New York Nights: Steven Rosen’s Images Of Clubgoers Evoke A Time Gone By

It was 9pm on a Saturday night in April of 2008, and I had spent the day, as I spend so many days, at my computer, editing and retouching. My husband was out of town and I was feeling antsy and bored when an e-mail arrived with a list of goings-on in my Brooklyn neighborhood. Sandwiched between a Jewish Singles social and our community theater’s latest production was a listing for a “Dances of Vice” costume party at the Montauk Club. I sat up straight. The Montauk Club is modeled after a Venetian palazzo and I’d long admired the exterior. This was my chance to finally see what was inside.

All Photos © Steven Rosen

I didn’t have a costume, but I figured I’d drop by for a few minutes, check out the interior and leave. I grabbed my camera, a Canon EOS 20D at the time, threw a few lenses and my flash in a bag, and jumped on the subway.

Twenty minutes later, I walked up the steps of the Montauk Club, opened the door, and entered a Venetian Gothic, mahogany-paneled, turn-of-the-(last)-century vision. The party was a tribute to The Threepenny Opera and partygoers were wearing originals from the 1920s and 1930s. A singer was belting out Brecht in German, and everyone looked chic and decadent.

Boy, was I underdressed.

And, suddenly, the club became nothing more than a background, a setting. Flashes were firing everywhere, but my first instinct was to use the ambient light to create something a little moodier. (Maybe the Brecht was influencing me.) I put my flash away, put on my nifty 50mm, set it to f/1.8, set my ISO to 1600 and ventured forth.

At first I was intimidated, but I took a deep breath and asked people to pose for me. I quickly realized that when someone takes the trouble to look this fabulous, they’re more than willing to collaborate on a portrait.

It was a very dark space, lit mainly by lamps. This provided a lovely intimate atmosphere, but I had to find light where I could, so I posed my models next to wall sconces or inches away from those lamps. It was a highly improvisational and WYSIWYG approach.

As time went on, I became more familiar with the club and found some sweet spots. For example, if I put someone across the hall from the bathroom and opened the door, it would spill some lovely directional light on them. Not great for bathroom privacy, of course, but to get the shot, you do what you gotta do.

Now bear in mind that, compared to today’s D-SLRs, the EOS 20D wasn’t very light sensitive, and even at 1⁄15 sec, the resulting images were a bit underexposed, with a lot of noise, and a very shallow depth of field. At first I was disappointed, but as I started to play in post, I remembered the old saying “If you can’t fix it, feature it.” So I created a duplicate layer, turned it sepia to eliminate color noise, increased the sharpness to make the grain even more apparent, used a mask to paint some of the color back in, and (voila!) I had created a “look.”

A rather popular “look” as it turned out. I shot 12 events that first year, and in time, I became a familiar face among the dandies and flappers.

These parties take place at different venues all around New York City. Each venue has its own lighting challenges, and those challenges allowed me to improve my skills at seeing light and using it to flatter my subjects. Those skills have also served me well in my day job as a wedding, event, and portrait photographer.

After a year, I was offered the opportunity to bring lights and set up a small portrait area. No more depending on lamps! Now I had control and had to make some choices about lighting. Those choices are influenced by two main criteria.

First, many of my models simply inspire a specific type of lighting. Currently I’m using a Canon EOS 5D Mark II. That and my strobes give me much crisper, better exposed images than the ones I created that first night. Having cleaner images to begin with gives me much more leeway in post to create a wider variety of looks to complement the style of the model. It could be George Hurrell, John Singer Sargent, Vermeer, film noir, Edward Gorey, Mad Men, or my original hand-painted sepia look. Usually, I start a session with a specific look in mind, and I’ll adjust my lighting and posing accordingly.

The second criterion is space. I’ve had to set up my roving portrait studio in a lot of different locations, and commonly, I don’t know how much space and what kind of background I’ll have until I get there. Sometimes I have a whole room to myself. Sometimes it’s a tiny sliver. So, once again, skillful improvisation is key.

That being said, I generally start with standard three-point lighting with a backlight using a 30˚ grid and a fill and key light using brolly boxes. This is just a stepping off point, but it’s a good place to begin. Sometimes I have to cut back on the number of lights due to space. Sometimes there’s no room for my brolly box or an umbrella, so I have to bounce off walls and ceilings to get the effect I want.

The key, though, is going in knowing the effect you want. My goal is to always try to recognize what my models are trying to project, and then amplifying that. I have grown to love this world of beautiful and eccentric creatures. I want to honor them by creating images that reflect not only how I see them, but how they see themselves.

Steven Rosen came to photography after careers as an illustrator, a jewelry designer, and a book designer. His decades of work in the fashion and graphic design industries give him a highly developed sense of color, light, and composition. He works throughout New York as a portrait, wedding, event, theater, dance, and nightlife photographer. His love for theatricality has exerted itself with a body of work exploring modern-day dandies and flappers. To explore his work further, visit him online at: and

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