I lounge on the worn leather couch of a small Tenderloin lighting studio where I’ve come to shoot Parker Day, a San Francisco nightlife photographer, working on her latest studio shoot. Here, among the walls plastered in a montage of punk rock posters and event fliers, I can watch her work intimately with the green screen she lugs into crowded nightclubs throughout the city to create her distinct brand of cyber fashion photos. We are waiting for her model, Lenny Cartwright. “What’s the concept for this shoot,” I ask her. She smiles and turns to her boyfriend Adam LaBay, who rents the space for their artistic use and to store his own lighting equipment. “Lenny is really a concept within himself,” Adam says with a laugh, as his kind brown eyes crinkle at the corners.
A few moments later, Lenny enters the room. His lanky frame is draped in a traditional kilt, unexpectedly paired with a metal headpiece, a cutoff T-shirt and tan stacked Buffalo platforms. If Baby Spice’s signature sneakers had a baby with a pair of Timberland hiking boots, Lenny’s shoes would be that child. Not to mention the fact that they add about six inches to his height, putting him up at almost seven feet. His entrance is a flurry of apologies for being so late, followed by a peace offering of Pabst Blue Ribbon tall cans.
Lenny and Parker are a match made in social media heaven. “I can’t wait for my new profile picture!,” Lenny excitedly cries as the two look over the first round of shots. The pair met on Facebook. “She takes all these cool photos and I have a style that works with them,” says Lenny on the subject of his first contact with Parker. “Of course I wanted to be her friend.”
To the untrained eye, many of Parker’s photos may just look like an unfinished round of Photoshop play by someone with a good sense of humor and a love for mid-90s Internet graphics. However, to any Tumblr fashion enthusiast, they would be immediately identified as decidedly seapunk. Seapunk is both a genre of electronic music as well as a style of dress and graphic design, created entirely online by a small group of social media enthusiasts and music producers. The music incorporates elements of 90s and early 2000s R&B, pop and rap music over generally downtempo electronic beats. The fashion aesthetic is a mashup of a variety of street wear and punk styles, with an emphasis on goth staples reworked with bright colors and tropical themes. Tumblr is the site where this aesthetic and the term itself really took off.
“Digital culture is to me about process and transparency. Remix everything. Release early, release often. Always in beta,” says Jay Owens, a United Kingdom-based digital media researcher and blogger on social technology, research, politics, anthropology and urbanism. Owens struggles to explain the trend in his May 16, 2012 article for the popular style blog The Business of Fashion, “Is Fashion Ready for a New Aesthetic?” In this article, he addresses a high-fashion audience, attempting to make logic of the underground fashion trend. “Perhaps this retreat into retro nostalgia is a reaction to economic uncertainty and technological change. Maybe it’s a craving for what we imagine were simpler times or a search for authenticity in a world that is increasingly artificial.”
This look has begun to go beyond the niche of Tumblr geeks and street wear gurus. Most recently, pop superstar Rihanna blatantly mimicked the very distinctive green screen imagery utilized by Parker and pioneered by artists including Los Angeles-based DJ Jerome Potter, best known for his recordings and videos in the electronic duo LOL Boys. In her November 2012 Saturday Night Life performance, Rihanna wore her usual mashup of street wear paired with high end labels, but this time was in front of a green screen that displayed digitally generated images of tropical scenes and diamonds to millions of viewers. Twitter was ablaze with both anger and excitement. Originators of the fashion aesthetic, including Las Vegas-based model and blogger Bebe Zeva, passionately complained that when mainstream artists steal the look those in the underground have created, it cheapens their brand and it is necessary to start over entirely. Clearly, this is about setting one’s self apart from the mainstream, as alternative branding always has been.
When I ask Lenny how he classifies his look or what he draws inspiration from, he is extremely hesitant to call it seapunk. “Well, people were calling me seapunk a few months ago,” he says with a sigh, “but I got tired of that.” Owens was dead on in his analysis: the constant remixing is an essential element to all aspects of digital culture. From alternative branding to genres of electronic music and fashion trends, the only consistency is reinvention.
Parker and Adam, along with San Francisco DJ Marco de la Vega, are the curators behind a new monthly event, #Y3K, which merges this digital culture with the nightlife. As their first event description on Facebook stated, they are “merging the URL with the IRL,” IRL being a common acronym for “in real life” and URL referring to “uniform resource locator” in computing. Parker’s photos are remnants of the night for the club goers, all of whom understand the aesthetic she’s trying to create. “I’ve been doing club photos for about eight years now, and I used to always slap the club logo on them, which people thought was really cool back then,” Parker explains. “That isn’t cool anymore. Now I’m creating a new way to brand an event that people are really into.”