How The Cobrasnake became one of the first digital archives of the Y2K party scene
In the early 2000s, Mark Hunter was fresh out of high school and began to dive headfirst into the burgeoning indie scene of Los Angeles with nothing but a love for music, nightlife and a digital camera. Little did he know the moments he was capturing would be a precursor for what would come in the now social media-dominated age, where everything and everyone is on display. With his camera always in tow, Hunter became the go-to photographer for the coolest parties, shows and events. He would not only capture the rising celebrities or entertainers in attendance but the diverse range of people who were a part of the action. From there, he created his digital photo gallery and website The Cobrasnake, a one-stop shop for up-to-date party photos, portraits and live music photography.
Being at the forefront of the Y2K era, Hunter, along with his peers and subjects, were all experiencing, learning and utilizing new technology as it became available as a means to adapt to a changing world and tell stories in new ways. The Cobrasnake website was essentially proto-Instagram, where you could see the events of a wild night unfold and get an inside look into those around you long before what we now consider commonplace with Instagram stories or Snapchat.
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In many ways, The Cobrasnake was a platform that helped propel the careers of some of today’s most iconic celebrities, including Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Kim Kardashian, all of whom attended the parties that Hunter shot. Check out the gallery below.
How did you initially discover photography, and how did you know it would be your artistic medium of choice?
In high school, I was trying to figure out what I could be good at creatively. The first thing I wanted to do was be in a band, so I learned how to play the bass. I wasn’t that good, but the next thing I figured out was that photography was adjacent to music, and you could still be with the bands, just more behind the scenes. In high school, I fell in love with photography in the darkroom. I would look in the LA Weekly and see what was going on at venues like The Troubadour and The Roxy Theatre. I would buy the tickets, show up early, push my way up to the front and take photos of the bands. I was trying to live vicariously through that rock-star energy.
Who were those early bands you first started photographing, and was there a specific scene you were most interested in capturing?
Some of the earliest stuff was the more indie scene. The Troubadour would have shows with bands like Rilo Kiley, Phantom Planet and Rooney. There were even the first shows of bands like Kings Of Leon and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It was insane. Eventually, I would piss people off pushing my way through the crowd and blocking their view. Some people would say, “Get out of the way,” but then I would turn around and take their picture, which would make them happy. People began noticing that I was getting these awesome photos with my little digital camera, and people could react to them in real time. From there, people began asking me to email them the photos. It wasn’t too long after that when I realized I should make my own website and put the photos there so that when random friends would ask to see the pictures, they could just go to the website.
Who were some of those people you captured in party photographs that became huge cultural icons, and could you tell there was a major moment happening in this scene?
The thing is, you have to remember that we were doing all of this without social media. It’s such a trip to think about how everyone “does it for the 'Gram,” but this was doing it because you wanted to. One of my best friends is Steve Aoki, and his energy was just so infectious. Everything evolved from there, and people like a young Katy Perry would be out at all of these events, and it was cool to see that star potential that she had already. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time around so many up-and-coming superstars.
Beyond that, it feels like you were hyperfocused on inclusivity, body positivity and representation in your photography long before it became this performative thing. Was inclusiveness always a big part of your mission?
I like to say that I was never picked for the team, so I made my own team. This alternative scene made me feel at home and inspired. I would go to queer scene parties or fringe events at warehouses, and that’s what I loved the most. I would have to shoot Hollywood stuff during the week, but I would also try to find something that was really out there, whether it was a drag fashion show or just some next-level stuff. You couldn’t find photos of this stuff on the internet during this time, so it was a win-win being able to expose people to this stuff through the images.
Through all of your contributions to party and music photography, you've gone on to do high-profile campaigns with major fashion brands such as Forever 21 and Calvin Klein. What was the transition like from your DIY roots to working with these major companies?
The cool thing is that in the industry, they have mood boards, and in the early days, a lot of my photos would end up on them. After a while, advertisers were like, “We always use his photos as a reference. Why don’t we just hire him?” I was like, “Thank God” because people were always trying to knock off the energy I was creating with party photos. With my commercial work, I try to bring that same energy. I’m a fun guy and don’t take myself too seriously, whereas a lot of other shoots can be pretentious and have stale energy on set, so I always want to have a good time, which translates into the commercial work.
You have recently put out your first photography book titled The Cobrasnake: Y2Ks Archive. What was the process like putting this together?
It was definitely a unique thing. I was always a one-man show. However, partnering with Rizzoli was more of a collaborative effort. Even just having a limited amount of space and a finite amount of pages in a printed book that lasts forever, it’s daunting. It was quite overwhelming cultivating the images, but I had a great team to help paint the best picture of everything.