The Contact High Project aims to offer “a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the imagery that shaped hip hop and music visual culture,” by probing the contact sheets from photo shoots that produced defining images, and talking to the photographers who made them. A show at Photoville, on view in Brooklyn until September 24, pairs images of musicians including Queen Latifah, Kanye West, Mos Def and Slick Rick with the contact sheets from their shoots with Al Pereira, Ray Lego, Mike Schreiber and Janette Beckman, and others. Together, the show presents a brief visual history of hip hop. In Barron Claiborne’s 1997 portrait of Biggie Smalls, shot for Rap Pages three days before his murder, Biggie wears a golden crown. As Claiborne told writer and show curator Vikki Tobak in an interview for the project, “From the contact sheet, I chose the one photo I thought was most poignant,” where “his eyes alone tell the story. He is like a saint-like figure.” Al Pereira’s shoot with Queen Latifah in 1991 includes the smiling star posing with her mother, who is identified with an arrow on the contact sheet. The final image, which Pereira describes as “a smoking gun kind of pose,” shows off a ring on her finger. “Latifah is gorgeous and she brought power to that portrait,” he tells Tobak. Ray Lego was hired by Blender to photograph Kanye West in 2005, which was “still early in the game for Kanye’s visual aesthetics,” Tobak writes. Shot at the taxidermy-rich Explorers Club in New York City, West poses in a varsity jacket while holding childhood photos. “I started calling him Mike. ‘Hey Mike,’” Lego tells Tobak. “It was on his jacket. And that really got him going. He was getting pissed.”
At Photoville on Saturday, September 16, Claiborne, Tobak and Beckman along with Young Guru and Ernie Paniccioli will take part in a panel discussion about the importance of photography in documenting hip hop history. A book, Contact High: Hip-Hop’s Iconic Photographs and Visual Culture is planned for the fall of 2018, published by Clarkson Potter/Penguin Random House.