These Old Party Photos Capture the Magic of the Mundane

The Flickr archives are a treasure trove of nights that'll live long in the memory—even if everyone there's tried to forget them.

by Angus Harrison
17 May 2017, 10:03am

Flickr user Aah-Yeah

The older I get, the more I want to document the parties I go to. In the past year I've suddenly become acutely aware that every Sunday morning brings with it a hangover worse than the week before, and that the minute twinge in the small of my back will at some point likely become a pain so severe, so hot, that my beleaguered future children will spend their holidays lifting Scrabble tiles for their immobile father who, having worked through an entire box of Hardys Shiraz and sunk into a decades old armchair, "can't get up." In other words, I feel compelled to capture the moment because, for the first time in my life, I feel it slipping away.

This compulsion to document my own life has brought with it a fascination with the party photo as an artefact. There's an already an illustrious history of rave photography; the liminal hours and torn landscapes of the free parties of the turn of the century, and certain photographers have made their names documenting entire scenes, as with Ewen Spencer and UK garage. Yet what we're talking about here are party photos. Photos with little in the way of cultural significance, but tenfold their pixel-count in personal stories.

Flickr user Alan Light

I first discovered Flickr's back-catalogue of party photos while trying to find images for another THUMP article. I'd typed "party" in the search box, and then, in an effort to find some pictures without the commercial veneer of high-definition, restricted the dates to between 1970 and 2000. The results were unreal: this archive of stonewash denim, crumpled cups and swimming trunks. Fleeting glances cast by men in aviator specs across garden furniture, locked lips and bristled moustaches. I'd always thought Flickr was basically a library of DSLR-snapped images of blurred traffic, but here was an unending chronicle of a thousand different celebrations and get-togethers.

Flickr user Elvert Barnes

The parties immortalised on Flickr aren't weekend long raves in palatial warehouses, or sumptuous parades through landmark clubs. They are unrefined and awkward. Clusters of smalltalk and fizzing cans; the adorably lame fare of American parents back when they were young, chugging cans of Bud Light and jumping in the pool with their baseball caps on. To be honest, many of them look sort of boring, but that's their charm. These photos articulate the normcore aesthetic as an emotional state—plain men and plain women enjoying drinks and hiding their emotions behind rollneck sweaters. Parties held on patios and in community halls. Barbecues that got a bit out of hand for everyone except the designated drivers. We all remember these parties from our childhoods; running through the bootcut legs of our parents' friends, cola hissing in our nostrils, until the sun went down and we were carried up to bed, the revelry reduced to a gentle hum from the floor below.

Flickr user Joe Shablotnik

That's not to say the people in these photos are boring. The party archive features characters that start funny and quickly become impossible to leave alone. The collegiate bros, brandishing nipples, presumably in the throes of a never-ending summer holiday; the pink-skinned eighties dads, laughing so hard I will likely spend the rest of my life wondering what the joke was; the squashed, graceless kiss shared between two men with identical hair. For the people involved these are probably a collection of sweet if embarrassing old memories, for the casual viewer, disconnected from context, they become elegiac. What happened to the fluffy-lipped dude in black shades? How long did they spend that afternoon trying to get the underwater beer photo right?

Flickr user Alan Light

The more hedonistic a party gets, the less attractive it generally looks. Photos from the Ibizan coast in the early evening are a lot more pleasing to the eye than snaps taken in a fusty living-room at 5am.

This attractive innocence is probably what contributes to the compelling nature of Flickr's party images. They capture parties that didn't need an endless supply of illicit substances, or taxis across the city, in order to be enjoyed. None of these people look like they are chasing anything, none of them are looking at their phones to see if something better is happening somewhere else. Every character sits comfortably in the scene, relishing the people and the lukewarm beer before the night is over and they go home.

Flickr user Joe Shablotnik

You could say this is romanticism. Applying meaning to ordinary things that happened to ordinary people. You'd be absolutely right, but what's wrong with that? The images included here are ones which the creators have licensed for the public domain, but that doesn't mean we have any right to the actual stories behind them. There are some clues in the captions. References to locations, names, even the odd "what happened next"—but I'd prefer to ignore them and decide for myself.

Flickr user Lars Ploughmann

Case in point, the man in the blue shirt above. Wouldn't you love to know what ruthlessly over-energetic gag Blue Shirt is cracking into here? Blue Shirt, in full flow, doing his "tough guy" bit. Blue Shirt, chest puffed up to the size of a sofa, doing his best to retell the road rage incident he was involved in last month. Blue Shirt, nearly pulling off an impression of an escaped circus bear. Blue Shirt, impersonating his old headteacher surrounded by people none of whom went to his school. Blue Shirt, some 13 cups of punch down, adopting a mock-baby voice and begging for a date next weekend. "Pwetty pwease," Blue Shirt is cawing, and receiving stoney faces in return for his trouble. Blue Shirt, soon to be hoping this day will be forgotten forever.

Remembering a night out is pretty much impossible. Even if you don't drink, something about the nighttime and the excitement speeds events along at a faster pace than in normal life. Before you've even stepped off the bus you're already falling back into bed, the next day reassembling as best you can what exactly happened from a patchwork of dry-ice and blurred faces. A well-timed photo, even if it's just a badly framed smudge of lights, can offer the illusion of memory. Commemorating that yes, that did happen, even if all you can remember is the walk home.

Flickr user Elvert Barnes

A photo isn't a memory of course. It's a visual aid that allows us to rebuild events in our heads—a version of events which will grow into something different to the real thing. Socrates had similar concerns about the advent of the written word, fearing that writing "will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves."

We shouldn't beat ourselves up about that too much though. That's the nature of a memory: as soon as you tell a story for the first time, the original event ceases to exist, and is instead replaced by the retelling. With each retelling you walk further and further away from the fact, until it becomes little more than a vanishing point in the recesses of your mind.

Which is possibly why Flickr's archives have so much to offer, even to people who weren't there. The reality of what happened at each party is lost forever, these photos simply remain to tell us that it did happen, and it was good.

Flickr user Scott Brenner

We tend not to look too kindly on people who record life as it's happening. Our modern age is so full of decapitated roadside selfie-takers and cesarean live-streamers, we've come to frown upon the compulsion to photograph and film the everyday. The art, we believe, is abstinence. We're told to "live in the moment" and "stop viewing everything through a screen," as though documenting events is proof you're only pretending to have fun in order to serve your personal brand.

This sounds virtuous enough, but in reality it represents little more than smug moral grandstanding—the preserve of boring blokes at the back of music venues as they bemoan the rows of flashing iPhones in front of them. Within reason, there's nothing wrong with taking photos in the moment. In fact, pick the right moment, and it becomes an art in of itself.

So, if you have a spare hour this weekend, sink into the silk-vest catalogue of Flickr's party photos. Spend an afternoon with the confused grins, the modestly-sized back-yard pools and the prom night collars. Oh, and if anyone has any better ideas as to what Blue Shirt is joking about, answers on the back of the postcard please.