In an introduction to Vikki Tobak's new visual hip-hop story, "Contact High," the musician Questlove describes his fascination with the half-seconds that precede and follow the captivating moment captured in a snapshot. It amazes what is just outside a frame or how the story of an image can change dramatically if the camera angle is slightly offset. If the perfect image captures what photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called the decisive moment, Questlove is intrigued by what could be called the undecided each.
These are the photographs at the heart of "Contact High", which presents unpublished images of hip-hop musicians over 30 years old. Tobak, a long-time journalist, steeped in the details of hip-hop history, asked photographers to rummage through their closets, open dusty shoe boxes and pull out their old contact sheets – these pre-digital drafts. Before digital cameras allowed photographers to take endless pictures, instantly see what had been captured, and quickly remove an imperfect image, they were constrained by the film.
"You only had 36 plans left to succeed," Tobak said in a recent interview, describing the number of images in a typical movie reel. "Developing a movie was expensive; going to the dark room was expensive. "
The book's collection of contact sheets reveals the care and consideration that photographers put into each frame, the inevitable mistakes they made and the way they persuaded a public figure to become a private person.
"Because you could not see the picture right away on your phone, people were not so aware of controlling their image," said Tobak, 46.
Photographer Lisa Leone describes a visit to the recording studio where rapper Nas was working on her first album "Illmatic" in 1993. Her goal was to capture the striking sense of calm and sense that was palpable in the play. She told Tobak, "I spent an hour in front of the camera before taking my camera to get an idea of what was happening." Leone did not want to go into a frenzied shootout. She wanted her subject to become familiar with his presence. He may not forget that she was present, but he will eventually be convinced that she is not an antagonistic intruder.
Leone wanted to give the viewer a long and persistent look at something authentic. Like the other photographers of the book, Leone has always aimed for authenticity, that is, a photo offering a kind of clarity or truth. In the world of glossy magazines, album covers and photos, the final chosen, edited and published photo does not always meet this standard. But somewhere on the contact sheet, there was usually an image that made it.
The contact sheet is raw. It reveals the free subject of the fingerprints of stylists, publicists, managers and other matched managers. The oldest photos in today's hip-hop icon and legends book are the most revealing. They document the youthful bravado that fueled the subject's early ambition, the defensive timidity that quickly captivated fans, and the blinding ignorance of future pressures and constraints. The images capture them before the era of Instagram, where moments of pure honesty are rare. After all, a life lived in the public eye is a life that is constantly lived.
"Everyone wants this imperfect perfection," said Tobak. This is the syndrome "I woke up," she added. Whether it's a Beyoncé without makeup on Vogue's cover, a documentary behind the scenes of a concert tour or a reality show, intimacy is an elusive reality. "You can not help but feel the presence of the team," said Tobak.
At first, the interpreters did not work with professional stylists; they wore their own clothes on the pictures. So there is a real sense of the labels that really mean something in their communities. There were no brand ambassadors and paid product placements, just a love for Karl Kani, a sense of pride towards FUBU, an obsession for Polo Ralph Lauren and a devotion to Dapper Dan. When stylists began to appear, they were often just fashion-conscious friends, who also had a good relationship with retail.
Today, a team dictates any revealed asperities; the team chooses the clothes that send the agreed message; the team protects the image.
One of the most famous hip-hop images is that of Biggie Smalls, wearing a gold crown. Taken by Barron Claiborne in 1997, he describes the rapper as royal, powerful and hard. However, with the crown slightly off center and a thick gold chain around the neck, there is also an element of informality and bragging in the portrait. The notorious B.I.G. does not seem totally inaccessible or inaccessible. The message is this: approach with caution.
On the contact sheet, the rapper smiles: there is not a hint of reluctant emotion, but a big smile. Claiborne does not give viewers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a photo shoot; it offers nuances and a dimension – a more complete understanding of someone who was more than his PR image, the label's discussion topics, the hard character and ultimately his obituary.
Another well-known photo shows Tupac Shakur, shirtless, with "Thug Life" tattooed on his chest. In 1993, when Danny Clinch captured the image, the project consisted of a more typical portrait: the rapper was fully dressed and posing. But Clinch saw the tattoo while Shakur went from one outfit to another. "I do not think I would have ever asked him to take off his shirt, but when I noticed his Thug Life tattoo, I knew it would be a powerful image," says Clinch in the book.
Both versions of the portrait in "Contact Up" show that Shakur is looking away from the camera. The subject is detached from the viewer and the viewer is responsible for inspecting Shakur's body in all its strength, vulnerability and masculinity. He stands there as a provocative target. The portrait has come to represent not only the personality of the artist or his corpus, but also the whole trajectory of his life.
Jay-Z's photographs taken over the years by different photographers illustrate his evolution. From a boastful young rapper to great aspirations, he became a nabob dealing with celebrity, wealth, and outlandish expectations, both cultural and social. In 1995 he wore Bermuda shorts and a camp cap – like a Boca Raton retiree – and he was photographed by Jamil GS in front of a Lexus with a personalized license plate and visible Crystal bottles through the cover. breeze. There are other poses from this shoot – in front of a yacht, framed by the twin towers of New York – all highlighting a journey to material wealth. In 2007, Jay-Z is photographed by Clinch in the manner of a jazz artist standing behind a finger guard, hanging microphones on the side, his face partially obscured by the shadow. Clinch had 12 minutes to capture the image of a contemplative performer, alone. There is no visible costly material, no marker of success other than the man himself.
The legacy of jazz is echoed through "Contact High". "In the early 90's, hip-hop listened to a lot of jazz," said Tobak. "Many photographers have been influenced by Blue Note covers. They watched comparatively a lot of jazz photos; they saw many things, not to copy, but to imitate and refer. "
One of the most obvious examples of tribute to jazz is "A Great Day in Hip Hop" from 1998. Gordon Parks photographed more than 200 artists in front of the Brownstone which served as a backdrop to the 1958 photo entitled "A great day in Harlem," in which photographer Art Kane paid tribute to 57 great jazz.
Both images are wide-ranging, but they still convey a sense of intimacy – as if the viewer had been left in a space reserved for friends and family. For the photographers, intimacy is not only a question of who is in the room, but also whether these people are psychologically present, whether there is a trust between the viewer and the viewer. observed.
Intimacy was easier to communicate when photographers had more time with their subjects. The longer they were allowed to linger, perhaps doing nothing more than observing, the more comfortable they were with the performers. Access was not just a matter of spending time with someone; it was the opportunity to regain his humanity. In an old and slow analog world, relationships could develop over hours and days, not minutes. The resulting photograph may not have revealed the whole truth on the subject, but it did help to better understand what the subject, or the mythologists, wanted to share.
Most of the photographers who contributed to Tobak's book came from the very community they were documenting. They were not, she said, trained photographers. "They were not on a mission. They were not paid. They were young and looked like them: black and brown. They did not necessarily come from a pedigreed world. "
They were freelancers who filmed what was happening around the corner or in the building. They were not journalistically objective, but totally present.
On November 16 at 7:30 pm At the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, Vikki Tobak will participate in a panel discussion on his new book, alongside guests such as Chuck D and music historian and DJ Adrian Loving. Tickets cost $ 35, which includes a copy of "Contact High: A Visual Hip Hop Story". After the discussion, the panelists will sign books in the State Gallery.