If it’s possible to find a lyric in hip-hop music that captures the essence of the photography show “Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop” at the Annenberg Space for Photography, it might be these simple lines from Jay-Z and Pharrell’s “Change Clothes”: “You know I stay fresh to death, a boy from the projects / And I’ma take you to the top of the globe, so let’s go.”
Because across its nearly 140 works from 60 photographers, including over 75 original contact sheets, we go from humble beginnings to the worldwide success of hip-hop and many of the characters that have made up its rich, colorful and poignant history.
Yes, there’s the swagger. And for some, that is the lure of the whole show. Thankfully, via its curation, we get a thoughtful examination of what went into the work for which we only saw the end result, be it a magazine cover or record album or press kit.
But even if you don’t immediately recognize Mobb Deep from Goodie Mob, this could just simply be a great portrait photography show. Maybe one day in the future we’ll see some of these should-be legendary images juxtaposed with those of Vivian Maier, James Van Der Zee, Roy DeCarava, Diane Arbus or Richard Avedon for a real study in capturing people in a moment — but that’s another topic.
In fact, it was Avedon who quipped, “All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.” As such, it is the humanity of these artists that belies the fame. When you can strip away the bling and “that’s so-and-so,” or perhaps a quick “that was my favorite album,” and take it in as the pure artistry that it is, you’ll see more of the poetry that animates it. There are flashes of the art of the hustle, the range of facial expressions across moments of reflection or an affirmative dare stared into the camera that says “What?” or “Yeah, this is how I’m coming.” One poignant photo of Nipsey Hussle in front of the L.A. County probation offices with his daughter by Jorge Peniche itself seems to capture it all.
Four predominant aspects of portrait photography emerge in this show: the staged, the documented, the accidental and what could be called the “almost never happened.”
The set of images of the female hip hop duo Salt-N-Pepa and their DJ Spinderella, shot by veteran photographer Janette Beckman in 1987, would be a classic example of the staged photo shoot. Slated to be their album cover, we get hip-hop attitude in living technicolor. Set against a simple white backdrop, these three dope queens come to life via outfits created by none other than street fashion provocateur Dapper Dan. It says “fresh to death” all day.
Another set of images that get at the documentation aspect of some of these works would be of 50 Cent at Mister Cartoon’s Tattoo Shop in 2004 in Los Angeles. Between 50’s glare, Mr. Cartoon’s elaborate Chicano style lettering, and the gentle pain involved, his back becomes a canvas of great intensity and wonder in black and white with each needle prick. The photographer, Estevan Oriol (who also had a great show of his photos at the Annenberg’s Photoville exhibit), said “I thought it was an important intimate moment to photograph.” And it’s good that he did.
Viewers bear witness to some splendid accidents as well, like the photo shoot of Tupac by Danny Clinch for Rolling Stone. Clinch used a large format camera; Tupac brought a bunch of clothes and kept changing them which was when Clinch saw all of his tattoos, including Thug Life across his abdomen. Clinch said of the impulse “I don’t think I would have ever asked him to take off his shirt but… I knew that would be a powerful image.”
“That’s why I love contact sheets. It is showing the process, the mistakes,” says Contact High curator Vikki Tobak. Her book of the same name, which came out in 2018, inspired the Annenberg to mount this show. “You see artists with their guard down in contemplation, or you see their mom or their friends.”
And then there are the fully visualized photos that almost didn’t happen. Take the iconic Notorious B.I.G. image shot by Barron Claiborne. It is now regarded as one of the most notable hip-hop photos of all time (and appear on my own DJ slip mats). But the story has it that P. Diddy, who signed Biggie, thought him wearing a crown would look corny and be like Burger King. Claiborne saw it as regal. Thankfully, he was allowed to proceed.
The same was true for the historic 1998 group photo “A Great Day in Hip-Hop,” by legendary Harlem photographer Gordon Parks, which almost didn’t go as intended because the sun was fading quickly. Parks, and the assembled 100+ rappers, across the width of three brownstones, made the cut in time. Missing this seminal capture would have been a tragic lost opportunity.
Noted music journalist Michael Gonzalez referenced a quote from Harry Allen about this work, but one that truly typifies the spirit of the whole show — to wit, “Everybody is going to get together for one picture, and what it says is, I was here… and this is what we did. We changed the world.”
Annenberg Space for Photography, 2000 Avenue of the Stars, Century City; Wed.-Sun., 11 a.m.-6 p.m., through August 18; free. (213) 403-3000, annenbergphotospace.org.