The photographer who snaps but never bites

¬†NEW YORK — There are a few fundamental tenets to being a successful New York party photographer. First, don’t take a picture of a married mogul wearing leather chaps. And never photograph an heiress if her nipple is showing or if she has passed out after drinking four double vodkas.

That is the wisdom of Patrick McMullan, the former Studio 54 party boy turned society chronicler who for three decades has photographed everyone from Upper East Side society matrons to downtown night crawlers and club freaks.

Today, most grin-and-shoot shutterbugs have given way to the “gotcha” paparazzi, who get $10,000 for a shot of Russell Crowe throwing a punch or Lindsay Lohan passed out in the back seat of a car.

But instead of relenting to the pressure of TMZ and Gawker, McMullan seems like a character out of an earlier era, when getting your picture in the newspaper was something to be proud of, not feared.

In some ways, McMullan models himself after Andy Warhol — a friend from the early 1980s who breezily moved between uptown and downtown, straight and gay — as he plays the role of court photographer and affable jester to the moneyed class. “He schmoozes with them,” said Ron Galella, the longtime celebrity photographer famous for his iconic images of Jacqueline Onassis. “He kisses them. He’s one of them.”

In recent years, PatrickMcMullan.com, his Web site, has become an online destination for fashion insiders curious about parties they missed, like a recent soiree for The Wooster Group, an art collective, where McMullan snapped, among others, Frances McDormand, Laurie Anderson and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

The site, redesigned in 2004, gets as many as 1 million hits a day, he said. He uses 22 freelance photographers who attend as many as 50 events a week. And McMullan has more ambitions: He hopes to publish another book. (He already has six.) Like society photographer Jerome Zerbe, who chronicled fabulous New Yorkers parading around the club El Morocco in the 1930s, McMullan has profited from New York’s culture of self-obsession.

When he started in the 1980s, McMullan was out seven nights a week, sometimes photographing two or three events, and courting well-connected friends. His schedule has slowed; now he chooses the events he wants to attend, maybe eight to 10 a week. And despite the coterie of photographers he has working for him, many clients ask for him by name.

“If Patrick’s not there to document a party, then it does not exist,” said Linda Fargo, a senior Bergdorf Goodman fashion executive, whose company sponsored a March 18 event for the Swiss designer Akris. “People get their 15 seconds of fame and more.”

McMullan sees it this way: “I could be a better photographer, but I’ve also gotten caught in running a business, and almost, if you can get this as a joke, being Patrick McMullan and all that means.” He spoke over coffee at the East Side Social Club, which he invested in.

McMullan doesn’t walk into a room. He bounds. He is buoyant, loud and, if he sees something he likes — the purposefully frayed collar of a satin jacket or a distinctive hat — he touches it and compliments its owner. Some people chalk up his exuberance to the fact that he received a diagnosis of testicular cancer in his 20s and learned to appreciate life. But his attitude, too, makes for more cooperative subjects.

“Oh, you look gorgeous!” he shouted as he knelt and directed his Nikon at Daphne Guinness, the heiress turned fashion muse who tottered on 15-centimeter platform heels at the Bergdorf event while preening in a sheer-backed dress designed by Akris for its fall 2010 collection. He cooed over the azure ribbon wrapped around the skunk streaks of Guinness’ blond and black mane. He complimented the fit of her dress, running his finger along the hem. (Wary onlookers, by contrast, kept their distance.) “Just beautiful!” McMullan said, standing back for a fuller view. Flash! Snap! Click!

He turned his attention to two tall women who had their backs to him. “You two should meet,” he said as he grabbed the arm of one and whipped her in the other’s direction. They looked startled: their eyes as big as Japanese Daruma dolls as he pressed their hips together. “Closer! Closer!” he shouted, his hands flapping like the wings of a duck. “You are so gorgeous! So beautiful,” he said. Click! Flash! Pop!

Parties are theatre, and McMullan is eager to orchestrate the narrative. Later that night, while driving downtown to another event, he said he put the two women together after he noticed they were wearing similar black stilettos. “His lens is his connector,” said Debbie Bancroft, a friend and writer at Avenue and Hamptons magazines. “He makes people feel good about themselves.”

McMullan chalks up his longevity to, well, not being a jerk. “What would you rather have, the technically excellent photographer who scowls and isn’t very nice?” he asked. “Or somebody who is a great guest who takes a lot of pictures that’s going to be fun to be around?” But perhaps his biggest asset is that the well-to-do trust him to present them in the most flattering light.

If a client doesn’t like a photograph, McMullan will remove it from his Web site for a fee. And he always asks permission when taking a picture. “He won’t photograph you with a canap√© dangling from your lips or a double vodka in your hand,” said Fargo of Bergdorf. Indeed, his livelihood is predicated on his being the accommodating guest. And if he decided against it one day? Fargo’s mood darkened. “Yes, things would change,” she said.

At times McMullan sounds like a lost party boy seeking the whimsy of his early days. “Once I’m out, I don’t want to go home,” he said. He was mobbed by well-wishers at a silent auction and party he co-hosted recently in the Chelsea neighbourhood, but by 10 p.m., the crowd had mostly cleared. McMullan remained, his boisterous laugh resounded in the cavernous room as he asked the waiters to pose for photographs while they took apart the bar. Later, he said he had dinner with friends and then hung out with the doorman at Avenue, a club, where he took pictures until about 3 a.m. He fell asleep at dawn.

At 54, he said he never imagined his life to be so, growing up in the 1960s in a working-class neighbourhood in Huntington, New York, where his mother still lives. He earned a degree in business from New York University in 1980, but his passion was photography. (He has a son, Liam, from a brief relationship in the mid-1980s.)

His business makes money several ways. First, he and his team of free-lancers, who he said make an average of $50 an hour, are hired to photograph events. Media clients, like New York magazine, pay a set fee to publish any of those he and his team take. Partygoers can buy individual single shots, too. (The New York Times buys some of his images.)

McMullan declined to say how much he earned. But good party photographers can make as much as $150,000 a year or more, say industry experts. While McMullan’s base rate is $650 an hour, he said he rarely charges that. “I don’t do this for the money anymore,” he said.

For his part, McMullan won’t change his approach given these more cynical times. Sure, he would make more money if he photographed a startled Lindsay Lohan with her skirt up, he said. But he would also lose what matters: unfettered access. When Gillian Hearst Simonds,the daughter of the socialite Patty Hearst and a family friend, was married in 2007, she said she asked him to photograph the wedding, in part because she knew he would not sell the images to the tabloids.

Of course, it would be tempting. McMullan owns all the photographs his clients might otherwise not want others to see. (That means you, guy in leather chaps!) Wouldn’t it be fun to put together his most outrageous outtakes?

“I would have called it the real Pat McMullan,” he said. “Now, that would be something to see.”

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