Patrick McMullan: Eye of the Party

8.18.2011

By Tim Murphy

A night out with iconic New York photographer Patrick McMullan.

Has he ever had a bad experience with his camera? 'I hope it's not tonight is all I can say. There have been disastrous moments -- one day I did the fashion shows all day long and my camera was broke. There was a black line through every picture. I wanted to die.' McMullan grew up on Long Island in a middle-class Irish family. In his early twenties, working as a landscaper in the city's then'diamond district, he became a good-looking party boy about town, hanging at Studio 54 amid the Warhol universe. In 1982, around the same time, he suffered testicular cancer. 'It was the beginning of AIDS, people were scared, and they shunned me,' he says. Not everyone, though: Ian Falconer, the author of the popular Olivia the Pig children's books, invited a wraithlike, post-chemo McMullan out to L.A. to recuperate at the home of painter David Hockney. 'I looked at all the photos Hockney had taken at parties of his friends,' he says. 'I thought, I'm going to go back to New York and do that myself.' And he did, shooting for a then-hip new downtown magazine called Details.

McMullan resists describing himself as gay, straight, or bi -- he hates labels -- but he's been involved throughout his life with men and women. One of them, in the 1980s, was the artist Laurie Ogle, with whom he had a son, Liam, in 1987. 'When Liam was three weeks old, we took him to a lunch for the designer Stephen Sprouse. Nobody had a baby yet but us!' Since then, Liam has acquired a rep in New York as a bit of a pot-smoking hipster party boy. 'I'd rather he smoke pot than do harder stuff,' shrugs McMullan. He says he thinks Liam will be OK, that Liam is busy these days making music, writing screenplays, DJing and -- yes, yes! -- taking pictures. 'I hope he takes over my business someday,' he says.

McMullan hit a bad patch recently. One of his photographers, Billy Farrell, who McMullan says was 'like a son to me,' plus two other photographers, left him and started a rival agency that shoots looser, more candid party shots than McMullan, and also makes Web-ready versions of the shots available to anyone, for blog posting. (McMullan's website puts all images but thumbnails behind a pay-wall.)

'It really hit me hard,' says McMullan. 'Between that and rheumatoid arthritis' -- after all, the man has been hauling a camera plus an equipment bag around every night of his life -- 'I plunged into a bad year. Painkillers, too much drinking, coke that people would offer me. I thought it was time for me to die.'

About nine months ago, though, he changed course, quitting alcohol and drugs. 'Billy's leaving has been good in a way because it forced me to step up my game,' he says. 'We'd become complacent.' He hasn't spoken to Farrell since the split, but Farrell insists that McMullan should have seen it coming. 'He'd known I was unhappy there for at least six months, plus we gave him a month's notice,' says Farrell, who wouldn't go into the details of his discontent. 'My first night out on my own, I went up to him and hugged him from behind, and he said, 'We won't be talking for a very long time.' Now we nod to each other. It's up to Dad' -- yes, Farrell called him 'Dad' -- 'if we'll talk again. He's a tough cookie and fighter.'

He's also a hopeless bon vivant, often seen at parties with pretty young boys and girls -- but he says he 'doesn't feel the need to consummate' a relationship. 'I have bromances with a lot of guys,' he says. 'People will say, 'Those guys are using you,' and I'll say, 'For what? To get into a party? I'm going to the party anyway!' '

Near 2 a.m., McMullan and I slip outside the Intrepid for a cigarette. McMullan will get back to the rental apartment he's had on Lower Fifth since 1977 around 3 a.m. and stay awake, uploading photos and emailing, until about 5 a.m. -- then sleep until nearly noon. That's been his pattern for about 35 years, and he doesn't seem quite ready to give it up. 'What's the best party I've ever shot my whole life?' he echoes back a question. 'It's tomorrow night!'

Tags: Nightlife
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