FROM THE MAGAZINE

My Life in Parties: The Cobrasnake

Mark Hunter’s unfiltered nightlife shots defined an early digital aesthetic—and ushered in the social media age.


“I learned early on in  my career that I always wanted to have my camera, because the second you didn’t, you’d miss some amazing opportunity,” Mark Hunter says. Here, he stands at the ready  at a DKNY Jeans and "Jane" magazine party  in New York in 2005.      Theo Wargo/WireImage for "Jane" magazine/courtesy of Getty Images.
“I learned early on in my career that I always wanted to have my camera, because the second you didn’t, you’d miss some amazing opportunity,” Mark Hunter says. Here, he stands at the ready at a DKNY Jeans and "Jane" magazine party in New York in 2005. Theo Wargo/WireImage for "Jane" magazine/courtesy of Getty Images.

“They called me the Instagram before Instagram,” says the photographer Mark Hunter, perhaps better known by his nom de caméra, the Cobrasnake. Hunter, whose photographs will be collected in a book from Rizzoli next year, got his start documenting the Los Angeles nightlife scene of the aughts with his trusty Canon, eventually traveling the globe to chronicle musicians, designers, models, and celebrities in their most unguarded after-hours moments. The Cobrasnake website was the go-to site for cool-kid voyeurism and underground style inspiration, and even the noncelebrity regulars portrayed in Hunter’s galleries could attain notoriety. “This was the age of opulence before the 2008 recession,” Hunter says. “Everyone was living it up, and I was just running around frantically like a big fan. I wanted to catch them all, like Pokémon.”

Courtesy of Mark Hunter/thecobrasnake.com

Hunter, seen above at age 6, was raised in Los Angeles by a single mother who worked as a dental hygienist under Bill Dorfman, a dentist to the stars. “I would be in the office doing my homework, and she would have Tom Cruise or Mark Wahlberg in the chair,” Hunter says. “They were so nice to me because I was just this young kid. I got all their autographs. I was just like, Whoa, I’m meeting people who are in the movies.”

Courtesy of Mark Hunter/thecobrasnake.com

After getting some attention for shooting concerts, Hunter decided to put all of his photography on a single website, Polaroid Scene (above, nightlife legend Amanda Lepore holds up one of Hunter’s flyers). “Polaroid Scene lasted about nine months. I got a big write-up in The New York Times. And then, a week later, I got a cease-and-desist from Polaroid saying I couldn’t use their name.” “The Cobrasnake,” which Hunter used as an e-mail address, was the obvious replacement.

Courtesy of Mark Hunter/thecobrasnake.com

Long before “Bad Blood” topped the charts, Hunter photographed Katy Perry’s birthday parties, where you could spot former pal Taylor Swift taking a photo with her point-and-shoot next to a seemingly overwhelmed Sky Ferreira. While he always kept one eye on the main event—in this case, Perry blowing out her birthday candles—Hunter would also point his camera into the crowd to capture their reactions.

Courtesy of Mark Hunter/thecobrasnake.com

“I didn’t know how important people were, and that was really fun for me, because I’d go up and take a picture of Anna Wintour or Karl Lagerfeld [above, left], and everyone would be, ‘Oh my god, you just...did that?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t really have the same perspective as you.’ ”

Courtesy of Mark Hunter/thecobrasnake.com

The fascination brought on by Hunter’s former girlfriend Cory Kennedy’s frequent appearances on his site turned her into a full-fledged sensation—she scored magazine covers and front-row seats at runway shows. “The Cobrasnake was this platform for discovering cool things, and then you start seeing this girl, who had amazing style and was sort of disheveled at the same time, but looked really effortless,” Hunter says.

Courtesy of Mark Hunter/thecobrasnake.com

“I was Shepard Fairey’s assistant for almost two years,” Hunter says, adding that he got an education in self-branding from the street artist famous for the “Obey” and Barack Obama “Hope” posters. “He said, ‘It may seem that there’s posters everywhere, but instead, I strategically put them in the right spots.’  ” Soon after, Hunter spray-painted his site’s URL outside of Amoeba Music in Los Angeles.

Courtesy of Mark Hunter/thecobrasnake.com

Hunter ran into a young Kim Kardashian (above, right), here with fellow former E! reality star Brittny Gastineau, while photographing an afterparty for Degrassi: The Next Generation in 2007. A friend’s sister who worked for Nickelodeon had invited him.

Courtesy of Mark Hunter/thecobrasnake.com

“It’s been a long night. You could say even the flowers are kind of dying,” Hunter says of this photo of Lindsay Lohan. “I still think this is a really cool photo. She might not love it, but of all the photos she’s had, like, it’s not the worst.”

Courtesy of Mark Hunter/thecobrasnake.com

If he sensed any sort of commotion at a party, Hunter would rush over, which is how he got this photo of designer Stefano Pilati, editor Olivier Zahm, and Misshapes DJ Leigh Lezark caught up in a whirlwind around Mary-Kate Olsen. It was around this time that Hunter sensed a shift in the perception of party photography. “It became apparent that it needed to be documented. In the earlier years, people didn’t want their photos taken, and suddenly they did,” he says.

Courtesy of Mark Hunter/thecobrasnake.com

Before she broke into the Top 40, Perry was a regular on the Los Angeles hipster scene. The photo above ended up as the cover of Perry’s debut EP, Ur So Gay.

Courtesy of Mark Hunter/thecobrasnake.com

“I rarely ask permission,” says Hunter. “I always like to capture the moment.” It didn’t matter how famous the subject was. “I love this image because it plays into her whole vanity,” he says of this photo of Paris Hilton at a party at the Sunset Marquis hotel. “She’s got a Sidekick in her hand, which is such a time stamp.”

Courtesy of Mark Hunter/thecobrasnake.com

Hunter captured today’s class of star fashion designers while they were still on the rise. Before they took over the helms of Louis Vuitton menswear and Givenchy, respectively, Virgil Abloh and Matthew Williams (above, from left) were both part of the DJ collective and streetwear brand Been Trill. “You can just see a rawness and an energy here—they’re just letting loose and having fun,” Hunter says.

Courtesy of Mark Hunter/thecobrasnake.com

Hunter first met Telfar Clemens (above, left), with Hood By Air designer Shayne Oliver (center), when Clemens was working the door for a party called the Look.

Courtesy of Mark Hunter/thecobrasnake.com

In addition to parties, Hunter would often chronicle his day-to-day life. “I was just wandering around some Vegas hotel taking photos in more of a Martin Parr way,” he says, noting that his neon green bikini brief predates Borat.

Courtesy of Mark Hunter/thecobrasnake.com

“Kanye West made a statement early in his career that he cared about fashion, and everyone made fun of him for it,” says Hunter of the rapper, pictured here with Kennedy, designer Jeremy Scott, and model Agyness Deyn. “He befriended a lot of designers early on, like Rick Owens and Jeremy, and soaked up all of that information like a sponge.”

Courtesy of Mark Hunter/thecobrasnake.com

“One week I’d be shooting Paris Fashion Week, and the next I’d be hired by Malibu High to shoot their prom,” Hunter says. Gigi and Bella Hadid (above) just happened to attend said prom, but Hunter had no idea who the future supermodels were at the time. “You could tell who was going to be important,” he says. “I saw how bubbly and fun these two were.”

Watch Hunter’s Life in Parties video with W Magazine on YouTube.