Article submitted to the Polaroid Originals Magazine by Lou Noble.
Photographer Mark Hunter is the Cobrasnake. What does that mean, exactly? For one, he runs The Cobra Shop, a vintage store in Los Angeles. For another, that he spent most of the ‘90s and ‘00s in clubs snapping candids of partygoers and celebs alike. (It was all documented his blog, Polaroid Scene.) He sat down with us to talk nostalgia, social media and how a cease-and-desist letter might have launched his career.
So how’d you get started shooting?
I lived in Hollywood growing up and was constantly around insane culture. I was also fascinated by how L.A. is the epicenter of entertainment. Not everything, but all the big movies, all the movie stars wanted to live here, so I was like, I want to contribute to that in some way. And then that’s where I found photography. I wasn’t good at anything else! I wanted to do music, I wanted to draw, but I wasn’t good at it. So when I learned how to take a picture, and people were like “wow you actually know what you’re doing,” I was like, well this is good for me.
And this is before the internet was big.
Yes! And I don’t say this about myself, but everyone said that the nightlife photo-blog I created was Instagram before Instagram. And I wish I was smarter and was able to capitalize on that, financially. How to handle the stock market, and create an IPO or something like that, but that wasn’t me. I wanted to contribute to culture through my photography. I’m also not the biggest party animal, but I like to watch it. It’s sort of like TV for me. So going out to all those nightclubs and music festivals, it was like, just feeding me and it was entertaining. It was a time when that wasn’t being documented in the way it is today, so I feel very proud of those archives.
How did you end up transitioning from just photography to the store?
I have a passion for fashion, in all senses of the word. Photographing it and also consuming it myself, so I’ve been an avid vintage and thrift shopper since I was a kid. My mom wished she’d had girls growing up, and took me shopping instead, so I was constantly around clothes and also loved dressing zany myself. When the website took off and people were logging on and loving all the images, I decided to try and start selling the kind of clothes I was photographing. I was documenting the trendy fashions but, at the time, using clothing was such a big deal, even in the 2000s. Everybody wanted to be funky. It was like ‘70s mixed with ‘80s, any retro thing was cool, along with your American Apparel hoodie. Instead of taking normal advertising like other websites at the time, and banners and ugly things, I just had a banner for my online store. It just forwarded people over, and they would buy stuff. It was a no-brainer, and it was also again pre-Depop, pre-Etsy fad, pre-everyone with an online store, so it was a cool time to do that.
I remember when I first saw the Cobra Shop over on Highland. Did things just take off from there?
Mhmm! That store in the mall was a crazy undertaking. It was so funny to be in that mall because everything else was so commercial. There was nothing like that. And today, you couldn’t get away with that. Again, this was a different time, and I was hired as a photographer to do an ad campaign, I did all the casting, it was a great project. But then they were like, “Look, we can’t really pay you that great because of our budgets, but we happen to have this fourth-floor random storage space…” That’s all it was, a big raw space for storage. And I’m like, “I’ll take it, I’ll make that into something cool.” We had it for a year. It was great because I got to involve everyone that I idolized growing up. Shepard Fairey, huge fan of him, still friends with him. Jeremy Scott, who is now a legendary fashion designer. They were there for the opening, and still, support me. And it’s great because again, my dream was to get to meet them and work with them.
Why did you guys focus on the ‘90s and ’00s?
That was the era that I grew up in. It’s fun for me to get to celebrate that, and it’s also something that not every vintage store focuses on. It has a bit of a niche perspective. It’s amazing though, I still have such a great young demographic that finds out about it, and I have to thank social media. There are definitely kids who are younger than all the clothes. The products and everything are older, but were made well, so it still has a life. I like the idea of upcycling and recycling, too.
Were you shooting actual Polaroid photos at the time?
When I was first starting, and before I coined The Cobrasnake, my original website was called “Polaroid Scene”. It was, again, same concept, just the nightlife, but instead of these guest checks for the fronts where they would add the funny names on them, they were Polaroid shaped. I was shooting occasional Polaroid photos, but just out of budgetary reasons, I would Photoshop what looked like a Polaroid for the front, even though it wasn’t. All my sort of graphics were Polaroid shaped, and everything was just this iconic shape, and everyone loved that.
What drew you to that iconography?
Well, again, the heritage of the brand is like no other. My parents would take pictures of me growing up, and our photo albums are Polaroid photos. Those special moments I remember, as a kid using the camera myself before knowing what photography was, and just being so fascinated by the actual instant result, because that you can’t get anywhere else. When I tried to figure out the nightlife blog, I called it “Polaroid Scene” for the love of Polaroid and the fact that I was documenting the nightlife scene, so it was the mix of those two things. But nine months into it I was written up in a big article in The New York Times about how revolutionary my style was in documenting stuff without sort of the traditional approach. I didn’t ask for a journalistic media pass, I didn’t contribute to any existing media, it was all just its own thing.
You just show up, you do it, and then you put it on your site.
Yeah. And there was a punk rock-ness to that. Polaroid at the time, they didn’t like that and sent me a cease and desist letter. It was devastating because I was still 19 or 20 at the time, really young, and I was getting great attention. So I said oh well I can’t let this be the end of me, I’m still a very creative person. I came up with something that no one can really challenge. And it has unlimited sort of meaning, so with Cobrasnake, I’ve then started Cobra Fitness Club, the store, The Cobra Shop, and my own photography, The Cobrasnake. So it’s really fun because I can do a lot with it. If it wasn’t for the Polaroid cease and desist letter, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I think with everything that’s happened with social media, with digital content, having something physical, you can’t compete with that. There’s nothing better than the tangible Polaroid photo that you can hang on your wall, that you can’t mess with. You shoot it, that’s what it is.
What is it that keeps you connected to analog photography in our digital age?
The reason why I love a lot of those old photos is it’s really a document of the culture of the 2000s: the awkwardness, people had a lot of actual point-and-shoot cameras. Because that was what you would carry because it could kind of take a decent photo and the phone had no camera, or it was a really bad camera. Polaroid pictures throughout all of that, when it was harder to get the film it was a bit of a deal, but still, people would. It was like a fashion statement to have one. And the amount of photo shoots I’ve done where we use a Polaroid as a prop, I can’t even count anymore. Again, it’s that nostalgic, iconic thing, that’s aspirational in a way. You just know that the Polaroid camera is going to take you on a journey and you’re going to get something cool with it. It will keep changing, but for me, I still love those old photos the most. I try to get those photos, but sometimes it’s impossible. Otherwise, stylistically, it’s crazy that the megapixels just keep growing on the cameras and hard drives just keep stacking up.
It’s true! Why do you think nostalgia is really popular right now?
The identity of where we are is still being defined, but we know what happened in past generations and we have such strong sort of fashion statements from the 1990s and 2000s. At Cobra Shop, that’s what we exclusively sell now, we’re not even really vintage-vintage. We’re all about, say, the stuff that Britney Spears or N*SYNC would wear back then. Then everyone wants to be a part of something they didn’t grow up with, or that they might have just touched on. Literally everyone’s seen [a Polaroid picture], except maybe these young kids, because Polaroid had a little bit of a dark period in the 2000s. And so if you were born around then, maybe you didn’t have baby photos taken of you.
Where do you think you got that kind of drive from?
I worked from a very young age, I had to work. I wanted to make my own money and worked from 15, so I had whatever sort of permits from the school, my parents allowed me to go to school and work. When I had the opportunity to be creative, I took it and ran with that, because you don’t get that often.
What would you tell to a young person who was inspired by reading your story?
It’s overwhelming, but you shouldn’t feel like it’s impossible, anything you want to do. I feel like the phone gives you so many more opportunities if you use it right. Being a creative person, you have endless people you can get in touch with, be inspired by. There’s endless connections now. Even in this sort of elevated society when something goes wrong, you think it’s the end of the world. Like your flight’s delayed; you’re flying across the country, it’s amazing! Don’t sweat the small things.
Do you think there’s something you can learn from them, too?
I do know that there’s this whole new breed of all these young kids, and I love it because it’s so innovative. Like they love a certain color temperature for their photos, and there’s all these presets that they’re sharing and it’s a whole community. I’m just this old school on-camera flash guy and then dreamy daytime stuff. I think that Instagram is a great place to become inspired and then take it and do your own thing and sort of evolve. There’s just been a huge rash of too much sexy content, you know, and that’s what gets the likes which is kind of unfortunate.
Do you feel like things, the parties themselves, were changing?
Yeah, well, there’s two things that happened. One, you can see in the old photos I shot, everyone’s hands were open, they didn’t have a phone in their hand because you were embarrassed by your flip phone, you know, they weren’t showing that off. Now today, everyone’s got the iPhone or whatever in their hand, on Snapchat, or not living in the moment as you might have before social media. Also everyone’s a bit more guarded because you know, they want to control their image. I look back on these photos, and it’s like, I couldn’t even get those photos today because unless I went to the most random, sort of underground place where people are really still dancing and going wild, you’re not going to get that in today’s nightclub. So I just avoid it because I think I did a good enough job already.
What keeps you going and inspires you to move the project forward?
Every day something fun happens, and I’m so blessed, that after all these years I can still be creative and work hard, but still get to have these opportunities. And even with this Polaroid photography connection, it was just so great, because every day I’m opening my email to something exciting. And it’s funny because I’m quite humble now, I had a really great wave that I rode through the 2000s. And now I’m trying to swim and paddle back out! I’m in the process of trying to get a whole new sort of website launched and that’s been a whole crazy story because most people just care about social media and stuff. I want to revisit the thought of what a website can be. What would The Cobra Snake be in 2018? I want to bring a little bit of the roots back, as far as the content and have great photo sets, but maybe they’re not all nightlife based, and maybe they’re me hiking Runyon Canyon, which I do all the time. One of my main goals, from day one, was to always be able to inspire people to follow their dreams. If they want to do something, you’ve got to work hard, but you can do it. And everyone told me when I was this little punk kid taking photos that you’re never going to turn that into a job. And I’m like, watch me – because I thought there was something there.
One of a kind. Have you got anything coming up in the near-future?
It’s in the baby stages, but this archive book. It’s sort of my legacy of all those parties I shot, basically my take on nightlife in the 2000s, but with insane moments and celebrities that I didn’t even realize I was shooting at the time who became celebrities, like the Kardashians and stuff, Lindsay Lohan at her prime in the early 2000s, 2007, when they were in the tabloids. I was always the invited guest with the intimate access. I kind of grew out of it, one because I had done it for over 10 years, and two because I felt that it wasn’t as exciting and exclusive once the smartphones caught up. If you want to see what happened at the Staples Center tonight, you can go to the hashtag or the location and you’ll see concert photos. They won’t be as interesting as maybe what I would have shot, but it suffices. I want this book to come out and show and tell that story because it’s crazy when you see some of those photos. So that’s something I’ve been working on slowly. The celebrities might have been there, but I didn’t give them any extra attention or special [treatment]. So all the throwback photos are so great, and I know I have a ton of Polaroid images in the archives somewhere physically that I need to find.