At every event today, there’s a scattered army of photographers running around capturing every moment. It’s not easy photographing a rave. The bright lights, moving bodies, and dark atmosphere can make for a technical nightmare, but those that are bold enough to be the cultural historian of the rave scene capture the people and events are hugely important figures in the movement, and their photos last far longer than the hazy memories we all share.
Michael Tullberg has been photographing events for over 20 years. He got involved in the rave scene in 1996, and has photographed the early EDCs and Nocturnal Wonderlands, as well as Ultra Music Festival and WMC. He’s also captured the likes of Richie Hawtin, Skrillex, Deadmau5, Kraftwerk, and Diplo- and the list goes on. He’s pretty much Rukes before Rukes was out of high school.
Michael is still snapping pics at events today, and he also has an amazing book called Dancefloor Thunderstorm Land Of The Free, Home Of The Rave, which takes a historical look at the American rave scene in the 90s. We sat down with Michael to talk about the rave scenes of today and yesterday, and to look at some of his wonderfully trippy photos from what has to be the most fun form of photojournalism out there.
– What was it like photographing those events back in the day?
Photographing the rave scene in the 1990s was an amazing, thrilling and challenging experience. Amazing and thrilling because we (the rave community) were at the center of a musical and cultural explosion, and we knew it. It was obvious, if for no other reasons than we had the best dance music in the world, and the best DJs and artists coming through on a regular basis. The fact that this was largely an underground movement added a huge amount of legitimacy and authenticity to the scene for me. The scene operated entirely on its own, largely untouched by corporate/mainstream influences. In other words, the rave scene was home-grown, even if it had been essentially transplanted from the UK and Europe. For that reason, it became easier for me to get in on the ground floor with companies like Insomniac when they were in their early formative years, and also establish deep ties in the electronic music community that have remained strong to this day.
Having all those artists to shoot was absolutely fantastic, and it was possible largely because I was in Los Angeles, which at the time was pretty much the center for American raving culture. We had so many fantastic parties of all sizes, so there had to be talent to fill them. Part of that talent was locally-grown (I’m thinking mainly of the Moontribe DJs, Sandra Collins, Christopher Lawrence and Taylor here), and the other part were the touring DJs from both the US and the UK, like Sasha and Digweed, Danny Tenaglia, Carl Cox, DJ Rap, Frankie Bones and many others. It was a fantastic combination—when I look at the lineups from those days on some of the old rave fliers I’ve saved, I just savor the feeling. Being in the middle of such a special period in time, and being able to tell its story in my book Dancefloor Thunderstorm, has been an especially fulfilling experience for me.
The challenging aspect of my photography was twofold. On one hand, in the first several years of my rave shooting career I was shooting entirely on film. This meant that I had a strictly limited number of shots that I could take in the course of a night, and of course there was no screen to see how well I’d done. So naturally, this meant that I really had to learn everything I could about photography and burn it in my brain. This was necessary because of the second major challenge: successfully getting the wild, visually pyrotechnic atmosphere of a rave on the film. This was important because in the mid-90s, most of the photography coming out of L.A. clubs and raves was really substandard. There was rarely any sense of the energy, the movement, the color, or even the general vibe of the party—lots of stuff just looked frozen and boring. I wanted to bring more to the table, which is why I developed the various photographic techniques that I used, like long exposures, camera movement, multiple strobes, swirls and others. It was all about capturing the fantastic ambiance that was so prevalent at raves, and what was so missing from the mainstream Hollywood clubs.
What are your strongest memories from the scene in the 90s?
Oh man, there are so many. In an overall sense, what I remember the most was being part of this incredible rave community that was growing by leaps and bounds. It was more than being just a collection of fans—it was a true community that was very much aware of its place in the music world and where we thought it should be going. It was a great feeling, watching parties like EDC and Audiotistic successfully expand from the mid-level parties of their early years to the massives that both would become.
As far as biggest memories are concerned, well, I’ve got quite a few. One biggie is from the 2000 New Years rave Together As One, where I stood atop a giant stack of speakers at the center of the L.A. Sports Arena with Frankie Bones as he counted down to the new millennium. I remember clearly the first time I saw and shot Rabbit In The Moon, at Magic Wednesdays in Hollywood…I was perched at the side of the stage and Bunny nearly threw me off into the crowd! Then there was the time that DJ Sandra Collins and I were sort of kidnapped by Superstar DJ Keoki.
Or the protest raves at the Federal Building in Westwood, where ravers would be dancing on the sidewalks on Wilshire Boulevard while clueless drivers sped by. And then there’s Dune 4, the huge desert rave that got plastered by a sandstorm.
Do you think that the scene today is very similar to how it was then?
The scene today is different from the old rave days in several respects. The most obvious example of this is the rise of the festival circuit, and the massive infusion of corporate money into those festivals. This has positive aspects, like the hugely improved visuals (no LED walls back in the day!), and upgraded production values, especially in the art direction and set design. However, there are also negative aspects as well, the chief one for me being the virtual isolation of the DJs from their audience. One of the things about the original rave scene that was so important to us in it was the fact that the DJs were in direct proximity to the ravers. As Christopher Lawrence and I talk about in Dancefloor Thunderstorm, very often there were no proper stages at raves—the turntables would be on a card table or up on cinder blocks on the floor. Since the audience was right there clustered around those tables, what would often develop was a very real interaction between the DJ and the ravers. The DJ would spin, the audience would respond, which would in turn make the DJ respond with their record selection. And if you made a mistake as a DJ, the people would let you know about it, right then and there.
Another thing that’s become more corporatized is raver fashion. It’s much less DIY now and more of a ‘choose from our menu’ thing. Yes, it’s nice that the apparel companies are becoming more successful, but I really wish they would use a little more imagination beyond the Sexy Raver and Fur motifs. I don’t expect them to re-stock JNCOs any time soon, but it would be good for some of them to go out on a limb and use their imaginations in the daring, avant-garde way that the old rave fashionistas like the Toy Ladies did.
On the other hand, it is good to see the EDM generation develop a sense of closeness and community that is similar to what the original ravers were doing back in the day. Perhaps that’s due in part to the media microscope that this scene has always been under…after all, nothing builds togetherness like persecution from above.