Urban and street photography took shape alongside New York City’s financial crisis of the 1970s, as creatives sought ways to capture the undercovered vibrancy of communities. Hip-hop, an explosive new culture of music, art and dance, had just begun to emerge in the west Bronx early in the decade.
"There's a lot of deterioration in the city," said Joseph Heathcott, a professor at The New School who studies urban culture. "But at the same time, there are these subcultures that explode onto the scene, like hip-hop. It's all also wrapped up with the movements that occurred into the ‘70s around political identity.”
From the very start, a continuous love affair formed between hip-hop and the photographers who've documented it. That deep bond, which endures today, is the subject of “Hip-Hop: Conscious, Unconscious," an exhibition that just opened at Fotografiska New York. In it, curators Sacha Jenkins and Sally Berman attempt to condense the extensive history of a musical and cultural scene that will hit its 50th anniversary this August into an encyclopedic two-floor show.
“Hip-Hop: Conscious, Unconscious" runs from the early days of the culture to the musical genre's current eminence, as captured by photographers like Jamel Shabazz, Diwang Valdez, Campbell Addy, Adama Delphine Fawundu and many more. Images of street gangs, graffiti artists and break dancers occupy the exhibit's first half. As viewers move through, they see the emergence of rap pioneers like Public Enemy and Slick Rick, the genre's growing dominance as a commercial entity and, finally, a slew of images representing nearly every generation and regional scene.
Meredith Breech, exhibitions manager at Fotografiska, says the show differs from the museum's usual offerings of mostly fine art photography. “This one is sort of looking at this piece of history, which is sometimes documentary photography, and sometimes like studio portraiture,” she said “It was really exciting for us to contain all these different types of photography in one exhibition.”
Heathcott, the professor from The New School, cites Jamel Shabazz, a Brooklyn-born artist still active today, for helping to invent a kind of street photography that captured both famous faces and everyday people. “He wasn't only a hip-hop photographer; he was a great urban photographer, period,” Heathcott said. “He was interested in fashion. He was really involved in Black power and Afro assertiveness.”
Images by Shabazz and his contemporaries made an impression on Fawandu. Before she became a professional artist and photographer, Fawundu just knew she loved taking pictures, and the emerging hip-hop scene became her subject of choice. When she was growing up in Brooklyn during the late ‘80s, the culture was all around her. She made mixtapes, hit parties with friends and heard her sister’s boyfriend rapping his latest poems in the car.
“It was like all of these elements, including the element of photography – the photos were always around,” Fawundu said. As a young adult, she started contributing to magazines herself as a freelance photographer.
One of Fawundu’s photos, which she calls “Hip-Hop Ladies,” shows the legendary rapper Lauryn Hill fellowshipping on a brownstone stoop in Fort Greene with a number of women who were bubbling up in the late ‘90s hip-hop scene. That image wasn’t ultimately published professionally, but it’s featured now in the Fotografiska show.
As the exhibition illustrates with images of Lil' Kim, DMX and Cam’ron, photography’s relationship with hip-hop shifted at the start of the ‘90s, when record labels sought to professionalize the genre and dumped loads of money into the business. Press photos, magazine layouts and album covers became the primary way the artforms engaged with each other, says Vikki Tobak, the journalist and curator behind “Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop,” a photography book published in 2018.
“That's when you started to get photographers that were more trained, and it became a little more commercial and it became a bigger business,” Tobak said. “It went from that documentary stage to a little bit more of a commercial stage, because it was for a product.”
Yet even as hip-hop and photography went into business together, Fawundu says she and other artists still wanted to document the culture from a more thoughtful, even scholarly perspective. She originally pitched the “Hip-Hop Ladies” image as part of a story on women in the scene rarely receiving due credit for their contributions.
A photo so casually curated, she asserts, likely couldn’t be taken today.
“The idea of being on someone's stoop, and taking this photo with our artists today, would be like so much production will have to go into it,” Fawundu said. “It wouldn't be something that y'all were just all in the house doing.”
Tobak shared the origin of another iconic image, not included in the Fotografiska show, from Biggie Smalls’ final photo shoot. Photographer Barron Claiborne told Tobak he'd seen too many negative portrayals of Black men in the media, and wanted to change that with a photo of Biggie for Rap Pages magazine.
Claiborne decided to depict the rapper as a king – “specifically, he said, a West African king,” Tobak said. The photographer arrived at the shoot with a cheap $5 toy crown he’d bought from Party City, to the dismay of artist and label magnate Sean “Puffy” Combs.
“He was saying, 'Don't put him in that crown, he's gonna look like the Burger King, he's gonna look stupid,'” Tobak recalled Claiborne describing Combs’ reaction. “And it became one of the most iconic photos in hip-hop – if not the most iconic photo in hip-hop.”
“Hip-Hop: Conscious, Unconscious” is on view at Fotografiska New York, 281 Park Avenue South, through May 21; more details here.