Meet Gabi Porter, a 42-year-old food and drink photographer (for multiple liquor brands, bars, as well as the New York Post, and cookbooks like Cuban Cocktails and Koreatown) who if you follow even casually on social media appears to be at a non-stop party.
Do you ever feel that because you’re a photographer you’re not subject to the same restrictions or expectations (age-related or otherwise) as others? That having a camera makes you more of a neutral observer?
Hmmm… I think that might be true for a lot of photographers, but that’s kind of the antithesis of my style. Since I made a name for myself as a party photographer first, and I’ve always believed that you can’t take a good party picture unless you are at the party, not just observing the party. My presence is more like a canonball into a swimming pool than anything else. Most people don’t believe me when I tell them I’m 42, and I think it’s just as much of an attitude as it is lack of wrinkles.
When did you start doing photography?
My dad bought me my first camera when I was probably 8 years old, an $8 Kodak Ektachrome at the local Kmart . My mother and father were divorced. He lived in Kentucky. I saved and saved and saved for a Minolta when I was 12 or 13. I had that Minolta camera up until my senior year of college, and the shutter started to stick around ‘95. In 2003, I got my next camera and I was completely fascinated with digital photography. I was like oh my god, the image is right there. I can’t describe how incredible that was. I got a little Casio
which I remember was like $299 dollars which was expensive in 2003. I ran around taking pictures of everything and it would be the drunken night at the bar every night, and then I would be really, really compulsive and go home and upload to my computer and pick the best and post them to Ofoto. And then I would send the link out. It wasn’t public. I’d send it to all my friends look at what we did last night! Then I started to do more interesting things, but I think there’s something about documenting the night.
When did you start considering yourself a photographer?
I took one picture that changed my life. It was Iggy Pop, and it’s really, really hard to start there because it’s the best picture I will ever take in my life. My boss saw it and she was like “Holy shit, this is amazing. You’re a photographer?” She was the one who ran corporate communications at the label and every day she was like "You’ve got to take pictures”’ and from that moment onward she introduced me to everyone in the office as "This is Gabi, she works with me,” that was the mumbled part, and then “she’s an amazing photographer.” It was a really generous thing for her to do. A bunch of people in the office bought that photo was an art print and the proceeds from that bought my first digital SLR pro camera.
My boss said, “There is this really cool thing happening in Union Square tonight and you should go take pictures.” I had never handled an SLR before. So I go to Union Square and take pictures of the silent rave, and being the compulsive person I was, went home before it was even finished and posted photos to my Flickr account. Brooklyn Vegan poached one of my shots with a link back to my account and I woke up to that and an email from The Village Voice saying they sent a photographer and he flaked and they loved my pictures and captions and would I be interested in more work, and I said yes, sure, so they licensed that gallery from me. I did a few things for them. I had a day job. So the moment I picked up my first dSLR was as a professional photographer–very weird and very, very serendipitous. I’d never had any ambitions to be a photographer, it had never crossed my mind.
How old were you then?
The picture that changed my life was taken in 2007. Mid-30s.
So, can you be choosier about what you cover now?
You always have to remember who your friends are, and I’m never against the idea of shooting something for people who supported me. I will drop everything to help a friend. There’s still plenty of events going on, it’s just I have other stuff to do. There are only so many pictures of guitars that you can take. I found the hospitality industry in 2009 and was completely floored by how different the world is outside of music. In music you’re always fighting for access, there’s no courtesy, no politeness. It’s a rat race and shooting music for photographs is like that too.
Doesn’t the restaurant industry also have access issues?
To a much lesser degree. I’ve shot Eric Ripert. I was going on vacation to London a few years ago and it was right when Food Republic was taking off and I thought you know, I’ve lived in London, I’m not a tourist here, how do I make this trip memorable and maybe do some stories? I had it in my mind that I wanted to photograph Fergus Henderson and Heston Blumenthal. Heston’s office emailed me back a couple of times. Perfectly lovely. Not giving me the time of day. Fergus? I got the interview. I spent the morning drinking Madeira with Fergus Henderson. It was a quick interview, I spent maybe 15 minutes with him, but I took a few lovely photos. To use a Britishism, I was “super chuffed.” You’ve got to put a lot of irons in the fire. I know Fergus is particularly difficult to get face time with, and there were absolutely no problems and it was a great interview.
Do you ever feel like at some point I’m old and out of place? Like look at the crazy old lady in the pit.
I still have my label connections and get asked to do those things occasionally. I generally say yes if I’m available. I’ve always been slightly older. going to shows at Terminal 5 and Bowery Ballroom, that’s a 21-year-old’s game. As soon as you turn 25 you’re too old to be there. I do get annoyed these days if I don’t have a VIP access, strictly because it’s more comfortable in VIP.
I don’t go to as many shows as I used to by any means, but there’s always two or three aging hipster dudes there. But there’s never aging hipster ladies.
Oh, I’ve encountered them. Some of them are characters. I’m not going to name names. I’m friends with some of these people on Facebook. Some of them I’ve muted on Facebook because they are a little crazy. It’s actually a logical progression. The aging hipster dudes are pretty damn crazy too. Maybe there’s something about being old.
Maybe you have to be crazy in general to be old at a show?
It depends who it is. If you’re going to see a band from 15 years ago that are on a tour again, you’re going to see people you’re own age there. The last show I went to at Terminal 5 was They Might Be Giants. I think I saw five or six people I hooked with at college at that show. I was like oh jeez, I need to get out of here. I’m well over the age of doing the walk of shame.
I was at Glasslands a while back and there was no one over 29. [I sat on this interview for a year fyi]
I love going to Glasslands–or did–but mainly because it was a really beautiful room. I have an older friend Jonathan Toubin who’s a DJ. He’s probably my age if not older and he’s still doing things and attracts a really diverse crowd. I remember being at Glasslands one night for one of his Dance-Offs, taking pictures for Metromix. I took this one really wild photo of a couple and I grab this woman and say "I love this picture of you” and showed it to her, and I had no idea who I’m talking to. Then I go outside for a cigarette and someone said Marisa Tomei and Sam Rockwell are here at the Dance-Off and I’d just taken her picture. They’re not youngsters. And they’re not crazy. When you’re at a party in Williamsburg at Glasslands and Marisa Tomei and Sam Rockwell are there, you know you’re at the right party. I think if Bill Murray was there, it’d be a younger crowd.
I don’t understand the whole Bill Murray thing.
I don’t want to understand it. I just love it. His son is a chef. He’s the chef at Roebling Tea Room and River Styx [now at the renamed 21 Greenpoint]. Homer Murray. He makes a damn fine burger.
It seems like you’re out all the time.
I think I’m just I’m very good at social media because people think I’m out way more than I’m actually out. I’m home most of the time. I own 15 kinds of pajamas. God bless social media, I’m still relevant.
I’m home watching Younger!
I think the woman who plays the lead character [Sutton Foster] is really kind of enchanting. She’s lovely. She’s intelligent. I love Debbie Mazar. Have you seen her cooking show? It’s so funny because she comes off as kind of hard with the characters she plays, but she’s such a softie in her cooking show.
I didn’t know she was 52.
Wow, I hope I look that good in 8 years. That’s the Hollywood tradition of casting the older person for the younger role.
Do you see a point where you can’t go out as much anymore?
I can’t go out every night. Physically, it is much harder to balance that these days. I’ve got to say since the Holiday Cocktail Lounge reopened–maybe we should’ve met there…you know what, we’re going to have to go there after this–that is a place beyond time. The last time I was there I finished up a photo shoot here upstairs from Amor y Amargo, came downstairs for a drink, saw some friends and said I’d stop in for one drink and go home. I tried to settle my tab three different times. When I got there the sun was still up. I left at 5am. It was really bad. I was hurting the next day and I didn’t even drink that much.
I can’t do that now. I had maybe four drinks over a six-hour period last night, and this morning I was fine with it but I was tired.
I know. I hear ya. It’s like your brain is off when you ride the subway, grouchy, irritated. Here’s a weird trick. I remember going to a Zagat event at La Mar and they were serving pisco sours. At one point near the end of the thing I counted backwards how many I drank and I’m not joking or exaggerating, I drank 12 and I wasn’t drunk or a mess. I have heard this could be an old wive’s tale, that egg whites bind the alcohol in your digestive system and you don’t absorb the alcohol at the same rate. I had 12 pisco sours and I was dead sober.
At what age do you consider someone middle-aged?
Oh god, I don’t know if I care, you know? It’s so funny because my mother as she’s gotten older and hears someone died at 72, she says, “They were so young” and I’m like I guess so. My mom is 64, so 72 is looming on the horizon. Age is so relative.
I started getting freaked out in my late 30s when I heard people in their 30s described as “middle-aged.”
No, no, no.. honestly 35 is like the new 21. When I was 35 it felt that way. Though if you’re being literal, if you live to 80, 40 is the middle. We are of the generation that found themselves much later than previously, and I think that there’s a benefit to that because if I didn’t come from the generation I came from I don’t think I ever would’ve found what I do now. Who’s that nanny everyone is gushing over? The street photographer? Vivian Maier. If I were of that generation I would be doing this for nobody but myself. I’m not even sure how to express this, but we’re slackers yet we take chances. Because we slacked so much that we got worried, you know? What are we going to make of ourselves? And I think if we’re lucky that we find that other thing. Your parents always told you you’re special. Everyone hopes they are special. Finding that thing that actually makes you special is difficult.
I feel like that’s the criticism of the millennials. That they think they’re special.
It started with us. Well, not my mother.
Um, not mine either.
If I gave my mother a present she didn’t like she’d be like “What’s this crap?” It’s funny because doing this now my mother is like “What the fuck are you doing? You are never going to pay the bills.” I’m just going to try. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll find a job. All these years later my mom actually says to people unprompted that she’s incredibly proud of me and the she never thought I would make it. Oh, and she likes the extra special treatment she gets at bars and restaurants when she comes in with me.
What made you choose this bar?
I think the drinks here are incredibly delicious. They’re super unusual. All of the drinks are presented in these tiny little glasses and they essentially have no garnish . There is nothing fancy about these drinks in terms of appearance, but there is so much complexity packed into these little glasses that you know it speaks for itself. It doesn’t need the bells and whistles. I love Sother [Teague, the bartender]. Sother is also of my age group and I actually enjoy coming to hang out with him because I feel like I’m hanging out with a peer as opposed to some of my younger friends. I love amaro. And it’s funny, Sother actually gives a talk with Philip Duff called “The Bitter and Sweet” about how our taste buds function. As we get older we actually lose taste buds, so as we get older our palates change, we crave more flavor, and bitter things become more palatable.
The perfect place then?
Exactly. All bitter but not bitter personally. Maybe a little bit. No, not at all. I’m the opposite of bitter. I’m a joyful person. I joke about it because it’s not true. I think it’s…[laughing] years dealing with my mother.
What was that crazy interaction with her on Facebook when there was a snowstorm?
Oh my god. I was sitting at Death and Co. with two bartender buddies of mine and my mom was all "Fuck you and your followers!” She was actually really worried about the snow and she was worried that I was going to die on my way home. I was like it’s stopped snowing and it’s mostly melted. And my friend Jane was laughing about how she pictured my mother sitting at home drinking whiskey and smoking Virginia Slims. That’s absolutely not my mother at all. No, she’s more of a vodka and orange juice in a coffee cup with Marlboro Lights. She was worried I might die, but her manifestation of worry is kind of aggro. And then there was that little bit of antagonism from me because I wasn’t coming home. I kept checking in and Instagramming everything and my mom took that as a personal affront. I encouraged her to join Facebook because she worried that I’m dead in a ditch somewhere.
I stress out when my mom visits, which is rarely, but you live with your mom.
I get it everyday. And it actually made me more grown up, oddly. Well, in a weird way I will never feel older than 17 and then in another way I feel uber responsible. There comes a point in your relationship with your parents, if that’s how it goes, that you kind of become a parent.
That hasn’t happened to me yet, thankfully. My mom’s husband just turned 52 this year.