Underground, Television, Swans, or Sonic Youth, or sleazy, hedonistic abandon of disco and house, and you come here looking to plug into that same energy source, and hopefully give something back.
All photographs featured in this article were used with permission from the artist. Images are © 2008 Nikola Tamindzic, all rights reserved.