Nightlife Photographer Kenny Rodriguez: Getting Them to Trust You

By Abbie Nehring

As the official photographer of Tiki Disco, The Rub at Bell House, Freedom Party and Le Bain at The Standard Highline, Kenny Rodriguez has documented some of New York’s best and worst moments from across several party genres and most of the city’s five boroughs. In nightlife, and especially today’s EDM-fueled crowds, Rodriguez seems to have found his calling. We caught up with Rodriguez at Bell House last Saturday, where he was out for The Rub’s 11th anniversary party cradling a Nikon D7000 on one arm and fist bumping his way across the floor one continuous click of the shutter after another.

Rodriguez explains the itch for nightlife began in 2006. He had been working for fashion photographer Peter Lindbergh, who gave him his foundational knowledge of movement and space.

“Whenever he was in New York, I’d drive him around to sets and work with him all day,” Rodriguez says. “I’d listen to all these stories he would tell me and watch him work. Then I applied what I was learning in nightlife.”

He started shooting the parties he was attending. “I’m there because I’d want to be there anyway and I can tell that story,” he explains.

Rodriguez’s informal training with Lindbergh gradually gave way to his own style elements as a photographer. These days, one signature touch of a Rodriguez shot is the dark border around the edge and hyper-focused field in the center where he tends to places his subject. This, he explains, he accomplishes by literally framing his flash in duct tape. It’s a DIY solution with a singular goal in mind: Rodriguez wants to make the viewer feel like they’re on the scene, recreating the tunnel vision effect uniquely induced by the club.

Although the posed shots are what his subjects look for on Facebook the day after every party, Rodriguez’s real gems are his candids, a somewhat more risqué subset from every night of shooting that capture movement, love, first kisses, and basically every activity that goes on late at night when you may not expect to find a lens hovering over you. “I get caught regularly,” Rodriguez says. “But if they say no, I’ll show them a photo that I already took and then they like it and are open. Then they trust you.”

Increasingly, when people go out in an image-obsessed city, they should expect to be caught on camera or film. This seems to be the take home message. Creating something artistic strewn among glamour photos that get the most ‘likes’ is the greatest challenge and paradox of Rodriguez’s craft. He’s currently working on mastering a few new effects, such as the multiple exposures where he layers three frames over each other. These images capture the chaos of the crowd and, importantly, have proven popular.

Typically, Rodriguez doesn’t start shooting until the night is well underway and he’s gained the trust of his subjects. “I hang out for about an hour scoping out the venue, looking at the people, watching people as they arrive, as they start to get drinks and feel the music. I start to pick out subjects. I get the energy of the place and get into a rhythm and once I get that one shot, then I go around until I feel I have it.”

In larger venues, Rodriguez often restricts himself to only available light. With a camera that’s just short of full-frame, finding the right moments when a shot will come out clearly can be an enormous challenge. At venues like Santos, where Rodriguez photographs The Originals party, he has to work with the managers to get the bursts of light he needs. “I’ll watch the light and memorize and wait for it to pass around so I can catch it. There’s a lot of timing.”

Rodriguez has become a house name at Bushwick’s summer Tiki Disco parties, which he’s been shooting since they were in their second year. What’s so cool about Tiki, he says, “is that everyone is very young and people come who wouldn’t have been in Bushwick five or six years ago. But everyone’s there to dance.”

Tiki Disco has been a major part of what’s putting Bushwick on the map, and it’s “getting people to travel further and go outside of the box,” Rodriguez says. “I feel lucky to be a part of it.”

He’s also currently a regular act at The DL’s Everyday People on Sundays with Chef Roble and DJ MOma. But the house music scene continues to be the main wellspring for Rodriguez’s signature candid shots.

“House music is the closest to the rhythm of your heartbeat,” he explains. “People get lost in house music. They go off somewhere and you’re free to shoot it.”

By capturing on camera the world he once inhabited, Rodriguez professes an anti-voyeuristic mission. “Why look at photographs in National Geographic of someone suffering in a place faraway?” he asks. “I take photographs of people dancing, photos of people in that special place, being beautiful and crazy. That’s what I do.”