Anybody who was in the scene during the 90s will have seen the work of Tristan O'Neill, even if they didn't know it. Alongside Jonathan Fleming, who worked for Mixmag, he was one of, it not the most, prolific event photographer the scene has ever known.
His work featured in all of the top rave publications of the day and his work also graces the cover of the book we published, All Crews by Brian Belle-Fortune. Flicking back through copies of Dream and Atmosphere almost every other page seems to have images credited to Tristan.
We tracked him down and asked him to share his thoughts on his days behind the lens and some of his most treasured images with us. Some of you will recognise them and for some this will be a history lesson. Either way enjoy these fantastic images with us...
How did you get into photography?
I have been taking pictures since I came to England and got a camera when I was 13, I am now 34. I lived in Belgium before and only wish I'd had a camera then.
It seemed to be such a natural thing for me to take pictures. I enjoyed taking pictures of everything I did, including family and friends. I did a GCSE while I was at college at the age of 16 and that got me more into the technical side of photography.
I read every photography book in the library, which is where I would spend all my spare time, even missing classes to go there. As I learned what it meant for a picture to be good I realised that I had a natural talent, as when I looked back at the old pictures I'd been taking, I could see that I had been doing all the things I'd been reading about.
Tell us a bit about how you got into the rave scene...
My friends and I used to listen to pirate radio in 1991 in the bedroom. We used to go to Black Market records in Soho, London and used to pick up magazines. The one that stands out was Rave Scene and it was just a few black and white photocopied pages with no binding and no pictures. It was really basic.
My friend Carlo said I should contact them and see if I could take pictures for them so I did. They invited me to Dalston to Club Labyrinth were they were doing a night. I went with Carlo and we stood outside for what seemed like ages in the December cold, having never been out to a rave before and not knowing what to expect.
Anyway, we were finally greeted by the promoter of the night and the magazine. I took my first pictures there. We went to Bagleys for them a couple of weeks later to a bigger venue and took some pictures there and I remember processing some in black and white at college.
After that I had my eyes on Atmosphere magazine, which was much better. It was colour, had pictures and was about jungle which we were interested in. I must have spent about two months ringing the owner of the magazine and asking to go and take pictures for him, but with no luck, so eventually I thought 'OK I will go out myself and take some pictures and do a review and send it to him'.
I went out at four in the morning to Equinox in Leicester Square, which was hosting a night called Orange [legendary all-nighters run by London DJ and promoter Chris Paul AKA Isotonik]. I smuggled my camera in under my huge coat, but I hated writing so I asked DJ Nicky Blackmarket if he would write the review of the night for me. He is the busiest man, DJing at night and working in Black Market Records in the day, I can't believe he agreed to write it for me!
Anyway, I sent the review, Atmosphere published it and from then on I was out every weekend taking pictures and asking other people to write the reviews for me.
So what styles were you mainly into, and who were your favourite DJs?
I was mainly into hardcore/jungle then D&B as that is what we used to listen to on the radio at home. I loved the basslines - any tune with a bassline is my tune! One of my nicknames is Tristan Bass. I liked Nicky Blackmarket, he always played a set that pleased everyone, he wasn't a show off trying to play the latest tunes to impress the other DJs. I used to also like Andy C, Kenny Ken, DJ Trace on the radio, Slipmatt, Jumping Jack Frost, DJ Hype, Ellis D. The problem is I never used to know their names. I was never really interested in the DJs. I used to be interested in photographing the crowd, non stop. I had to ask my friends to remind me!
Which magazines did you work for, and which did you prefer and why?
I worked for every dance magazine that existed in the UK at that time, my favourites being Atmosphere and Dream Magazine. I loved Dream as they were local to me and practically the whole magazine was full of my pictures, I had a close relationship with them and really enjoyed submitting my best images. Great days!
How did it work back then? This would have been the mid 90s when digital media was still in its infancy right?
I only got a digital camera in 2006 and all my work was printed in magazines not on the web.
How did you embrace the digital image revolution?
I was wary at first, thinking that the images wouldn't be so good with a digital camera, then I went to Belgium to take some pictures in Antwerp and my friend from Belgium had a digital camera. I tried it and that was it. I came home and brought one, boy was I excited!! I could see my pictures as I was taking them, I could take pictures 'til I dropped and that is what I did!. I am a bit of an extremist in many ways, when I do something, I do it to the max! I have had loads of digital cameras and never had as many as I do now, I love them and love taking pictures of everything around me.
What did you look for in a good composition? Was it all pretty girls dancing in lazer beams, or was there a genuine artistic value to your work?
A picture has to be perfect, it has to be sharp, well exposed, well lit and the subject matter has to be interesting. That might be a pretty girl, an interestingly dressed character, somebody well dressed, badly dressed, whatever catches my eye really. I like abstract shots of interesting stuff. A good composition has to fill the frame, everything in the frame has to have a reason to be there and be well balanced and well proportioned. A picture needs everything to be right to be a top picture. I really love to have foreground, background and middle ground in a shot, a horizontal shot of someone on the left, as if they were the main subject, but then in the middle you have some people dancing to give depth to the picture and extra interest. In the background you might have some amazing lights, or the DJ or a feature of the club for example.
So how did the cover shot for All Crews come about?
I met Brian Belle-Fortune in Bagleys and we got talking about this book he wanted to publish. I met up with him and brought along a whole load of pictures, put them all on the floor and he choose the ones he wanted. We also did an exhibition after that.
All Crews cover
As the 90s progressed, how did you and your style progress with them?
When I first took pictures in clubs, to be honest, they were crap. The composition was fine, but the lighting wasn't great. Clubs are very difficult places to take pictures. To start with you can't see a thing through your viewfinder, so how about that for a start to taking a great pic? Then you have the smoke from the smoke machines that fogs up your shot if you don't know how to deal with it, then you're trying to focus on a constantly moving subject that you can hardly see, not to mention the forever changing exposures due to the lights, strobes and lazers.
When you have mastered all these things you can then take a picture and hope that it is a good one. You need to do everything you can to make it good. Probably my biggest discovery was using the flash remotely from the camera, in other words not suck to the top of my camera where it usually is. That was just amazing. The pictures suddenly got a lot more interesting, like three dimensional.
What was the beginning of the end of your career as one of the dance scenes most prolific photographers?
Well, I was a dance photographer for 12 years in total but only a small portion of that was rave/old skool related, as I started taking pictures for Musik, Ministry, Seven and DJ, all of which mainly focused on house music. I pretty much went where they sent me. I didn't particularly like the music, but I got my buzz from seeing happy people and taking pictures, documenting the night if you like.
I guess most magazines I took pictures for went down in the end. When left only with Mixmag and DJ I took pictures for both. I wasn't too keen on Mixmag as I had to do short interviews with people and the brief was so precise. That left me taking pictures for DJ which I really liked. When they went from bi-monthly to monthly I didn't get any more jobs from them. I never really pushed myself too much.
These days I make fitted furniture. I haven't taken any pictures for any magazines for over a year now, but I would still do it if someone asked me. I am a photographer at heart and I like to keep and treasure my memories. That will never stop. I hope to take more street life and other types of documentary shots again in the near future, but with my full time job and two children to look after I was actually quite relieved to have the weekends to relax and spend with them. I guess also digital photography changed things as everyone takes pictures now and many with more enthusiasm to stay up late than me so I guess that was also a part of it.
And what are you doing now?
For six years I have been making fitted furniture and I now run my own company doing that full time. Photography is now my hobby, but that it makes it more enjoyable as making money always takes some magic away as you have to do it, rather than want to do it. Don't get me wrong, I loved taking pictures in the clubs and whenever you see me I always have a camera, any party I got to I am taking pictures. I will never lose that. I love it.
What do you think of the current scene, and do you do any odd bits of freelance work?
I am amazed that there is still such a scene, all the old raves like One Nation, Desire, etc are still going even if to a lesser degree, but there are loads of other new ones, so really nothing has really changed there, still loads of places to go raving.
Name your highlights of the time you spent on the road, not just as a photographer, but in terms of events or even records that really had a massive impact on you back then.
Gosh! I used to go raving with so many of my friends as I knew all the promoters then so used to get loads of guest list and on special occasions like New Years Eve I used to love having all my best friends around me. I loved taking pictures and dancing around with them to my favourite music.
Can you give us your some of your favourite old skool related images, and tell us what makes them special to you?
This is Metalheadz when it was in the city at the Leisure Lounge I think. I love this one, the lighting is just really nice, cosy and atmospheric. I like the peoples heads popping up, everyone talking, chilling out.
Stevie Hyper D
Stevie Hyper D! I love this shot. You have a mixture of foreground with Stevie in his colourful shirt in action, there's lots of live action here, with the crowd immediately behind him nice and sharp. There are horns being played, a couple of girls to add a feminine touch and then it blurs into the background with colourful heads. That with the purple light shining on the crowd makes it all nicely balanced and composed.
Angelic picture of DJ Rap, the light from my flash on her face is soft and gentle, you can see her concentrating, and the red light shining down on her record balances out the shot well, perfectly composed.
DJ Rap again, same night, but another angle. Great colours and composition and the nicely lit purple deck in the background. A very different picture to the last shot though.
DJ Hype amongst some interesting patterns and colours. His face is nice and clear, with an angled composition to create dynamism. You can see his hand movement is blurred as if he was scratching, which of course he was famed for.
I call this the octopus. In case it isn't obvious it just looks like there are loads of arms all over the place, and this is my favourite shot of all time. There is so much action and emotion going on here. I love the blue haze, it adds to the dreamy ,surreal effect of the picture. The people's heads are all over the place, including in the bottom left hand corner, I just love it!!!
This is my most popular picture of all time. It's constantly the people's favourite and it's called "Shower in Heaven". It was originally in colour, but now has the monotone effect with just the blue lights in the ceiling adding colour with some faint colour in the crowd. Other than that is mainly two tone, and it works just as well for me in black and white. I call it shower in heaven because it looks like a light shower, you can even see mist coming up from the ground. The heaven part comes from it being one of the best nights of my life. It was NYE 1995 at World Dance, London Arena, Docklands. I was there with loads of my friends.
Just a great expression and pose with a nice background, and just his face. What has possessed him?