It's past midnight at the Echoplex nightclub in Echo Park, and indie-pop band VHS Or Beta has just taken the stage. The audience -- a sea of twentysomethings in skinny jeans and slouchy boots -- is already rocking back and forth in unison. From stage left, a camera flash starts popping furiously. "Is that Shadowscene?" asks a leather-jacketed guy in back, motioning toward the shooter. His friend nods: "It's gotta be."
It's an educated guess. Tonight's party is just the type of under-the-radar club event that photographer Ellei Johndro, a.k.a. Shadowscene, chronicles with machine-like continuity on her website, shadowscene.com. She's pointing her lens into the throng more than at the band -- another clue that she's not here to fill newspaper pages. Mainstream photographers shoot the show; club photographers capture the fabulous masses, L.A.'s super-styled clubgoers who are all too happy to mug it up in return for a few seconds of online fame.
Johndro's site has become a makeshift yearbook for the city's swelling dance party scene, a rootless tangle of private and sponsored events held in downtown lofts and in a handful of L.A.'s larger clubs, including Cinespace, Safari Sam's and Echoplex. The parties' stars are a rotating list of European turntablists and DJ collectives such as Sebastian, Simian Mobile Disco and Justice and local DJs-promoters including Steve Aoki and Franki Chan.
Fashion is key to the scene, and an '80s-inspired, penniless dandy look has prevailed as of late, marked by suit vests layered over T-shirts, jazz-style oxfords, leggings (for gals), skinny jeans (for guys) and vintage fedoras all around.
Johndro isn't the first to document the swirl -- photographer and promoter Mark Hunter, a.k.a. the Cobrasnake, shed light on its dark corners via his website TheCobrasnake.com beginning in 2005. But while Hunter has spread his wings into high-profile happenings such as Paris Fashion Week, Johndro, 27, has stayed true to grass-roots, dance-till-you-drop parties. You may have to wait in line and dress the part, but you'll get in eventually.
The first wave of night-life photographers, including Ron Galella, Roxanne Lowit and Patrick McMullan, captured New York's outre club crowd in the 1970s and '80s, snapping some of the most iconic celebrity photos. But this new breed of club chronicler would rather snap a guy break-dancing in a Speedo than an overexposed Hollywood starlet.
McMullan, who is working on a photo book on New York's '90s club scene, said the concept of shooting unknowns, "goes back to Andy Warhol's everyone-is-famous-for-15-minutes idea." He added, "Andy loved more than anything just looking at cute people. It's fun to shoot when your subjects are comfortable with you. That's what I think is great about these guys taking pictures of their friends and people around them."
Johndro's affable, unpretentious demeanor renders her an unexpected night-life queen, but she hits as many as three parties a night. She's often paid by party sponsors, clicking off up to 800 photos and diligently posting the best images to the site each morning.
Her endless hours on the dance floor have turned Shadowscene.com, which averages 10,000 hits a day, into a dossier of L.A.'s dance party crowd. She keeps a running list of upcoming events and fields hundreds of e-mails a day from strangers asking where the next hot parties will be.
The flash-heavy photos -- a mix of dance-floor high jinx and strike-a-pose mugging -- are essentially impromptu snapshots but more motion-based than those of her contemporaries. Her method for capturing the frenzy is no-frills: "I get in the crowd and get dirty with them." As a result, the images aren't always artful. But because they're taken from a fellow reveler's vantage point, they do convey what's it's like to be knee-deep in the new groove.
Johndro has also taken her show on the road, having recently returned from a two-month tour of smaller cities across the U.S. that she paid for in part through sponsorships. What did she find in rural pockets like Lawrence, Kan.? "A lot of kids dancing and having fun," she said, adding that even when cities are a little behind L.A. in their music and fashion, "it can still be a really, really great party."
And she doesn't just document parties, she co-hosts one of the best in town. Blow Up L.A., a monthly band-and-DJ loft party, is held at a different downtown location each time out (the location is released online two days prior), and has lured big-time DJ acts including the Glass, Le Castle Vania and Simian Mobile Disco since launching a year-and-a-half ago. Revelers drive from as far as Tucson and Las Vegas to throw it down on the Blow Up dance floor. And to take photos of their own.
The proliferation of nightlife photographers, fueled by the growing popularity of dance clubs and the user-friendliness of digital cameras and basic web design, means everyone's a photographer these days. A Google search reveals hundreds of sites dedicated to underground parties, most predictably amateurish. Still, there is talent out there.
Some of the most interesting late-night shooters include Rony Alwin (Ronysphotobooth.com) in L.A., Merlin Bronques in New York (Lastnightsparty.com and the book "Last Night's Party") and Clayton Hauck (Everyoneisfamous.com) in Chicago.
"Nowadays, anyone can take pictures and put them up," said Hauck, who started his site -- an ode to fabulous nobodies -- last year. "You don't have to be good. I don't mind that there's a million websites. In a way, it's a motivating force to make sure my site is better than everyone else's." Johndro agrees. "It's so accepted now for kids to have cameras in clubs," she said. "And we can all be shooting the same thing, and it's all going to be different. It's art."