Vis­ual his­tory of hip hop

Weekend Argus (Sunday Edition) - - METRO - ROBIN GIVHAN

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. |

Taken in

BIG­GIE Smalls in King of New York 1997 by Bar­ron Clai­borne.

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