The art of making something from nothing has always been at the heart of hip-hop culture. D.J.s in South Bronx parks created a global youth culture with just records and a sound system. And in that analog world, photographers fittingly documented the emerging scene on film. Decades later, those contact sheets are a visual primary text that offer a valuable peek into how artists on both sides of the camera worked.
“I always loved contact sheets because they’re tangible artifacts and you can mark them up,” said Janette Beckman, who made early memorable images of Run-DMC, Slick Rick and other up-and-coming stars. “It really is a record of a photographer’s way of working. You can’t see that in digital. It shows the whole photo shoot and what took place.”
While some rappers today are media moguls, the early years had a potent motivation too: love of the craft. “In the old days, people were doing it because it was their passion,” Ms. Beckman said. “They weren’t doing it to be millionaires. Some of that purity and spirit still exists in the same way.”
Now, in “Contact High: The Visual History of Hip-Hop,” (Random House), Vikki Tobak has put together narratives told by the very image makers who helped shape the culture, discovering fascinating stories and lessons on those sheets.
A lot has changed over the four decades, particularly the positive messages that were such an important factor in a number of tracks,” said Jamel Shabazz, known for his vintage images of street style and African-American life. “However, what remains in this present day and time is the magnetic attraction that hip-hop continues to have on a world stage.”
Ms. Tobak knows that appeal. She was 5 when her family migrated from the former Soviet Union to Detroit in the late 1970s. Like most youth raised in racially diverse neighborhoods after the civil rights and Black Power movements, Ms. Tobak gravitated to hip-hop. While attending New York University, she found New York’s underground culture and got a job at Nell’s. “The club scene at the time was an important part of hip-hop,” said Ms. Tobak, who went on to work as a television producer. “The Tunnel, Lyricist Lounge, The Building, Daddy’s House, that was the community. A friend I worked with at Nell’s got me a job at Payday Records. Somewhere in all of this I started writing and became a journalist.”
The book spans 40 years with nearly 200 images from more than 50 photographers, highlighting the evolution of hip-hop photography from analog to digital and includes personal stories by pioneers like Joe Conzo Jr., Jamel Shabazz, Martha Cooper and Ernie Paniccioli, along with the latest generation, Cam Kirk and Jorge Peniche. Classic photo shoots, contact sheets and behind-the-scenes stories by Barron Clairborne, Al Pereira and Lisa Leone are included, as well as a foreword by the Roots’s Questlove.
“Platforms that are curated by the culture are important,” Mr. Peniche, 30, a Los Angeles based-photographer, said, reflecting on his early years photographing Kendrick Lamar. “K. Dot didn’t have a huge budget to work with me at the time, but hip-hop is the culture that made something from nothing. I admire people like Jay-Z who emulate an independent mentality.”
Some stories reveal how important mistakes can be. Mr. Conzo’s flash didn’t fire when he was taking pictures of b-boys at Roseland. Yet the silhouette he saw on his contact sheet turned into “The Popper,” one of his signature images.
“Showing those mistakes shows that creativity is a process, both in the music and in the photography,” Ms. Tobak said. “It’s messy and that’s O.K.”
Up to a point, especially when she learned some photographers had rolls of film tucked away. “I had an almost motherly reaction to situations where images weren’t processed or stored well, like, ‘Get those things in archival boxes and sleeves, please,’” she said. “I wanted to get them digitized and out into the world. It was fun to discover unseen footage and the sequencing, and it was also worrying to think about how much footage is out there in shoe boxes. A lot of times the record labels kept the photographers’ work or were bought out and a lot of photos were lost.”
The images not only span generations, but also connect them. Gordon Parks’s “A Great Day in Hip-Hop,” done for XXL magazine 20 years ago, echoes Art Kane’s Esquire portrait of jazz musicians set against a backdrop of Harlem brownstones.
Michael A. Gonzales, a writer and cultural critic, had the idea to ask Mr. Parks to capture the moment. “I had always been a fan of Gordon Parks and I was thinking, who could make this special?” Mr. Gonzales recalled. “I’ve been writing about hip-hop for so long I know many of the photographers in the book. Back in the day they would send the photographers to take the photos the same time I was doing the interview. They don’t get the same kind of props or opportunity that the rock 'n' roll photographers get but they define the culture in the same way.”
And just like Roxanne Shanté, Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah and Lauryn Hill, there were women who exuded strength behind the lens, too. “There were so many women who documented the culture, and women photographers were going deep with it,” Ms. Tobak said. “Their photos often have a very personal, human portrayal of the artist. Telling that story, incorporating the women’s stories in the book was intentional but also not hard to do given how actively involved women photographers were.”
Hip-hop has provoked and galvanized its listeners from songs like “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five to, more currently, “Alright” by the Pulitzer Prize winner Kendrick Lamar. Once dismissed as a fad, hip-hop’s promotional photos and neighborhood party fliers can now be found in Ivy League archives.
“Hip-hop ushered in so many changes socially, culturally and politically that it forced institutions and gatekeepers in our society to accept it and to recognize them,” said Marcyliena Morgan, founding director of the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard University. “There are so many photographs now to treasure because the photographers recognized something wonderful was happening from the beginning. That’s a true gift,” Dr. Morgan said. “It represents a fierce determination by those who began their work in hip-hop. What we can expect in the future, even if it doesn’t exist in the same form, is that the remnants will exist for many years to come.”
Upcoming panel discussions, book signings and exhibitions to celebrate “Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop” include talks at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem on Nov. 7, at the Kennedy Center in Washington on Nov. 16, and an exhibition in April 2019 at the Annenburg Space for Photography in Los Angeles.