A true auteur of nightlife photography, Davide Laffe has snapped essential shots of all the fabulous children from coast to coast–not to mention a number of stars from “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and beyond. Currently he’s in New York for a few more weeks; let’s try and get into his frame while we can before he leaves us for Cali!
Thotyssey: Hello Davide! This has been a weird and wild summer… how’s it been treating you so far?
Davide Laffe: To be honest, a little on and off. I escaped Los Angeles before I knew the quarantine was done, and decided to do a road trip via Greyhound Bus to travel from LA to NYC with pitstops in different states. Lets just say that was an experience.
Did you have any adventures and see weird shit on that journey… and photograph any of it?
Haha, not really. But I did find out that a person who I dated / friend was racist AF. And with this whole Black Lives Matter movement in full effect, I have no time for that bullshit.
Kick to the curb! What’s the LA photographer life like?
Pre- or post-Covid?
An important differentiation! Both, I guess!
During Covid, it was kind of just like anywhere else… nothing going on. Before Covid, I worked at every gay club in Los Angeles; there were always events to do. I can’t wait to get back to that after my New York City summer excursion ends.
Before we discuss that future, let’s cover the past! Where are you from originally, and what were your earliest creative interests? Did you always have a camera in hand?
I’m born and raised in Los Angeles. My earliest creative interest was in dance, until I had a failed audition and was encouraged by family to do something that was going to make a profit. My friend at the time bought me my first camera. I got into photography because I was taking photos of trans prostitutes for their ads. One of my photos got the attention of a celebrity client, which paid her an insane amount of money.
Did photographing prostitutes open the door to nightlife photography? Those two worlds certainly intertwine.
No. It was more of me taking photos at Mickeys [in West Hollywood] of the Drag Race viewing party around Season Two that made me get into shooting events. I did a photoshoot in New York, and that model invited me out to a party called “Drip” at the Grace Hotel, where Shequida was hosting. I brought my camera; that’s where my nightlife journey begin.
How did you learn about stuff like lighting and other technical aspects of shooting? Is that all trial and error, or do you take classes, tutorials, etc?
All trial and error in my younger years of photography. But mostly, if I need to find out something I try YouTube, or ask friends who are more technical.
Are you conscious of any specific visual cues or techniques in your photos that signal “it’s a Davide Laffe?”
I think my photos are colorful and vibrant, but I was told that my work can come off as “erotic yet tragic.” And I didn’t realize that until I saw that nobody smiles in any of my photos.
Fascinating! And when you see a photo from other well-known photographers, can you often perceive identifying traits in their work?
Have you had an all-time favorite experience of shooting someone?
Actually, the easiest was working with Elliott with 2 Ts, and doing all of her looks from Drag Race prior to the airing of her season. She was the most professional. We got 21 looks done in a day and a half; if counting, it was about 6-7 hours in total.
What about a favorite pic, from your whole career?
An all-time favorite photo of mine is this photo of Alaska, with a wig cap and her eyes closed.
When you approach working with a queen in editorials, do you usually have your own ideas that you bring to the shoot, or is it mostly your subject’s ideas? Or is it all just improvised between the two of you?
Sometimes I could be talking to a queen for years, but I feel like I spend more time talking about shoots then actually doing them. Sometimes it’s just random, where I get asked to do a video shoot. Or sometimes in a club, I’d like to think that the shoots that I do are collaborative… that usually the queens have an idea in mind, and I just put my spin on it.
I don’t like when a queen wants to control everything about the images. When the person comes to me, it’s because they want me to shoot it the way I shoot it. Don’t hire me because you couldn’t afford the next photographer. Don’t hire me to do someone else’s vision.
Have you had a lot of those really bad experiences working with queens or other clients?
I worked with a queen earlier this year that displayed not-so-royal behavior. Unlike Elliott, she was the polar opposite. She didn’t take my schedule into consideration. We got into arguments the three days we shot. S was rushing me with edits, and didn’t trust my vision. Those people are a nightmares to work with, and it’s people like her that are pushing me in the direction of focusing more on event photography. I don’t want to work with people just because they are paying me… sometimes no amount of money is worth fucking up your art.
[all photos by D. Laffe]
What do you think it is about on-site event photography that you enjoy so much, as an artist?
I like the “fact” of taking photos publicly, and capturing a photo like it’s video. I’m the best at what I do when it comes to events, and I don’t bite my tongue or second guess myself. I can take a photo at night at a club, and make you relive it as if you were there… or make you wish you were there if you hadn’t.
Venues need to remember how important having photography at their events is… nothing churns up the FOMO more, and makes people want to come out to the next event! And everyone loves to be seen in a great pic, especially when they’re out in a cute look.
I wish new places would realize that social media is important [also]. That when you don’t display your photos, how will people get a feel from the club? Nobody wants to see social media full of flyers. They also need to take into consideration that posting photos from the last event should promote the next event, and that not posting the photos–or posting them past their prime–doesn’t just make the club look bad… it makes the photographer look bad.
We hear you loud and clear!
[all photos by D. Laffe]
So while you’re still in New York, you’ve been the resident photographer for the Lady Liberty competition at The Q, which Brita Filter co-hosts with guest RuGirls every Thursday after a Drag Race viewing! I’ve been there too, in the judge’s corner.
I love Lady Liberty, and [show producer] Vincent Cooper is giving us the eye to see the up and coming, amazing NYC drag talent.
So what might be ahead for you, as you prepare to return to the West Coast in September?
I’m going to focus less on club gigs, and more private gigs. Clubs and promoters can be shady with pay and communication, and I’m too old for the bullshit. I’ve been in nightlife for 10-plus years, working on both coasts. I still get overlooked and underpaid compared to my white counterparts that aren’t as eager, and don’t work as hard, as I do. They are places in LA I do consider a home and that treat me well, and I love being at those places–which include Hamburger Marys, my Evita family, and Precinct in DTLA.
You deserve all the highly paid gigs in the world for your artistry! Do you think you might ever release a photo book, spanning your career or maybe a self-contained new theme of shots?
More “self-contained new theme of shots” for sure; I don’t wanna show my messy moments as a collective–I’ve had them, they’ve been seen already. So it’s time to move on, and show a polished body of work that’s cohesive.
Looking forward to that! Last question: what might your best advice be for a new photographer who wants to come up in the nightlife scene of any city?
Learn from experience. Don’t get full of yourself, but also know your worth. If you’re not able to assist other photographers, do as much free shoots as you can to practice and get yourself into spaces. Ddon’t let people run you over. Pay your dues, and don’t expect to get paid overnight.
That’s sage advice for everyone! Thank you Davide!