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.