The photographer who captured the spirit of 90s rave

The photographer who captured the spirit of 90s rave
Tristan O’Neill’s shots of dancers caught in moments of reverie at the height of rave’s golden age are a testament to the UK’s legendary club culture.

When Tristan O’Neill was driving up the A1 at the weekend in the 1990s in anticipation of capturing another rave, it never occurred to him that he might be making history. “My mom used to say that to me about my pictures,” says O’Neill, who lives in London. “She’d say: ‘One day this will be history’, and I’m like, ‘What do you mean? It’s just pictures in a music magazine. Who’s gonna care about them in the future?’”

Many of O’Neill’s pictures – taken between 1994 and the mid-00s – have been collected together in the Museum of Youth Culture archives, and his work can also be seen in RA’s new Sacred Spaces book, with each special edition featuring a one-off print by the British artist Jeremy Deller. Taken at UK Garage and Drum ‘n’ Bass clubs, as well as sundry warehouse raves in private airports and leisure centres from Stevenage to Sheffield, these shots of dancers caught in the moment preserve split seconds that would have otherwise been ephemeral, such as the boy lost in quasi-religious reverie at the Pleasuredome in Skegness in 1997.

“He’s not thinking about anything but the present,” says O’Neill, observing a picture that has become an icon of ’90s rave culture. “I remember that night very clearly because I never used to drink or do anything; when I did, it would be a nightmare. There’s another picture from that night with this other guy who was equally crazy – he looks like an ogre, a giant, all dressed in white. It’s not as well known for some reason”.

Raver with dilated eyes, dyed spiky hair and bone in mouth, Gatecrasher at The Republic, Sheffield, UK, 1999

A Couple at United Dance, Stevenage, UK, 1998

O’Neill’s foray into nightclub photography is a litany of circumstance. Born in Paddington, London in 1976, Tristan spent 13 years living in a village in Belgium, before returning to the capital as a teenager and acquiring his first camera. “I don’t know what possessed me but I’d take pictures of everything. That’s like my memory. I went to college when I was 16 and studied photography for a year. I’d bunk off other classes to go and spend time in the library reading and learning about photography. I’d read every magazine in the library.”

He’d recoiled from any kind of dance music while living in the Lowlands, though a holiday in Devon as an 18-year-old where he dropped his first hashbomb listening to a Fantazia mixtape on cassette, provided the epiphany that set him on his way. Tristan and his friends began listening to pirate radio stations, among them Don FM, Kool FM and Weekend Rush. Then on a regular trip to Black Market Records in Soho, the assistant working behind the counter suggested he combine his love of photography with his love of rave. 

Man with spiky blue hair at Gatecrasher 7th Birthday, Sheffield, UK, October 2001

Gatecrasher 7th Birthday October 2001

O’Neill took it upon himself to get his portfolio underway, entering a club in Leicester Square with a camera hidden in his puffer jacket. “It was one that went almost down to the floor,” he says, laughing. “And I just bought tickets as a regular punter.” Weekends were soon spent snapping for now defunct mags and fanzines like Atmosphere and Dream, at forgotten clubs up and down the country that have invariably been closed and turned into flats. “I read a blog a while ago about clubs that have come and gone, and I was like: ‘Oh my god. I’ve been to every single one of those clubs, and they’re all gone.’”

In a time when everyone has a digital camera, it’s easy to forget how much the odds were stacked against O’Neill, who took six to eight rolls of film along with him each night, shooting moving dancers in the dark through a miasma of smoke fumes. “What transformed my photography was when I took the flash off my camera and put it in my hand,” he recalls. “That was just absolutely amazing, because before the flash would bounce off the smoke.”

O’Neill wouldn’t have had a viewfinder to frame his pictures either, working with shards of flickering, artificial light. “We didn’t have digital, so you can’t just take a picture and check the composition. So it makes the special pictures that much more special, because they were so hard to get. The get-it-wrong rate is just so massive. It’s like extreme photography when you think about it, so when you get a good picture, it’s like wow.”

2 people dancing at the Warning Rave at the Junction in Cambridge, 1998

Man wearing sunglasses and all white at Sensation White, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 15 April 2006

UK Garage, Jungle and Drum n Bass Scene, UK, 1990s-2000s

Topless men on crowded dancefloor in hardcore rave, UK, 1990s

The Crowd at World Dance, Ashford, Kent, 1996

Sign for The Red Room, Masonic Place, Nottingham, UK, 2006

Follow Tristan O’Neill on Instagram.

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