PHOTO BY JANETTE BECKMAN
PHOTO BY BARRON CLAIRBORNE
PHOTO BY JONATHAN MANNION
Editor: Vikki Tobak
Heidi: How did this idea come about?
Vikki: Hip hop is by now widely accepted as influencing just about every facet of life — ideas, fashion, visual language in general. And now it’s far enough along in its history that archives of rare and unpublished imagery tell the big story. Stories that are deeply woven into the fabric of a global mainstream. I worked as a music culture journalist for many years and before that was in the hip hop industry. When I started working as a producer for CNN and went deeper into photojournalism, the dots started to connect. Behind every photo there’s a story of how it happened and what was happening in hip hop culture during that time. By showing the contact sheet and interviewing the photographer, you go deeper into the story. They were rebels, artists who understood the power of words and the power of imagery. And so did the photographers who captured these images. For example, Janette Beckman, a photographer who was our first story, talks about ‘rebel cultures’ and how photographs encapsulate these significant cultural movements.. She shot the punk scene in England before moving to New York to photograph hip hop. I approached Mass Appeal Magazine with the idea of running the series and we have a great relationship. Bucky Turco is my editor there and he sometimes gives me a hard time for selecting certain contact sheets– like the time I decided to feature a black and white contact sheet from Jamel Shabazz rather than a color one he is so well known for. But it’s a great process and I really like working with the magazine because they are dedicated to urban culture.
In what ways did the “Magnum Contact Sheet” book inspire you?
The goal of the series from the start was to compile stories for a book based partially on the Magnum Contact Sheet book. I became really interested in the Magnum Photographers when I started working in mainstream news outlets like CNN and CBS Magnum Contact Sheet. I was really blown away by seeing all the shots on a contact sheet and knowing what was happening in all the frames before seeing the selected image. It really takes you in! And then to hear the photographers tell the deeper story was just so inspiring. I thought about hip hop imagery and how all these years later we have this archive, but, we don’t really have the stories behind what happened that day or what was happening for the culture at that time. This book was an inspiration to do something like that for hip hop.
My hope in doing this book and telling these stories and going a couple layers deeper was to paint a more nuanced picture of this culture that is now so mainstream. These photographers have played critical roles in bringing hip hop imagery onto the global stage. A rare glimpse into their creative process and understanding the behind-the-scenes of the imagery that shaped hip hop is part of a history. These photographers give me access to the original and unedited contact sheets which means alot to me in terms of trust and telling their stories in a deep way. Photographers typically don’t show their contact sheets. It’s very personal and I honor that.
Allowing us to look directly through the photographer’s lens and observe all of the other shots is a an honor.
What about contact sheets in general inspire you?
Contact sheets are like being let in on a secret, going backstage, going deeper into the story. What did the artist and photographer envision from the outset? What was happening in that artists life at the time? What decisions were being made about the imagery that would shape hip hop? People are curious about specific cameras, editing processes, editorial decisions etc.. For example, Chi Modu, who was the photo editor at The Source magazine for many years was in the room with editors talking about who they’re gonna put on the cover, what image to use, and things that contributed to telling this bigger story. It’s also fascinating to and nerd out on cameras, film and processes used for these shoots. 36 frames on a roll and you start to make some serious decisions about what to shoot and how. Hip hop has always been about self-definition especially when it comes to visual culture and style.
How did you try and make your project, different if at all?
I wanted to keep this projected specifically focused on hip hop visual culture. I wanted to talk about certain images, like the Barron Claiborne Biggie King of New York crown image because it’s such a part of the fabric of everything– you see it on murals, t-shirts on television in Luke Cage. People around the word recognize that image. Hip hop has now had enough of a story arc to be able to look back on certain photos and certain photographers and realize that this vast archive of imagery tells an important story.
Are you photo editing this, and how do you decide what is “iconic” being a writer, what is your narrative arc in both words and images?
Deciding which images and photographers are featured is part gut instinct and part earned knowledge. At 19, I moved from Detroit to New York and got a job working for a record label called Payday Records/Empire Management. At the time they represented Gangstarr,Jeru the Damaja, Masta Ace, Mos Def… we even had Jay Z for a minute. I worked as the director of publicity and marketing there and was the go between all those groups and the media which included accompanying the artists on photo shoots and making decisions on images. I toured with them, I traveled the world with them, and learned what it was like to see these images be put out into the world. So now deciding which narratives to highlight and which images are “iconic” is just a natural as looking back on the past few decades and knowing. That Joe Conzo anonymous Bboy photo is just as important as the Jonathan Mannion Jay-Z album cover shot.
Aside from the book, what are your goals for this project?
We also plan to show the series as an gallery/museum exhibition and have it travel the world to the various communities hip hop has influenced
Has it been difficult to find contributors?
Photographers love this series because they understand that their photos are part of a larger conversation about identity, black culture, race and all that hip hop has manifested. They love telling their stories and understand that it’s important to be part of the broader cultural conversation about hip hop and its influence on just about everything. We live in the digital age that is defined by image overload and the careful curation of artist persona. Showing these contact sheets, showing the mistakes, showing the experimentation and range of emotions is a much truer picture of the cultural conversation.
Who is next on your wish list for a story?
I’m interested in further exploring political or conscious hip hop and the way those artists used imagery. Glen E. Friedman’s cover image for Public Enemy’s ‘It Takes A Nation To Hold Us Back” is definitely high up on the wish list; So is Boogie Down Productions ‘By All Means Necessary’ cover which recreated the Malcolm X photo. Then there are the photographers that are definitely part of the conversation: Ernie Paniccioli, Danny Hastings, who shot the famous Wu-Tang cover, Nabil Elderkin who shot Kanye West’s first set of publicity photos, Cam Kirk, Brian Cross, Ricky Powell, Estevan Oriol etc… I also want to expand coverage of hip hop from regions other than New York — 2Live Crew, Too Short, N.W.A, Geto Boys. Oh and the Ice-T ‘Power’ cover with his then girlfriend Darlene.