Every time I run into Patrick McMullan--America's preeminent party photographer--he goes through the same gracious ritual.
He did it a couple of months ago at the opening of Baldoria, the white-hot Manhattan eatery run by Frank Pellegrino Jr., whose father operates East Harlem's fabled Rao's. He did it a week later at a gathering down on the Bowery for writer Sebastian Junger, whose book "The Perfect Storm," now revamped for the big screen, had just passed the three-year mark on the best-seller list. He did it again last month at a lavish bash at Cipriani's celebrating the 20th anniversary of Absolut vodka's ad campaign.
Without fail, I'll spot him through a field of bronzed faces at a crowded party: slightly pale (bearing the afterglow of all his countless moonlit prowls), eyes roving, a single Nikon in a fist at his hip, his dun-brown mane leonine as a symphony conductor's, swept back across his crown. I'll slowly approach him and the knot of acquaintances inevitably in his orbit. And without fail, he'll suspend his conversation to play the genial go-between. His eyes will flash and brighten. He'll gesture grandly, his enthusiasm infectious. He'll widen the circle to begin his introductions, "Hello, David! Do you know. . . ?"
Patrick McMullan is the networker's networker. He is to the A-list party scene what vermouth is to the perfect martini. He spends virtually every waking evening alighting on one power cluster after another (averaging three functions a night), helping acquaint half-familiar strangers, ceaselessly making introductions--and pictures--all the while.
Each morning, a fresh sampling from the previous evening's photographic catch will make its way to the offices of Allure, Harper's Bazaar, Interview, Marie Claire, New York, Ocean Drive, Quest or Vanity Fair, all of which claim McMullan as a valued contributor. In a recent profile on McMullan, Brill's Content dubbed him the "King of Place" --meaning that no one has more power to place a party picture into a wider variety of hot columns, insuring that a party and its celebrity guests get their fair share of sizzle and buzz. (McMullan employs two or three part-time shooters whose work is frequently published under his credit-line.)
Whether by circumstance or design--or because
the voracious Media Maw eventually celebrities everyone in its food chain--Patrick
McMullan has come to epitomize not just a certain strata of celebrity photographer,
but the bona fide celebrification of the photographer.
For eight weekends this summer, a video crew from Britain's Channel Four will follow McMullan as he covers the nocturnal mating patterns of party-goers across that vast social beachhead called the Hamptons. "They want to photograph me photographing all these beautiful people," he told me recently, nearly shouting over the din at the launch party for O, the new Oprah Winfrey magazine. (Present that evening: a VIP bridge-mix that included Martha Stewart and Diane Sawyer, Tina Turner and Diana Ross.) This month a PR firm has offered to put him up in a house in Long Island's tony Watermill "to be part of the scene," McMullan explains, "to be on hand for these events [they'll be hosting] and to photograph. There'll be late-night revelry. And it's not presumptuous of me to say there's a cachet if I'm at your event. People know I go to the best parties in town." Lately, snapshots from McMullan's demi-charmed life have even become Internet staples, now running on sites such as ibeauty.com and luxuryfinder.com, glow.com and inside.com. (Naturally, there's patrickmcmullan.com as well.) And in September, Zurich's Edition Stemmle will publish his provocative new photo book, "Men's Show" (distributed in the U.S. by Abbeville), a splashy, behind-the-scenes coffee-table tome on the male supermodel circuit.
Does he consider his own creeping fame a sign of anything good or ill in the culture? "There's nothing new here," says the 44-year-old McMullan, who has been shooting social occasions for 25 years and who considers his late friend Andy Warhol among his mentors. "Scavullo. Avedon. Bruce Weber. There's so many known photographers. Weegee was a celebrity. Look at David Bailey in the swinging 60s--he personified the photographer as celebrity. If I'm at your event, it's considered a good event. I'm a wag. I legitimize, as Warhol did, but in the social, party aspect. [But] I'm nothing like Warhol. He was a great genius, artist, and magazine editor."
True, McMullan's name and his pictures are not yet household fixtures. He doesn't hold a strobe to Avedon; and photography scholars don't exactly expound on his ever growing oeuvre. "What matters," says one influential London-based editor, "is he knows who matters at a party, and he gets these [disparate] people to pose [together]. They call for him. "C'mere, Patrick. Over here, Patrick." He's there every night. This [familiarity] gets him pictures others can't get." (Who else but Patrick McMullan could coax Tom Cruise and Dr. Jack Kevorkian into the same frame?) The vain and the mighty, the has-been's and the wannabes, all seem to trust McMullan by force of his ubiquity. And many are familiar with his reputation for judicious picture-editing: he rarely sends off unflattering photos to his mother publications.
One refreshing aspect of McMullan's personality is his buoyancy. He seems to be perpetually pinching himself, mid-dream, as if reveling in his good fortune at being that middle-class boy from Huntington, Long Island, now granted access to society's inner circles. "I like parties," he explains. "When I was growing up my parents always had luaus, costume things, boating things, singing Irish songs until all hours. I enjoy a party. People are relaxing and in a good mood and frame of mind. I'm not a celebrity-hound. Only twenty, twenty-five percent of the people I shoot are celebrities. Seventy percent are all kinds: models, fashion people, [uptown,] downtown. I want to live the life. I want to be at the dinner party, not watching it from the sidelines."
Though he never fails to stop and smell the Chanel, he admits his job has its own peculiar perils. "Every flu, I get it first," says McMullan, bellowing with mock outrage, "because I'm out there on the front lines. The Bosnia photographers have nothing on me. I've gotta fight in the trenches every night of the week. Literally. I got stepped on last New Year's Eve at Studio 54 with a sharp Manolo Blahnik high heel. My ankle got swollen and blew up. Still hurts me. It's a jungle, baby."
Of his many charming qualities, McMullan
is possessed of one that is possibly his most endearing: a knack for self-deprication--a
trait rare among his high-energy peers. Dismissive and breezy about his
photography, he is always explaining that he's merely making pictures,
not history. "It's not rocket science," he confesses. "No one takes their
job less seriously than me. I'm a higher-end bar mitzvah photographer,
not a paparazzi. Every night, it's another bar mitzvah."
David Friend is the Editor of Creative Development for Vanity Fair Magazine. Along with Graydon Carter, Friend edited Vanity Fair's Hollywood, to be published in October by Viking.
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