Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Nicky Digital: Nightlife Photographer

Throngs of 20-somethings pack the dance floor for Girls and Boys, Webster Hall’s weekly night of trance and electro music. DJ duo Crookers mans the turntables, surrounded by a semicircle of VIPs. Nightlife photographer Nicky Digital ping-pongs across the stage, capturing the DJs in action. One partier is so caught up that he nearly falls off the elevated stage, but the photog grabs him by his flannel shirt, saving him from certain injury. The reveler promptly responds by nearly spilling his beer on Digital’s camera.

Nicholas Rhodes, 26, aka Nicky Digital, didn’t plan to make nightlife photography his livelihood. The former magazine art director started in 2005 as a photo blog for his images of friends at downtown clubs. Four years and 150,000 photographs later, Rhodes has become a fixture on the scene, and a celebrated one at that. Paper magazine dubbed him Best Nightlife Photographer at their 2008 Nightlife Awards, he has been featured in Photo District News, New York magazine and New York Press, and his photos have run in publications across the country.

“This definitely wasn’t something I planned on making a career out of,” Rhodes said, “but once I started the whole thing kind of snowballed. But I love doing it so I’m very fortunate.” is one of New York’s hottest party photo sites. Rhodes’ most popular photos of hipsters drinking, dancing and posing have been viewed over 35,000 times. His photos feature New York’s stylish, beautiful and famous as well as partiers caught up in the moment. Some smile for him, some pose with a too-cool smirk, but all Rhodes’ photos show people simply and genuinely having fun. And he relies on the quality of his work rather than the salacious, while many nightlife photo sites are notorious for such exploitation.

Adam Laukhuf, a former colleague at the now defunct pop culture magazine Radar, says he tried to convince Rhodes to sex up his site with racier photos, but Rhodes wasn’t interested. “He doesn’t exploit female sexuality. He’s like the PG-13 nightlife photographer,” Laukhuf said. “I tried to get him to take more T and A pics, but to his own detriment, he won’t do it.”

Rhodes explains that his decision hinged on the esteem of photo subjects rather than site traffic. “I don’t want to take a picture of girls getting naked in the bathroom or something like that, when they’re drunk, and then have them see it on the site the next day and embarrass them because they regret it,” Rhodes said.

According to his sister Madeline Rhodes, 23, Rhodes has always been a night person. “When we were growing up, our bedrooms shared a wall and I would always be banging on the wall because I’d be trying to fall asleep and he’d be up listening to music and reading magazines,” she said.

Rhodes and his sister grew up in Katonah, N.Y., an affluent suburb 50 miles north of New York City. He first became enamored with photography at 8, when he found his father’s old SLR in a closet. In his pre-teen years, Rhodes took up an interest in magic and convinced his psychologist mom and dentist dad to let him attend Buck’s Rock Performing and Creative Arts Camp in New Milford, Conn., where he honed his skill in illusions. But, his sister says, he always held on to a love for photography, and would take a camera with him wherever he went. In high school, Rhodes combined his love for magazines and photography by becoming yearbook editor. After graduating Somers High School in 2000, he attended Emerson College in Boston. There, as a photography major specializing in street photography, classmates dubbed him Nicky Digital because of his preference for digital over film photography.

“He doesn’t exploit female sexuality. He’s like the PG-13 nightlife photographer”

Before becoming Nicky Digital full-time, Rhodes essentially had two full-time jobs: his 9 to 5 at the magazine and moonlighting as Nicky Digital until 4 a.m. When Radar folded in October 2008, Rhodes seized the opportunity to make his first priority. Now he spends nearly every night at events, returning to his Lower East Side apartment at 4 or 5 a.m. and rising at 9:30 to upload photos, meet with business partners and spend time with his girlfriend before hitting the clubs again.

“I’m amazed at how often he goes out,” said Clayton Hauck, an acquaintance and fellow professional photographer who once worked in the Chicago nightlife scene. “To keep that kind of energy level is beyond me.”

Working the four floors of Webster Hall, Rhodes is a flurry of activity. He stalks the dance floor, always hunting for his next shot. He goes at most six steps before finding a friend or a subject to photograph. Rhodes finds subjects everywhere – in the hallways, on the dance floor, on stage, backstage. On the floor, people call out, “Nicky!” and throw their arms up, posed and eager to be photographed. Tonight he finds a thin, pale punk in Marilyn Manson-style makeup, pretty young things with Technicolor hair and sleeve tattoos, and a 4 a.m. pizza party backstage. A 20-something with neon plastic jewelry and a fur shawl recognizes Rhodes and hands him a blue, sparkly light-up toy. He accepts it, snaps a few more photos, and gives her a double thumbs-up before returning to VIP.

With his thick, black framed glasses, bandanna, and handlebar mustache, Rhodes is instantly recognizable. The mustache is reminiscent of his magician past, and the bandanna he wears around his neck, he says, is an ode to his father. “My dad used to always wear a bandanna, whether it was on his head while he was working in the yard or around his neck or whatever. It’s a style I picked up from him,” Rhodes said.

His sister says Rhodes has always had a unique fashion sense. “He wasn’t always fashionable,” she said with a laugh, “but he’s always had style, definitely. He’s gotten better.”

Madeline Rhodes, a jewelry designer who lives in Bridgeport, Conn., joined the staff in 2008 as a fashion blogger. She says her brother is an easygoing boss without a heavy editorial hand. “He’ll clean up grammar if it needs to be cleaned up, but otherwise he’s sensitive to letting me write about what I want to write about,” she said.

Sensitivity, Rhodes’ sister says, is a family trait that runs strong in her older brother. “We’re a very sensitive family, maybe too sensitive, but I think that’s what makes Nick so caring and nice, and one of the reasons I’m proud of him,” she said. “Whether it’s those girls who are a little too drunk or if somebody needs help, he’s always looking out for people.”

Rhodes shrugs off his benevolence, saying he just wants people to have a good time. “Sometimes I’ll see people who have maybe partied too hard and I’ll bring them water or ask them if they need me to get them a cab,” he said.

Rhodes is currently in talks to expand his web site and develop Nicky Digital as a lifestyle brand encompassing music, fashion and photography. “I know what the people who come to the site are like because I actually have conversations with them about what they’re into, and we’d like to have people come to the site for reasons other than vanity,” he said.

Rhodes says traffic to his site has increased significantly in the six months that it has been his main focus, even reaching audiences across the globe. He recounts the story of Japanese tourists at West Village hotspot Le Royale who told him, “We came to visit New York for the week from Japan and we always go to your site and we’re here ‘cause we wanted to see the party in real life,” Rhodes said. People from fashion centers like Paris and Milan are also going to the site, Rhodes says, to see what people in New York are wearing. “I don’t think I’ll ever have a corporate job again,” he said, chuckling.

Later in the evening, the flannel-clad partier who Rhodes kept from falling encounters him again, this time backstage. “Dude, I follow your shit on Twitter,” says Ted Gushue, 20, of Wilton, Conn., offering his cell phone as proof. “That’s how I know when to check your blog.”

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