After migrating from his native Philadelphia aged 18, photographer Tyrell Hampton found solace in the city’s clubs, creating raw and heady party shots of the stars
When New York-based photographer Tyrell Hampton turned 21, he had already been frequenting the city’s nightclubs for some years. Even so, his official coming-of-age was a big deal. It was 2018, and after an elegant dinner at artworld hotspot Lucien (“If you go there, you’re going there to be seen”), Hampton and his friends made their way to Mehanata nightclub.
“They told me I couldn’t park my party bus outside the club,” he says wryly. Not because this was an unreasonable request, obviously – but because Alexander Wang had parked his party bus there first. “I was on the stripper pole all night. He [Wang] was on the stripper pole all night.” Hampton pauses for a moment, grinning over Zoom. “I’d had so many Sprites.”
Hampton has no shortage of anecdotes like this. Though he doesn’t drink or smoke, New York nightlife is his ultimate muse: in “the club”, he can find both anonymity and community; chaos and respite. Now 24, Hampton has carved a practice capturing raw and heady party shots of the stars: Miley Cyrus dragging on a cigarette post-Met Gala, or Hailey Bieber fondling her chest at a Saint Laurent party. But behind the lens, Hampton still sees himself as an excitable child; less a participant than a wide-eyed voyeur, mesmerised by the scenes unfolding around him.
Hampton’s first solo exhibition at SN37 Gallery, titled Go Home, is a nod to that teenager inside of him. After migrating from his native Philadelphia aged 18, it was the club wherein Hampton – a young, gay Black kid who had never really partied before – first found a sense of belonging. Bringing together personal work made between 2016 and the present, Go Home is a nostalgic reliving of Hampton’s initiation into New York City life: a melting pot of party-goers in moments of unbridled joy and exuberance, and a world once only available to the photographer via TV shows and movies.
“I find solace in a crowded room,” Hampton reflects. “I’m not shy, but I have my shy moments. When I found the club, I felt like I could just be quiet. I didn’t really have to talk much or do much. I could just people-watch … I could just get lost in everything.”
Go Home invites viewers to get lost with him. To curate the show, Hampton scoured through his archive to recreate what it feels like to move through a party: to enter the room and look up to a ceiling full of disco balls, before finding yourself amidst a sea of kissing couples; letting loose on the dance floor, or deep in conversation on a sofa. Far from posed portraits, each shot exudes movement and spontaneity; off the cuff moments that throb with the energy and rowdiness of being out. “Every moment you see is a moment that I am obsessed with at a club,” Hampton says. “These are the moments that I look for.”
A majority of the exhibition is in black and white, because Hampton felt “these moments should be a part of history.” He talks lovingly of the legacy of Studio 54, remembered as the first anything-goes, queer-friendly mainstream nightclub; a wonderland for the gay and straight, rich and poor alike. Hampton deemed Broadway’s infamous China Chalet – where some of Go Home’s images are shot – as his own generation’s Studio 54, before it closed down in 2020 due to the pandemic. “It really was home for me,” he says, recalling the days he’d sneak in through the back as an under-ager. “I had to go every time there was a party there, otherwise I felt like I was missing out on what New York is supposed to be.”
Observing Hampton’s images, it is clear there is an inimitable quality about the photographer that makes people feel free. But as for his part in the exchange, he likens it to choreography: manoeuvring through the space, anticipating the movements of those around him, and responding with his own rhythms. Having attended a performing arts high school, Hampton grew up dancing – igniting a fascination with motion from an early age – and he cites what he learnt as vital to his shooting process: “It’s like a tango,” he describes. “Making sure I’m not in the way, or hindering anyone’s moment.”
Why is the show called Go Home? When the party’s over, and everyone’s had a bit too much, that’s what all these metropolitan kids and creative cliques will do. But Hampton will stay right where he is. Because he’s already there.
Go Home runs at New York’s SN37 Gallery until January 30