In our series, Contact High: The Stories Behind Hip Hop’s Most Iconic Photographs, writer Vikki Tobak talks with those who have played critical roles in shaping hip hop imagery. They offer a rare glimpse of the creative process that went into the making of each photo. Getting access to the original and unedited contact sheets, we see the “big picture” being created and can look look directly through the photographer’s lens. Photographers typically don’t show their contact sheets. They’re a visual diary. Film negatives on a roll of analog film allowed these photographers (and now us) to see the full range of images in order to develop the “money shot.”
In our latest installment, Mike Miller talks about why his shot of Tupac — two middle fingers up — was emblematic of the defiance, humor and style that was Tupac Amaru Shakur…
Los Angeles, 1994
By now, Tupac Shakur is etched in our collective memory as simultaneously an imperfect saint and a perfect outlaw. In photos, you feel it. Simultaneously idealized and crucified in the public sphere, Tupac’s photographic legacy tells the story. The 20th anniversary of his death in Las Vegas just passed on September 7th. He was only 25-years-old. Los Angeles-bred photographer Mike Miller captured the iconic double middle finger shot just a year earlier as part of his album cover shoot for Tupac’s Thug Life album. He still has over 70 scans in the vault that no one has seen of Tupac.
For Miller, the shoot embodied style, humor and urgency. One can imagine Tupac cracking up while giving the double middle finger to the camera. To a hip hop outsider, the pose can seem menacing but look closer and you start to understand there was a lot of humor in between the layers of raw aggression of the pose.
“Style, the extension of the exquisitely personal into the public sphere, is something he had from the beginning,” wrote Zach Baron in GQ last year. “Other rappers imitated his easy, comfortable masculinity, his loose clothes, his confidence, his tattoos. He had the kind of aura others wanted to borrow. He’d wear things seemingly at random: vests, flannels, denim jackets, camo jackets, Henleys over other Henleys. Casual, almost incidental clothes to which he lent permanence.
Shakur was defiance, one of those men who expressed it in both verse and style.”
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Miller grew up in the punk, surf and skate scene, which eventually grew into a love of hip hop. He would go on to photograph West Coast hip hop in its infancy starting in the late 1980s when he snapped shots of his first rapper, Arabian Prince. Fashion campaigns for Stussy and others followed and soon, DJ Muggs (Cypress Hill) asked Miller to photograph the group while they were still shopping a demo. The rest as they say is history. Miller’s book West Coast Hip Hop: A History In Pictures features Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Too Short, Cypress Hill and the list goes on.
Mike Miller: Tupac was at the height of his career when we shot this. We first met up at Runyon Canyon where he had a condo. Tupac was very charming, present and highly intelligent. There was probably around 15 people in his crew. We all caravanned from location to location. He told me in private that he was happy to be able to make an album with all his homies that he grew up with.
We first went to this hubcap place in South Central LA and you can see those in the background of some of the images, but then people started coming out of the woodwork so we had to leave. People recognized him everywhere and we did have gang situations where it was gnarly, but nothing serious that day. We spent 12 hours shooting around LA — East LA, Watts/Compton, downtown LA. For the shoot, he immediately turned on. He and his boys. Then we went to an abandoned train yard which is where we got the double middle finger shot. That was more like an outtake but when I looked at, I knew.
I was happy there were so many good shots, but the image on this contact with the double flip off resonates with so many people that I’ve encountered. People have told me they had the double flip off poster on their walls when they were kids or up in dorm rooms. That image on the contact sheet really stood as a powerful image. That was shot with cross process film so there’s no color correction.
The Camera Nerd Out
3 cameras Nikon 35mm in a Pentax 6 x 7 and a Polaroid 600 SE – Wide Angle to portrait lens
This shot of Tupac symbolizes so much of Tupac’s defiance. Tell us more about the vibe on set that day?
He was into my ideas for the shoot. My wife Shannon and I found locations all over LA.
Shannon also did the wardrobe and never wanted too many logos and always tried to keep it timeless. He was down. Shannon purposely didn’t put any logos, keep it timeless with the Dickies and authenticity.
That’s interesting that you purposely kept logos out of the shoot.
Tupac was very confident and highly intelligent. He was on the ball. He knew exactly how he wanted to be portrayed. That shoot in particular he was able to have all his homies he grew up with and have them on the cover with them and he was really happy to have the power to bring his people in the mix. My wife and I really are a team.
What has been people’s reaction to this shot over the years?
People have really grown up with that shot and people identify with that shot. People identify with Tupac. It stirs up alot of emotion for people.
The shot is also very humorous in way and you can feel that there was a real trust and camaraderie on set that day.
Absolutely. I mean there we were on this big budget shoot and we all had a bond going. In doing a shoot, you have to establish trust very quickly. Tupac drove with me shotgun in my car and we got to know each other. We clicked. There were a lot of good images that came out of that shoot. And that’s largely because we had good creative energy going and alot of trust.
There are subtle nods to the West Coast in this shoot. Can you talk about that?
Tupac wore his left pant leg up and that signified West Coast. Enough said.
What photographers/creative did you admire?
Helmut Newton, Javier Vallhonrat, Paolo Roversi
Talk about your process and evolution as a photographer
I’ve been doing this a long time now and I am proud to say I have worked with the greats. Roger Troutman (of Zapp) was my first album cover and then I shot the Go-Go’s and the list goes on. Every job I’ve ever done, I would go into full focus mode. I would turn into a machine. I would search out locations and have a game plan. I began as a fashion photographer and music just became my niche. Music influences everything, the world.
What made you first want to become a photographer?
At the time I was living in Paris and there was a model apartment next-door.
Some of the models were my friends and my roommate gave me a Camera just started shooting.
What are your favorite type of subjects to shoot?
Music. It’s what inspires fashion, athletes and actors. Even if it’s a band that I personally not into I’m very aware of the importance music plays on society.
What was your first camera you used and what is your favorite camera to use now?
My first camera was a Nikon F2. It was to given to me by Linda Evangelista and it was Peter Lindberg’s camera. These days I’m digging my medium format camera and the Canon Mark 3 has given me the ability to switch into video mode for my documentaries, commercials and videos.
What role does photography play in Tupac’s legacy and in hip hop overall?
When I shot back in the day, I didn’t reference things or copy things. My dad had a demolition company in Compton and I was never meant to be a photographer. I was supposed to be in demolition. But music found me. I grew up on Hendrix and Zepplin and then evolved into punk rock and then hip hop was just that natural progression if you were into that kind of protest music. Once these major icons pass like Marilyn Monroe and Tupac etc… It’ documents a moment in history. These days I shoot all kinds of artists from ASAP Rocky to YG but I’m more aware of what these images will mean for the future of the culture.