By Michael Aushenker
Before TMZ, smart phones and the Internet, Venice fashion and music photographer Sunny Bak was shooting candid images of American icons — and she was only 14.
In time her images, particularly those documenting the earliest years of the Beastie Boys, would achieve their own notoriety.
On Saturday, Bak and other artists will launch “Sleepwalking Through Dreamland,” a mixed-media art show at Essentia Sleep Shop and Gallery in Santa Monica that includes prints she has exhumed from storage after more than three decades.
The exhibit includes photos of Elizabeth Taylor, Andy Warhol, Ginger Rogers, Jackie Onassis, Hugh Hefner, Yoko Ono and others that Bak captured as a middle-school student stalking celebrities with her dad’s Nikon Rangefinder.
In “Sleepwalking Through Dreamland,” a young Hefner pairs incongruously with the wholesome imaged Barbara Benton at New York’s Playboy Club. Taylor, between husbands, is out with then-boyfriend Henry Weinberg. There’s even an inadvertent shot of barrier-breaking dancer and singer Josephine Baker that Bak discovered while sifting through old photo negatives.
“When I was 14, I didn’t know who Josephine Baker was,” said Bak, now a fixture of the Westside art scene and a member of Venice Art Crawl’s board of directors.
At the time, Bak was hustling for pictures outside Broadway shows and hitching rides from paparazzo Ron Galella, who was famously slapped with a restraining order to keep him away from Jackie O.
“He used to drive me around in his Firebird,” Bak said of Galella. “There were less people [stalking celebrities]. It was mostly men.”
So how exactly did Bak’s parents feel about their teen daughter roaming New York at night?
“They didn’t really know,” Bak said. “I would say that I was at the library. And I’d be studying and then hustle off to Broadway, later processing the film in my parents’ bathroom.”
Finding beauty among Beasties
In her 20s, Bak befriended a teenage punk rock outfit with a growing cult following and created some of her most lasting images.
She met the Beastie Boys on the cusp of their transition to hip-hop through Def Jam Records co-founders Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, with whom she partied at nightclubs such as Area, Milk Bar and The World. Through Beastie svengali Rubin she became a de facto chronicler of the band, even shooting the gatefold image inside their major-label debut album “Licensed to Ill.”
“We went to the site of the 1963 World’s Fair and spent afternoon there. [Rubin] drew in the airplane with the pencil. We had a fun time with the boys,” she recalled. “Once ‘Licensed to Ill’ came out, it blew up! What was really surreal was hearing the music coming out of cars.”
Bak captured the shenanigans of Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, Michael “Mike D” Diamond and Adam “MCA” Yauch at that critical time before and after the 1986 debut of “Licensed.” The album, which contained such monster hits as “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)” and “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” broke down racial lines between rock and hip-hop audiences as the first rap album to top Billboard’s pop charts and eventually sold more than 10 million copies.
Circa 1986 to1988, Bak’s photos captured this irreverent, cartoony phase of the band’s career as they moved from punk to rap.
“She was clearly around the band when they were at their most Beastie-est — when they were young and pushing the boundaries of not only their music but their behavior. That’s sort of when they made their reputation,” said Steve Appleford, a veteran music journalist and photographer who also chronicled the band.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences featured a portrait of Yauch by Appleford, who has taught at Otis College of Art and Design, during the Academy Awards after Yauch’s death from cancer in May 2011 at age 47.
Aura Walker, today a hypnotherapist with a practice in Mar Vista, recalled hanging out with Bak while Walker was dating Yauch for four years just as the band broke big. Walker can be seen as a black leather dress-clad bad girl in the video for “Fight for Your Right” (the single which put the rap group on the map), which was shot in Bak’s New York apartment.
“Sunny Bak was on the scene at the right time. She was very savvy, she had street smarts, and she was very fond of Yauch,” said Walker, who added that the photographer and band had a mutually beneficial professional relationship.
Bak moved to Los Angeles around the same time the Beastie Boys changed record labels and came out to L.A., but she and the Beasties would soon part ways.
Bak recalled throwing a barbecue at her mother’s new home near Museum Row during which the Beasties — “The three of them were so frickin’ loud!” Bak said — incurred the wrath of the local homeowner’s association. But Diamond, Horovitz and Yauch were already finding other social circles that involved more drug use.
Bak, meanwhile, was able to parlay her connections with Rubin to photograph members of Slayer and Danzig for albums he produced on his Def American label and expanded her professional catalogue.
“I did a lot of celebrity portraiture: Gregory Peck, Luke Perry. I was very busy,” Bak said.
‘One of the guys’
At the height of the Beastie Boys’ early notoriety, the band was increasingly vilified for their notorious on-stage antics, pouring honey on groupies and homophobic lyrics and slurs. The band had proposed “Don’t Be a Faggot!” as the original title for “Licensed to Ill.”
Although she was a gay woman, Bak said she had no problem reconciling the homophobic aspect of the Beasties’ public persona.
“They didn’t treat me with any disrespect whatsoever. I was one of the guys,” Bak said. “Everybody was acting like a stupid idiot. Those were things that just sort of happened,” she said.
Offstage, Yauch and Bak had more meaningful conversations.
“He was always asking me about Buddhism because I’m a Buddhist,” Bak recalled. Yauch later converted to Buddhism and became and a staunch advocate for the Free Tibet movement.
In 1993, Bak photographed a controversial Newsweek cover that depicted a loving young female couple under the headline “Lesbians.”
Bak laughs now at how “controversial” this cover was, tame as it is by today’s standards.
The social climate “has changed a lot,” she said. “At that time, we never thought we’d have the right to get married.”
In 2010, Bak had considered shooting a spoof of the band’s “Fight for Your Right” video in support of gay marriage and had received Yauch’s blessing.
Yauch later spoofed the1987 video in 2010 for the first single of the last album the Beastie Boys released.
“Sleepwalking Through Dreamland” may be about looking backward, but it also represents Bak moving forward by collaborating with artists such as Susan Tibbles, who, for a decade, was represented by the recently shuttered Patricia Correa Gallery at Bergamot Station.
Tibbles, a multimedia artist, was already working on two other exhibits when the opportunity to work with Bak “fell into our lap,” she said.
“I’m about the same age as Sunny, so we share the same sense of popular culture and Hollywood glamour. I can imagine her running around back in those days as a teen, taking these shots,” Tibbles said. “I was like, ‘Just do it!’ Deadlines are what we live on.”
“Sleepwalking Through Dreamland” — featuring Sunny Bak, Susan Tibbles, Andrea Tan and Mark Satterlee — opens with a pajama party reception from 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday at Essentia Sleep Shop and Gallery Space, 2430 Main St., Santa Monica. The exhibit continues through Dec. 14. Call (310) 612-2222 or visit sunnybak.com.