Visual history of hip hop
IN AN introduction to Vikki Tobak’s new visual history of hip-hop, Contact High, the musician Questlove writes about his fascination with the split seconds that precede and follow the mesmerising instant captured in a snapshot.
He marvels at what lies just outside a frame or how the story of an image can change dramatically if the camera angle is shifted by just a degree.
If the perfect image captures what the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called the decisive moment, then Questlove is intrigued by what might be called the indecisive ones.
Those are the photographs at the heart of Contact High, which looks at the unpublished images of hip hop musicians over more than 30 years.
Before digital cameras allowed them to shoot endless frames, instantly see what was captured and just as quickly delete an imperfect picture.
“You only had 36 shots to get it right,” Tobak, 46, said in a recent interview, describing the number of frames in a typical roll of film. The book’s collection of contact sheets reveals the care and consideration photographers put into each frame.
“Because you couldn’t see the photo right away on your phone, people weren’t so aware of controlling their image,” said Tobak.
Photographer Lisa Leone describes visiting the recording studio where the rapper Nas was working on his debut album, Illmatic, in 1993.
Her goal was to capture the striking sense of calm and purpose that was palpable in the room. She told Tobak, “I hung out for an hour before I ever picked up my camera – to get a feel for what was happening”. Leone didn’t want to come in frantically shooting.
In the world of glossy magazines, album covers and publicity stills, however, the photo that is ultimately chosen, touched up and published doesn’t always meet that standard.
Early on, the performers didn’t work with professional stylists; they wore their own clothes in the photos.
So there’s a real sense of the labels that truly meant something in their communities. There were no brand ambassadors and paid product placements. One of the most famous hip hop images is that of Biggie Smalls, wearing a gold crown. Taken by Barron Claiborne in 1997, it depicts the rapper as regal, powerful and tough.
Another well-known photograph shows a shirtless Tupac Shakur with “Thug Life” tattooed across his torso. |
BIGGIE Smalls in King of New York 1997 by Barron Claiborne.