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 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, photographer Joe Conzo talks about how the early days of Bronx street style informed his role as the Cold Crush Brother’s “official” photographer.
New York, 1981
If you’ve seen Baz Luhrmann’s hotly debated Netflix series The Get Down, you may have noticed a character, fresh dressed in 70’s uptown street style, taking pictures in the background. When researching The Get Down, which chronicles the very beginnings of hip hop in the late 1970s, Luhrmann and his crew looked to Conzo’s 10,000-strong image archive for inspiration. They were so inspired, they wrote a character around him. You see, Conzo was that teenage kid with the little point and shoot camera capturing the early hip hop years that emanated energy and style emerging in the South Bronx.
Conzo, who the New York Times dubbed “the man who took hip hop’s baby pictures,” photographed the Cold Crush brothers when they were all still in high school together attending South Bronx High School. An influential early hip hop group which included DJs Charlie Chase and Tony Tone and MCs Grandmaster Caz, JDL, Easy AD, and Almighty KayGee, Cold Crush took Conzo to document their live performances at clubs including the Disco Fever and Harlem World. Those early shots, innocent and authentic while also telling for their pose and posturing, earned Conzo the reputation as Cold Crush’s “official” photographer while also laying the groundwork for hip hop visual history and the stories they tell.
Joe Conzo: This was the first time I got my hands on real studio equipment. My grandmother ran a community center called United Bronx Parents and let us use a room to shoot in. These were done so we could use them for fliers and then hand them out at the shows. This was also during a style turning point in hip hop..leather pants, suits, fedoras, even punk rock was increasingly part of the scene. Outfits played a big role. Grandmaster Caz was the “captain” and had a very specific opinion of the style he wanted to put out there. And everyone had their own style. There was a lot of originality and authenticity back then.
These were common hip hop poses back then. I guess the poses may have originated from jailhouse poses. All the images on the contact sheet are well composed because they were done in a studio setting, very planned and posed. Most of the time I was taking photos in clubs or park jams or out so this shot is different.
The Camera Nerd Out
Yashica 2 ¼ medium format camera
You talk about street style and posing as being a big part of this image. Can you elaborate?
It was really an innocent time. These early days of hip hop in the late 70s and early 80s were special. Gangs ruled the Bronx and there was this energy going on with music, breakdancing and graffiti, all combined. It was a fun time and I am fortunate to have had a camera in hand.
Did you realize that photography would shape so much of how early hip hop is remembered?
I never knew that my images today would be iconic.I was just taking photos because, you know I’m not a MC and I’m not a DJ, so I interacted with the culture by taking pictures. I mean, these were my friends, we hung out and it was a good feeling because they got alot of respect.
You have such a diverse range of photos, from unknown club dancers to famous MC’s to crowd shots and street style photos.
To me, of course, hip hop is a culture with the four elements in it. That’s what i believed in and still do and my photographs show that. That’s why I shot everything, not just the famous faces.