Sean McMullen never intended to become a photographer. After testing out of high school in the mid-’80s to pursue a future in filmmaking, the Chula Vista native took a course in photography under the technical prowess of San Diego City College professor Ralph “Sandy” Santibañez.
“I lived downtown when it was undeveloped, so it was barber shops and shoe-shine guys and drug addicts and homeless people and all the funky old bars like Beanie’s Lobby and the Orient,” McMullen recounts in the dim light of Dock’s Cocktail Lounge, a Chula neighborhood haunt. “It was a real wonderland to walk around in and take photos. Then I started shooting down in Ensenada every weekend and getting into that black-and-white world, you know, the man-on-the-street kind of people like Bresson and the Mexican photographers like Alvarez Bravo and Graciela Iturbide and Sebastião Salgado from Brazil and Man Ray. I loved all of that stuff. Baja was my formative playground for shooting. The juxtaposition of things, the unfinished and the finished, the colors, the way things get built up on each other, and the people, obviously — I became totally enamored with that.”
2501 Kettner Boulevard, San Diego
Following studies in filmmaking at the Art Institute of Chicago, McMullen returned to San Diego to go to UCSD, got married, divorced, and rekindled his relationship with photography at the Casbah, a bar he’d been going to since Tim Mays opened doors in 1989.
“The Casbah was a haven,” McMullen says. “Rock and roll and punk rock and all this stuff I grew up with was therapeutic, and there it was just down the hill from my apartment. So I just started shooting. I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing compared to what I was doing before. I started experimenting with color and flash photography, which was not my forte. I never cared for it, so I had to make a lot of mistakes early on. I started learning on the job.”
Fast-forward and McMullen would eventually become the venue’s resident photographer. He dubbed the Casbah his “living room,” a place where he could climb around freely and refine his technique in rear curtain sync, strap bracing, and dragging the shutter. In the process, McMullen has sliced open his knees and battered his body, torn his jeans, and got in several near-brawls in mosh pits while contorting for the perfect shot.
“One of the shows that really stands out was when the Jesus Lizard played,” McMullen, now 47, recalls. “It was one of the nuttiest pits I had ever been in. Casbah had many, many punk shows where I was just being pummeled and pushed all over the place and I had to push people off me constantly. And I remember that Jesus Lizard show because it reminded me of, like, if you’ve ever been bodysurfing and the wave takes you and rolls you. It was like that. I was just being tumbled around and the crowd was everywhere and the band was everywhere and when I look at the photos there’s all these streaking lights and just crap and then several amazing, crazy shots.”
One of the images, a slight double exposure taken upside down in the mosh pit, is among many chosen from McMullen’s 14 years photographing the venue for his new 100-page photo book, Ether: Images from the Casbah.
“I feel like something is being transmitted when I shoot these shows,” he says of the title. “I’m nursing light through the lens and it’s very difficult to do in low light. It’s very difficult to do fast with things in focus, so when I get something, I feel like I grabbed the spirit of the show through this film, this ether that’s produced inside the club. There’s a feeling when a show is happening, this thing that’s conjured up by the performance and people enjoying the performance, and to me that’s the ether.”
McMullen adds, “I don’t think anything I’ve done is unique to photography, but I do think my technique is unique to the Casbah,” he says. “It can’t be replicated anywhere else.”
Ether is being offered as a signed and numbered limited edition series at chronoscopepictures.com.