Going Bak in Time with a Photographer

Photographer and Venice Art Crawl President, Sunny Bak (pictured here with her rescue dog Pinky Bak), said labels were never something she or her friends subscribed to living and loving in New York in the ‘80s. Photo by Debbie Zeitman.

Spying a thirteen-year-old Sunny Bak, amongst a crowd of New York paparazzi, Elizabeth Taylor showed concern that the young photographer was up so late past bedtime. But, that’s what you get when the school of life sees you interning with a gang of wisened paps.

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Bak said of Taylor, “We were all following her around. She would get back to her hotel at two a.m. each night. One night she looked at me and said ‘Aren’t you a little young to be out so late?’ I said to her, ‘well if you didn’t stay out so late I wouldn’t have to be up so late.’” The next night, Taylor returned to her hotel before midnight. 

The photographer and now, Venice Art Crawl President, said she started running with the paparazzi simply because it gave her a chance to take photos. 

“I never knew who we were photographing.” Explaining how she would run with the pack and snap whoever appeared the target. Many of her pictures remained undeveloped.

“I fell in love with the magic of photography, maybe when I was five? My dad brought me to a dark room, and I saw pictures magically appear in the water, and it was like, ‘Woah!’ It blew my mind,” said Bak. Working as a journalist in New York, Bak’s father gifted the would be photographer her first camera, a Nikon Rangefinder.

The Beastie Boys spent a lot of time at Bak’s studio. While waiting for models to arrive for a shoot, Bak would use the guys as stand-ins while she set the lights. Photo courtesy Sunny Bak.

At 18, Bak rented her first studio where she focused on fashion photography. “My days shooting with the paparazzi taught me to get in-focus shots fast, and people appreciated how quick I could get the studio shots they needed.”  Using stand-ins also helped Bak streamline shoots. Often enlisting some local guys who went to become the Beastie Boys. It was, “the end of The Young and the Useless, which was their punk rock band and they were just starting to be the Beastie Boys, and they were playing around locally and stuff.”

Michael “Mike D” Diamond, Adam “MCA” Yauch, and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz were regulars at the studio, “I used to wonder why they were hanging out so much then I worked it out, the models,” said Bak. 

While waiting for talent to arrive, Bak would put the fellas to work and have them stand on set she positioned the lights. She has many prints of Diamond, Yauch, and Horovitz hamming for the camera.  All this was long before “License to Ill,” the album for which Bak snapped the picture on the gatefold.

The group shot the video for their song “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)” at Bak’s studio. “The video was made at my studio, and my photos are all over it,” said Bak. In fact, the band spent so much time in her studio, its location is marked on a map in the Beastie Boys Book released last year.

Bak’s photos are the stuff of legend.  A rockstar here, movie star there, and one of the ten best selling Newsweek covers, ever. For this shoot, Bak captured Catherine Angiel and her then-girlfriend Ashley Herrin in her arms. The headline read, “Lesbians.”

Bak said labels were never something she or her friends subscribed to living and loving in New York in the ‘80s. She describes the time as a sexually liberated period where people were not gay or bisexual but more so, “just sexual. It just, sort of, was fluid. Whatever happened, happened.”

A surge of creativity electrified the city and Bak’s life, from the late ’70s to mid-‘80s. “It was a very creative time, and there was a lot of freedom and experimentation. It was an exciting time because anything went and everything did,” said Bak who at this point hadn’t considered labeling her sexuality.

The outbreak of AIDs shuttered free love and saw a new wave of homophobia flood the mid-’80s. “There was no AIDS until it happened in ’85/’86 and then guys were dying like crazy, and it was head spinning,” said Bak explaining how AIDS attached a new stigma to being gay. Before that “I just feel like it was sorta great and creative and wild and…free.”

Today she lives in Venice, California with her partner, Director Gina Rubenstein. Bak refers to herself as “a gay woman.” However, there is a hesitation to go there. Not out of shame, but more so out of reluctance to cow-tow to society’s need to label and, a nod to a more creative and accepting time.

Bak’s life traces through a collage of pictures that document the experiences and adventure of love, people, and places from the mid-‘70s to today. She said, she is still discovering swaths of undeveloped film from her paparazzi days. “I’ll develop the film and be like, ‘oh look, it’s Andy Warhol.’ Or, ‘Ha! That was the night Ad-Rock and I were out late getting ketchup in a bodega.’” 

Fleeting, real moments with the famous, captured forever and for Bak, this is yet another example of how photography can be magic.

Listen to an exclusive Beautiful Hollywood podcast with Sunny Bak on Anchor FM find it at  anchor.fm/beautiful-hollywood.

Catch the next Venice Art Crawl and Flower Fest, from 2-6 p.m. on Saturday, June 1 on Rose Avenue in Venice. The after party is at Venice Ale House, 2 Rose Ave., Venice from 6 p.m. – 2 a.m.

On July 13, the Venice Art Crawl and Mar Vista Art Walk are joining forces to create GetAround, an art event that runs from the 405 to the beach along Venice Boulevard. There will be shuttles but anyone heading to the event are encouraged to bike, scoot, or ride-share.

Listen to the Beautiful Hollywood Podcast with Melanie Camp and hear Sunny Bak share his story HERE.h