With classic hip-hop imagery and an array of legendary graffiti artists, Cey Adams and Janette Beckman bake up a layer cake of culture in their latest collaboration.
With the publication of Mash Up: Hip-Hop Photos Remixed By Iconic Graffiti Artists, Janette Beckman collaborates with artist and creative director Cey Adams, taking archival photography and making it new. We caught up with Janette in her studio to talk about the many layers of her career, and how they are all represented in this new work.
Debra Scherer: Let’s set the scene. It was the early ‘80’s. New York was trying to get out of bankruptcy. Culturally and physically, the city was so different then. It’s hard to describe to people now. Now it’s like a Disneyland version of itself. But back then, basically every street was edgy. Even during the day. You could’ve gotten mugged in the middle of the day on Park Avenue, easy.
Janette Beckman: Oh yeah, for sure.
DS: You had to kind of always have your wits about you. You had to be very aware of who was coming towards you and your surroundings. For no reason in particular, just anything could happen at any moment. There was this thing, like, if you were walking down the street you could never look up. Because if you looked up, then you were a tourist. And if you were a tourist, then you’d get targeted.
JB: Oh, yeah!
DS: If we did take the subway, when I was a teenager, it had to be during the day and in groups. It was like taking your life in your hands. You certainly weren’t walking down the street staring at your phone.
JB: Or looking at a map.
DS: Never make eye contact. Yeah, it was a very different city. And out of that different city came a lot of flavor. A lot of creativity. Where there are ashes, you know, something is going to come out of it. That’s very American, and very New York. Which is how New York really felt in the early ‘80’s. Anything could become a gallery. I lived on the Upper East Side, but where do you think Keith Haring’s stuff was? All along the upper FDR drive. I used to see it everyday.
It was a very different time and you were right in the middle of it. Your archive is really up there with one of the most important archives of culture and New York and so many things. Because back then, music and dancing and art were so very tied together in a way that they aren’t now. There’s a huge difference between what you are talking about versus Jay-Z staring at Marina Abromovic at Gogosian Gallery.
DS: We can’t say that that is bad, but it’s where things have gone and where we’re at now. You’re a Picasso baby.
JB: It’s more about money now. And there is much more money now.
And sadly, I think a lot of young kids aspire to be Jay-Z or a Kardashian. They aspire to have millions of followers on Twitter or to be a rep for Prada handbags. I think values have changed a lot. Back in the day, and this was also true for punk, you didn’t have anything so you had to make it. You had to rip your moms sweater and put a safety pin in it and you were off to the races. It didn’t matter.
DS: They weren’t going to get a fancy hair style. They were using glue and stuff. Those mohawks were rock solid!
JB: Right! And another thing about both of those movements [punk and hip hop] was fashion. If you were what we would now consider overweight, had three teeth and were a punk, you could still be like the hottest greatest person that everyone wanted to be around. The same thing with hip hop. You didn’t have to be a tall thin blonde. You didn’t have to be somebody that was going to be on the cover of a fashion magazine to be popular. You didn’t have to have plastic surgery. People were really intent on being who they were and developing their characters. I mean look at LL Cool J. carrying his radio. He knew what to do and his name was Ladies Love Cool J and they did. He wasn’t styled, he didn’t have hair and makeup.
DS: And that’s the big, huge difference when we talk about making imagery of culture. How do you take the branding out of it when everyone is coming pre-branded, because everyone themselves, now, is a brand? I mean that’s how deep and far we’ve gone.
JB: Like the Beyonce Vogue cover. That’s styled, with a lot of hair and makeup, and I have a lot of friends in that business, but that isn’t Beyonce who just got up in the morning. She’s manufacturing that image. Controlling the shoots. In the old days, people just came as they were. Like my image of Chuck D, he’s just wearing a Levi’s jacket.
DS: I know. I mean if you look through all of your work, people turned up. And it’s not that they didn’t care how they looked, I think they cared a lot. But they put together their own things from a creativity that wasn’t pre-fabricated. They were expressing things with the tools that they had. Which is what they got from each other.
JB: It was all about attitude. Obviously when gold chains became a symbol, like Slick Rick, that’s a status symbol, but all of that came from something else. Making things. The street. Graffiti kids stealing from the hardware store. Sneaking out and going to an unlit train yard. It was a passion. It wasn’t easy, not like street art today.
Where you’re paid to do a wall. These people were passionate, they had to do it, there was no choice in the matter. They were painting in the pitch dark, they could have been arrested, cops chasing them with dogs. But they went and did it and then had to get to school in the morning without their moms finding out. All of this stuff is not easy when you’re a 15 year-old kid.
DS: And if you get caught you go to prison. It’s not like if you do it you might get picked up by a gallery, it’s like no, if you did it you went to prison.
Which is why they don’t do it anymore because this generation of kids, obviously, don’t have that passion that they’re going to go to prison over it.
JB: That’s it. I mean back in the punk days, it was looked down on if you were getting money from someone. You were a sellout.
DS: And that was the worst thing you could be.
JB: And a lot of the British punks didn’t even want to come to America because they thought it was selling out, which is a little strange to me. But yeah, I think it was the same with hip hop, they were writing lyrics down and rapping. It was crazy, it just blew up.
DS: And you were right in the middle of it.
JB: I was obsessed. And at the same time, I was here, and I knew Kim Hastreiter, before she even had Paper Magazine. We met through mutual friends in Los Angeles and when I came to New York she kind of adopted me.
And when she started Paper I had a studio, so I shot for the first five years for them. That was an incredible training. It was such a mixture of fashion, music, and art. It was just a broadsheet when we started. All these things were going on. It was exciting.
DS: Paper, Details, Interview; I worshipped all of those magazines. I was doing summer internships at Vogue in the ’80’s and I remember we would get those magazines, and they would have just thrown the clothes on interns in the hallway.
Which isn’t a big deal now, because the intern would have 50,000 followers on Instagram, but back then what they were doing was crazy. Fashion was very stylized, very over the top, shoulder pads with amazon-y models. You had to be 6 feet tall to be a model. Very ‘80’s. So to see the work that you guys were doing at places like Paper, it was so fresh. It was so raw and real. So appealing.
There was a balance though. Vogue and Paper and Interview kind of balanced each other out. Now there’s no two sides to the coin. I mean everything is the same because of social media and digital photography. Everyone sees everything at the same moment. That’s why when magazines do these multiple covers, me, for as a die hard magazine person, that is the most horrific idea in the world. A cover is a choice. Like if you can have five covers, your magazine has no identity. Pick something! Have a point of view!
JB: Yeah, I totally get that. And it wasn’t really a class system back then, it was definitely Uptown and Downtown. I remember going with my portfolio to Condé Nast. I’d do their little “what went wrongs.” Like one time I did a portrait of Whitney Houston in a sweater or something.
It was in the back end. And when we shot Whitney, it was before she was famous, and I was talking to her and she was like ‘oh yeah I sing, my mom is sort of famous...’ and I was like who’s your mom? And she was like ‘Cissy Houston’ and I was like ‘OH MY GOD!”
Anyway, when I started working at Paper I had a lot of street portraits of hip hop and stuff and I took my portfolio to some Condé Nast magazines and the photo editors and a few interns were looking through my stuff. They get to this picture of these two girls in the Bronx.
They had really ripped tights and t-shirts. And they were like “Oh my god! This is disgusting. How could you photograph people like this? We can’t work with you. Your eye, it’s just, these people are horrible to look at. They’re fat, they’re horrible.”
And I thought, well I can’t work with you guys! Like these girls, I was just photographing them on the street and guys were whistling at them while I was. I thought they were gorgeous. Obviously, the fashion world was terrified of them.
DS: So, let’s talk about your new book?
JB: Right. So, it’s called The Mash-Up. So what happened was, this woman called Juliet Silva-Yee had a popup gallery and she came to legendary graffiti artist Cey Adams and myself and said she wanted to do an exhibition with us. She was super cool. We had a meeting and Cey came in with an idea. He said, “I’m going to get all of my graffiti friends to draw on Janette’s famous hip hop photos!”
And I’m thinking, like “Are you crazy? These incredible artists aren’t going to want to draw my old hip hop photos from 30 years ago!” So we had this little exhibition. He got about 10 of his friends to do it. I would send them a PDF of 20 or 30 images and they would choose which image they liked. I’d make them an 11 x 14 print, give it to them, and they could do whatever they wanted; reinterpret it however they wanted.
The first show, in the summer 2014, 400 people showed up to my studio, which was a lot for this space. And people loved it. They really loved it. So we showed it in the Meatpacking District. Other graffiti artists came. We had Stretch Armstrong deejaying with 45’s. It was a really great party! Then Zephyr came, and he doesn’t really draw for anybody and was immediately like “I want to do it!” Sooner or later, it grew. There were 15 artists, then 20. Then we got Lee Quiñones and people like that…
DS: … and word started to spread.
JB: Yeah, Lee is a good friend of Cey and he wanted to do one. Part of the project was “What year did you first start painting? Where did you first paint? And why this image?” So everyone had to make an artist statement. Then I would take a black and white portrait of them. It was cool. It was them reinterpreting my old pictures, bringing new life to them. And then me taking portraits, which I love. Then we started traveling the show. It was in London, Paris, Geneva, LA, New York. It’s been a lot of places. So we decided to do a book. And Cey said, “Wouldn’t it be nice for the artists to also show their own work?”
DS: He added another layer to it. It’s your original photography. Their original interpretation of your photography. Their own artwork. And your portraits.
JB: Yep! So four layers. We have 30 artists. I signed up with Fahey/Klein Gallery and with a press who wanted to do a book. We got a great essay written by Dana Albarella who has done a lot of books about graffiti and an intro by Sean Corcoran, who is the print curator for the Museum of the City of New York. He did that incredible graffiti show that just changed the museum. I think it was the biggest show they ever had. It’s amazing. It’s sort of like hip hop you could say. A little grassroots idea that generated through friends having a chat. It’s now become a traveling show and book.
The Mash-Up: Hip Hop Photos Remixed By Iconic Graffiti Artists is available for pre-sale from Hat & Beard press and will be exhibited at Fahey/Klein Gallery 148 North La Brea, Los Angeles October 11 - November 24, 2018