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Patrick McMullan: Eye of the Party


A night out with iconic New York photographer Patrick McMullan.

On a balmy night in July, there was a party aboard the decommissioned WWII aircraft carrier, Intrepid, in New York City's Hudson River. The occasion was a birthday blowout for DJ Cassidy, the preferred turntablist of Obama, Oprah, and Beyonce. Outside the ship, security men shepherded hordes of tall women in tiny dresses and stilettos in the current gladiator style.

There was, though, one notable absence. Where was the man who has shot -- or dispatched one of his fleet of handsome young photographers to shoot -- nearly every party of even minor consequence in New York City (and the Hamptons) the past 30 years? Patrick McMullan, who just turned 56, was delayed a few blocks uptown at the Time Warner Center, where he was attending the premiere party for the eighth season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Around 11:30 p.m., after a shockingly svelte Kirstie Alley had swanned onto the ship on the arm of her escort, McMullan arrived in a cab, his bulky Nikon D3 in tow. His prominent Irish forehead and shaggy locks were damp from the humidity, his black suit rumpled and heavy-looking for the hot night, but McMullan bounded out of the cab and immediately began greeting people left and right in his raspy Long Island accent''Hey buddy, how ya been?! Good to see ya. Hey, you gotta meet...' Soon he was grouping duos and trios of tall beauties together for photos.

"That's it, dolls. Now give me big smiles, you look gorgeous, I can't get enough of you!" McMullan gushed like an old-time shutterbug. The towering lovelies'knees bent in coyly toward the middle girl, heads cocked -- put on their best Paris Hilton hollow-cheek pout. Ninety-eight percent of the crowd at the bash that night weren't even almost famous, but under McMullan's lens, they shone brightly, if briefly.

Once on the Intrepid, McMullan worked with a furious, robot-like intensity, his hale-and-hearty greetings never flagging, his stream of 'You look gorgeous!' and 'I gotta shoot you, dollface' come-ons ringing with the offhand sincerity of someone who's been saying the same exact thing hundreds of times a night, several nights a week, for three decades. 'There's a lot of smoke at this party' -- he meant the atmospheric smoke billowing over the dance floor -- 'and that's not good for pictures,' he told me. 'So I'm trying to find the best places to shoot, the most beautiful and interesting and stylish people. And I'm also worrying about you losing me, because I work fast.' Indeed, when I turned around to grab a canap' off a tray, McMullan disappeared. I found him 20 minutes later, in his signature camera-crouch, shooting in the middle of the packed dance floor.

How many parties has he shot? 'Well, let's say 500 parties a year, to be safe,' he calculates. 'I'm 55, started this when I was 20, so 500 times 34.' That would be more than 15,000 parties. At roughly 500 snaps per party, that's about 7.5 million snaps.

In a world where celebs tolerate photographers at best and physically attack them at worst, McMullan has become loved and trusted by the city's boldface firmament'and his online trove of baked-fresh-daily photos has become indispensable to magazines like Vanity Fair and New York. 'I'm not out with the intent to take an embarrassing photo; I'm not that kind of person,' he says. 'Celebrities pose for me because they know I protect them from themselves.'

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!'

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