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.”
We caught up with photographer Mike Schreiber to get the backstory on M.I.A.’s boom box shot that was pure attitude…
New York, 2005
“If I ever have a mug shot taken, I want Mike to do it,” M.I.A.’s been quoted as saying. “As my career started, I was armed with an arsenal of Schreiber photos and off I went — didn’t know where, but I was running.”
When Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, better known as M.I.A, released her debut album Arular in 2005 it was easy to see this chick was equal parts feminist badass and political thinker that would earn her many a #WCW for years to come. The album title was the nom de guerre that M.I.A.’s father took when he joined the Tamil independence movement. At the time, the cool London kids were up on M.I.A. but her political and ambient sounds that referenced early hip-hop and dancehall had yet to go mainstream.
Times have changed alot. And also not at all. Never one to shy away from experimentation, M.I.A. recently released her fifth album, AIM with a nod to the cultural legacy that informed that debut album Arular — black and brown lives, identity, political power and transcendence. How to translate that into an image? Photographer Mike Schreiber was called into action to shoot M.I.A. for the cover of URB magazine in 2005 for that debut album. On a rooftop in Williamsburg, he found a kindred spirit in M.I.A. in placing equal importance on the photography as well as the music.
Schreiber comes off as that very New York combination of charm, aloofness and sharp sense of humor. He can, and does, talk just about anything and everything from dog parks to Five Percenters to the Angola Prison Rodeo, which just happens to be one of his many photographic subjects. There’s a “just hanging out” vibe to Schreiber’s work and this photo specifically and that’s largely because that’s exactly what was happening. No to say that there wasn’t some serious critical interpretation of the world. these images were shot for magazine spreads—the most unnatural settings. Schreiber began photographing hip-hop musicians because their shows were the easiest to gain access to in the 1990s. The subculture became his project. He’s humble and doesn’t take himself too seriously. He has a wonderful sense of humor that also translates to his photographs.
Not bad for a Jewish kid from Long Island who grew up on hip hop and was “just hustling” in his early photography career. Self-taught, he started off mostly shooting at hip hop shows using only analog film (which he still does) with natural light and has never assisted. He went on to shoot just about every notable rapper for magazines including Vibe, Spin, The Source, XXL, and, in 2010 published the photo book True Hip-Hop.
The photo editor for Urb called me to see if I’d be interested in shooting an artist named M.I.A. for the cover of the magazine. I wasn’t often asked to shoot women (or covers for that matter), so I was happy to do it. This was part of publicity for M.I.A.’s first album, so she wasn’t widely known yet. I certainly had no idea who she was, but like I said, I was happy to do it. It was on a Wednesday in September… Just kidding. All I know is it was in 2005 in Brooklyn at a friend of mine’s loft. It was available. I was actually shooting this girl I knew in her loft when I got the call to shoot Maya. There was no budget, so I asked my friend if I could shoot there tomorrow too. She was down and, boom!, I had a location! Also, the boombox just happened to be in the apartment, so I asked if I could use that too.
Well, I was concentrating more on getting something that could be used for the cover, so the boombox shots were kind of an afterthought. It was also the last setup we did that day, and I begged the publicist to let her stay longer so I could get those shots. I think she had a photo shoot scheduled for later that day that she was very late to. The black and white version of the boombox photo never even ran in the story. They ran a vertical color image which was cool, but it wasn’t iconic. It was probably just whatever worked in the layout.
The Camera Nerd Out
Contax 645 and Leica R5
MIA has been quoted as saying she would want you to take her mugshot if the occasion ever came up. Do you know why she said that?
I assume it’s because I’m such an amazing photographer and since a mugshot is such an important photo in one’s life, she’d want me to do it. For the record, I’d be honored to shoot her mugshot!
Talk about what your first impressions of M.I.A. — she was still considered pretty underground at the time and was super influenced by the London cool aesthetic.
I remember when she showed up she called and I ran down to open the door for her.
She was very petite and cute. I remember liking her immediately.
She styled herself. I remember her style was unlike what was going on at the time.
She was rocking the reebok classics and acid wash jeans. This was before American Apparel made all that retro shit cool again. She definitely had her own thing going on.
What was your career like at the time of this shoot?
I was shooting a lot for XXL, Slam, And-1… Things were great!
What was the process of looking at the contact sheet like? Was there an obvious stand-out shot? The shots are all very similar
Some definitely stand out over others. I’m not really sure why. Sometimes things just work better than other things. Just like with most things in life, some things just work while others don’t as much.
What are the challenges of making a photograph that stands the test of time?
There are no challenges, because I don’t really think that’s part of the thought process. You just have to kind of do your best and stay true to what you think is right. I think a good place to start is by not catering to trends and fads and just sticking to what appeals to you as the photographer.
You’ve said that photographer Elliot Erwitt was a big inspiration. What was it about his particular street photography that appealed to you?
The first time I saw his work I was in awe because I was looking at still photographs that were making me laugh out loud.It was a very powerful thing for me to realize that you could make seriously great work while also being playful and lighthearted. It kind of freed me up in a way. I saw that one’s work could be an extension of their personality.
What made you first want to become a photographer?
To be honest, it just seemed like a fun way to make money. I’ve never liked having a boss, and I’ve always been creative and good at hustling, so it just made sense. I worked at a photo agency in the mid ’90’s. They syndicated celebrity photos, and the photographers would come in with their pictures from concerts and stuff, and it just seemed like a great way to make a living. I worked at this photo agency that sold syndicated celebrity pictures. I would see photographers come in with these concert photos and it just seemed like such a cool thing to do—much better than sitting in an office. I learned from working there how to get a photo pass. I knew you faxed the publicist and you said who you were working for. So, I made up that I was working for a German magazine, cause I knew they’d never check.
You started out shooting at hip hop shows before you got any editorial assignment. How did you get access?
The shows were much more accessible back then. You’d get to know the guys that worked at the clubs so you could get backstage. I would get exclusive stuff and sell it. I made a living doing that for like two years. If I placed two pictures in the Source and three in Vibe, I was good for the month, you know? And from there publicists started to know me and people in the magazines started to know me. I’m just happy to have been there and done the things I’ve done. Sometimes when I look back at the older stuff it’s hard to believe that I’m the one who took all of these pictures! It’s fun though. I inspire myself.
Do you still shoot analog or make contact sheets?
Yes ma’am. It’s still a little nerve wracking and exciting to get contact sheets and start circling the ones I like!