The Classic Hip-Hop Photography Being Buried in the Selfie Age

From Snoop to Biggie, a look back at the classic pics being lost in the camera phone era.
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From Snoop to Biggie, a look back at the classic pics being lost in the camera phone era.


Photo Credit: Lisa Leone


Like the music industry, photography has moved from the hands of a few well-equipped elite to the masses, practiced by anyone with access Instagram filters. Just as there are rappers competing with the majors from home studios, there are now a plethora of photographers whose creative expertise with their camera phones can shame even the most expensive DSLR. In fact, most photographers in 2015 don’t even consider themselves photographers, just people with cameras in their smartphones. It’s led to an influx of images flooding the internet, you can scroll infinitely on Tumblr and see breakfast blunts and midnight margaritas, throwback Thursdays and stalker Saturdays, food porn and actual porn, snapchats and selfies. The excess amount of quantity over quality creates a field of lilies and landmines on the world wide web.

Celebrities and the entertainment industry are at the center of photography’s metamorphosis. We’ve been inundated with daily reminders that the famous are among us for years, but this is the first time we are able to see them at such a high volume. Photography has always been a major representation of the heroes that we adore, bringing us within arms reach of the untouchable. Before anyone could upload images at the slightest whim, magazine spreads and promo pics were crucial in filling the gap of separation. There isn’t a single photo of Marilyn Monroe that doesn’t look professionally done, beauty was her brand, and to be anything less would be damaging. There wasn’t camera phones to catch her being less than angelic - even imagining a Marilyn Monroe selfie is sacrilegious. Photographs were more cherished when there were less pictures being absorbed. There was a physical relationship with photographs, bedroom walls would be covered with posters and pictures of the rich and famous, it was common to see pictures taped to the inside of high school lockers or stuffed in the front of binders. Now you can have a folder on your phone for pictures, gifs, and memes. There’s a level of appreciation that feels lost, a level of appreciation I’m attempting to recapture when I look at pictures of my favorite artists and album covers.

I always assumed beautiful people in beautiful clothing just stood in a studio and magic happened. I didn’t care about who was pressing the shutter, just the results. It’s easy to forget that the photographer is picked for a reason, that they have to possess a level of skill and talent to be working with the skilled and talented. Once I began to wonder about the person that is creating this wordless story, I started to see how photography in a new light, and Jonathan Mannion is the photographer that really opened my eyes to the artistry of photography in the music industry. Jonathan is famous for the portraits and album covers he shot in the late ‘90s and 2000s, to call his career anything less than iconic would be an underwhelming description. Jonathan is well known for his classic album covers, his photos are like the window to an album’s soul. This was when album art was the critical, it was the first impression for people shopping in stores and records shops, what they saw before hearing a single song, it can make a world of difference to a new listener. You didn’t want anyone with a camera shooting your cover, it was important to have a  great photographer that can capture the essence of your entire album in one image. Someone that will deliver an eye-catching cover that will make people stop.  That’s what Jonathan did, he made covers that silently revealed what awaited your ears. He made rappers look cool, edgy, and debonair. He had creative vision, something you need in this line of work. It was his idea to get DMX in a pool of blood for the Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood album cover. Insane? Very. The kind of cover you never forget. It’s easy to assume such a picture was made with some editing software or a green screen effect, but to think someone convinced crazy DMX to sit in a bathtub full of blood is unbelievable.

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Jonathan shot The Game most of his career, dating back to the early Documentary days. My favorite picture is the one with Game looking out the window with pistol in hand and a table full of guns, drugs and narcotics. It personifies the straight outta compton, menace to society image that Game embodies. The shoot wasn’t planned, completely impromptu, the items in the picture weren’t props placed by the label, it was literally what was in the home, a testament to how Game was living before rap stardom. That’s what I like about Jonathan, looking at his photos feels like he captured exactly who they were at that moment. He freezes time like no other before him. If there was a Michael Jordan of photography in the music industry, that’s Jonathan Mannion.

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90’s hip-hop photography has become an infatuation of mine since interviewing David McIntyre a few weeks ago about the lost pictures of Biggie. Talking with him, hearing his stories, it sparked my interest. I wanted to see who else was behind the lens during a very celebrated, Golden Age. My curiosity led me to Janette Beckman. Her website has photos from 1982-1990 that will make any hip-hop head wish he could go back to the golden era. Photos of Rick Rubin before he looked like Merlin, Flava Flave before reality show hijinks, LL Cool J when he was still cool, a true archive of a distant time. A time of youth and charisma, the word swag didn’t exist but they had plenty. Janette truly documented the time, flipping through her photos is like walking through NYC when hip-hop was in a completely different age than the one today. Fun, the people in her photos look like they were having the time of their lives. The fashion and the graffiti intertwined with getting a glimpse at the OGs as young and hungry emcees is something special.

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Danny Clinch is another photographer that capsulated eras with his camera. He is walking history, snapping portraits of everyone from Nas during illmatic to being the annual photographer for the GRAMMY winners. He literally captures artists on a night where joy is an understatement. Not often can you capture someone getting the most pristine award in their field. What really got me into Danny Clinch’s work is his photos of Tupac. He actually shot my favorite picture of Pac, it embodies how I always envision him. The way his head is turned away from the camera, defiant, but since he’s shirtless there’s something very sincere about his defiance. He spent so much of his career being naked to the world, being a hero and the villain, strong but sensitive, hard and vulnerable, in that one image I see Tupac for the man that he was. The man I’ll never know beyond the music and photos.

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Looking back, peering into the past, it’s astounding how far we have come. Photos really make moments stand still. Lisa Leone did exactly that during the ‘80s and ‘90s. She was surrounded by a captivating community and she captured what was transpiring during that time. Lisa’s photos feel like the fly on the wall, being in the background, capturing these interesting people before any of the wealth and fame. She had an eye for capturing the people and not the personas.

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You might not know Chi Modu’s name but I’m certain you are familiar with his work. His most famous photo is likely the one with Biggie and Puffy holding the B.I.G Mack box, definitely an iconic hip-hop moment. Chi captured a lot of moments with Big but my favorite has to be Biggie standing in front of the twin towers. This is the Big that’s either blew up or on the cusp of blowing up. He’s draped in this fluorescent coogi sweater, the dark shades, the beanie cap, he looks like a playa Bill Cosby with the towers standing behind him. Two immortal symbols of New York that ended in tragedy.

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Behind every great photograph there’s a great story. Jamil GS has an early photo of Jay Z, pre-Reasonable Doubt with him standing in front of a boat. That same boat would later be bought and used in the "In My Life Time" video. David Corio captured a picture of Afrika Bambaataa during one of the first hip-hop shows in London circa 1981. He’s completely blacked out but the background is illuminated, a wall of graffiti done by Fab 5 Freddy.

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That’s what I love about photography, it’s an intimate art form. The photographer, the camera, and the subject are going to tell us something without words, telling visual stories that will outlast the Tumblr girls and fish eye photos. We have to appreciate the photographers with something to say during an age where there’s very little being said. It’s a clustered industry, saturated, pictures are being stolen, credit is lost, you can have an image acquiring a ton of traffic and no one will know who shot it. Kendrick is being sued over the artwork used for the “Blacker The Berry” single. The photo is beautiful, two black babies being breast fed. The photographer, Giordano Cipriani, didn’t give TDE permission to use the image and is asking for $150,000 for each time the photo was used. That’s a lot of money, but I understand his frustration, having your art stolen, used, and uncredited is a situation no artist wants to be in. Sadly, it’s fairly common in the industry, an epidemic in an age where images are more disposable than even music.

Art is in a constant state of change and evolution. Era’s begin and end, nothing is the same long, the beauty of transformation. The beauty of photography allows us to revisit these era's, able to grasp the past while living in the present. Photography is in an extremely interesting period, this is the first time in history where almost everyone in the world has access to a device capable of pixelating, uploading, and sharing every minute of every moment. The photographers that will join the ranks of those mentioned in this article will be the ones that make those moments remarkable and memorable. We'll still remember the images that stand out amongst the clutter, the pictures with a story to tell.

[By Yoh, aka Yoh Mannion, aka @Yoh31]