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Abi Baumann and the story behind nightlife photography

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Somewhere in Missoula there is a 1-terabyte hard drive filled with every Dead Hipster Dance Party photograph ever taken. Abi Baumann, Montana’s pioneering nightlife photographer, has posted over 100,000 images from the Missoula club scene on Flickr—and those are just the good ones.

Nightlife photography has always been something of an invisible art, overshadowed by the music and memories (foggy as they may be) that the artist attempts to capture. This is fine by Baumann, whose humility complements a shy demeanor, making her characteristically more comfortable on the far side of a camera. But there was no nightlife photography in Missoula before she talked her way onto Dead Hipster’s stage in 2007, and probably nowhere in the state of Montana.

ABI BAUMANN
  • Abi Baumann

Dead Hipster, started in the Palace in 2005 by Michael Gill and Christopher Baumann, had moved up to the Badlander and was picking up steam when Abi joined the crew. Her contribution carried the party out of the club and onto the Internet, creating a sense of inclusion and anticipation that lasted long after bar time. “A lot of their magic was owed to Abi taking awesome photos, and to the emergence of social media like Facebook and Instagram where photos could be shared and tagged,” says fellow Missoula photographer Keaton Foley. This added dimension pushed the trio into a realm of consistent popularity rarely enjoyed by a weekly dance party in Missoula.

ABI BAUMANN
  • Abi Baumann
ABI BAUMANN
  • Abi Baumann

When Baumann first started, people weren’t exactly lining up to have their pictures taken. “When they saw my camera come out, they would run,” she says. Fortunately, a small group of friends committed to hamming it up for the lens every night. When people started seeing others having fun with it, they gradually warmed up to the idea. It took about six months before public response exploded. Suddenly crowds were swarming the edge of the stage to pose.

Digging for the history of nightlife photography, I expected to find scattered images from New York clubs in the ’70s, maybe one or two gems from bygone jazz glory days. Turns out photographers have been making subjects out of club-goers at least since a candid 1890s photoshoot at the Heaven and Hell cabarets in Paris’ red-light districts. The 1960s South African nightlife photographer Billy Monk’s art book features plenty of Dead Hipster-esque shots of kids making out in dark club corners.

“I’ve been accused of breaking up relationships,” Baumann says when asked about the camera’s reputation for catching people doing taboo things. “But I’ve also been told that people met their future husbands and wives at Dead Hipster.”

Photographers may have been turning their lenses on nightlife for more than 100 years, but the shift to nightlife photography as its own entity—a form of engagement with the crowd, where the photographer is part of the stage show the way it is today—couldn’t really be a thing until the digital revolution. Half of the experience is scrolling through hundreds of images to share with the party’s hungover survivors.

ABI BAUMANN
  • Abi Baumann
Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters

The industry seems to have started booming at the turn of the millennium, with photographers like Mel D. Cole, The Cobrasnake and Last Night’s Party. But unlike nightlife photographers who travel from city to city, chasing the action, Baumann has been a one-dance-party gal. She and fellow Dead Hipster Chris Baumann met and fell in love over the course of working together. Now they’re planning to start a wedding photography/DJ package business together called This is Soul Events. Sounds a little too perfect, right? Just like weddings are supposed to be.

Abi’s fascination with photography goes back to her childhood. She remembers flipping through old family albums, struck by the pictures that caught people in the midstride of life, in casual candid moments.

“I loved the way looking through these books would bring people back to those moments, and how they would begin to relive old experiences,” she says, almost like time travel. Ideally, this is what she wants to manifest in her portraits, particularly the Dead Hipster collections, where she prefers a crisp, natural style.

In 2014, Dead Hipster took the year off to pursue personal goals. For Abi, one of these has included a photo project in development that she hopes will start a dialogue about sexual abuse. “This shouldn’t be a sensitive subject,” she says. “Not talking about it is part of the problem.” Her vision is to take portraits of people from the neck down, giving them a platform to share their experience anonymously.

ABI BAUMANN
  • Abi Baumann

As of this past Halloween, Dead Hipster is back in the Badlander. With Mike living in Seattle, Abi and Chris are looking to rebrand the event in 2015, planning a name change and looking for ways to generate new energy and ideas. Creating a scene is something they’ve always excelled at. It’s one that often resembles a sort of modern Dionysian frenzy—a dizzy copulation of debauchery and innocence that vibrates its way into pure joy.

You can see it in the 900 pictures that Abi steals away with every Thursday night. She’ll get them online as fast as she can.

Dead Hipster Dance Party takes place at the Badlander every Thursday at 9 PM. $1 wells until midnight. No cover.

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