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 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.”
Photographer Barron Clairborne takes us back to his 1997 “King of New York” shoot with Christopher George Latore Wallace aka Biggie Smalls.
On March 6, 1997, Notorious B.I.G. arrived at photographer Barron Claiborne’s studio at 100 Greenwich street near Wall Street. It had been raining with ferocious winds for eight of the previous nine days. Biggie, accompanied by Sean “Diddy” Combs, Lil’ Cease, stylist Groovey Lew and a few others, was ‘open to whatever’ Claiborne had in mind for the photo shoot that day. Claiborne, working on a commission for the cover of Rap Pages magazine, had his idea ready. The self-taught photographer, inspired by symbolic imagery and the oral traditions of his Southern American and African ancestry, wanted to portray Biggie as a king…King of New York! On record and in MC ciphers around New York, Biggie was already a king. Claiborne wanted the rapper’s visual presence to be equally captivating. Instead of capturing a “Coogi down to the socks”-Biggie, Claiborne decided to immortalize him with a tilted crown nonchalantly placed on his head.
Big left Claiborne’s studio that day and headed straight to the airport for Los Angeles. Three days later, he was killed in a drive-by shooting outside of a Vibe mag party at Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
This iconic “King of New York” photo has become one the most recognized photos in all of hip hop as a symbol of greatness and remains one of the most iconic representations of the genre’s proliferation into America’s visual culture. The photo is about legend. It’s about being the best. And it’s about the mythology created around our greatest heroes when they die young.
The Boston-born Claiborne, who works primarily in large format 8×10 & 4×5, wanted a tightly cropped, defiantly simple portrait of the rapper. From t-shirts to murals, this image, licensed and not, is now everywhere. Because of that and because the photo is so widely ripped off without permission, Claiborne is protective and tightly controls the copyright to the image. Showing the contact sheet, a holy grail of contact sheets, is something he has never done in print.
Barron Clairborne: This was really simply about photographing Biggie as The King Of New York on his throne. I was hired by Rap Pages for a cover shoot. This photo is about hip hop, but it’s also beyond that. His eyes alone tell the story. He is like a saint-like figure.
I used to love Richard Avedon and Irving Penn and how disciplined their photos were. I really planned out this photo, and I had a definite vision for what I wanted. I had already photographed Big one time before in a white suit for Rolling Stone Magazine. I generally didn’t shoot a lot of rappers because the aesthetic wasn’t my thing. For this shoot, I told Big’s team that I wasn’t interested in photographing if he was just gonna wear sweatpants. And I liked the symbolism of the crown. So, when I told them the overall idea, Big was up for it. When you asked him to do a picture, he never complained.
Every time I thought of Biggie, I always thought of him as a big, fat West African King (laughs). Puffy wasn’t so into it, he kept saying that he worried Big looked like “the Burger King.” So Big was trying to reassure Puffy and it turned out fine. From the contact sheet, I chose the one photo I thought was most poignant. The images are all pretty similar. I usually don’t give photo editors a lot of choices.
At the time, hip hop images were pretty stereotypical for the most part. A lot of it wasn’t beautiful. Boring…people being in jacuzzis. Imagery made for teenage boys. Not this one. The shot is the shot, and it’s iconic.I still have the crown, too.
The Camera Nerd Out
I used a Mamiya RB67 on Fuji film, and I cross processed the film (Cross-processing, also known as ‘x-pro’, is the procedure of deliberately processing one type of film in a chemical solution intended for another type of film.)
Did you ever imagine this photograph would become so important?
There are images of black people, rappers or not, that you don’t see in American culture. You rarely seem them as regal. When you see something different, you embrace it. The image is very stripped down, you only see his face. The fact that he died made the symbolism stronger. He had to die for this image to have that symbolism. The king sacrificed.
With that said, how does this portrait figure into the larger conversation of the way people of color are portrayed in visual culture?
So often it seems that black people have to be social works. I’m a photographer; I’m not a social worker. I’m a black dude and I will do the kind of work I want to do. I know what it’s like to be a black guy. I’ve been one for almost 50 years. I have no interest in negative portrayals of black people or showing people at their worst. Even if it’s real. That shit bores me. Most black people are just living their lives. Images are propaganda.
Biggie died three days after this photo was taken and then the issue of Rap Pages came out. What was the reaction?
Someone called to tell me that the image was being carried throughout Biggie’s funeral procession in Brooklyn. The photo was posted all along the route. That was important to me. This photo is about hip hop, but it’s also beyond that. It’s people perceiving you as the best. When people die young, they are mythologized.
This may be one of the best known images of modern music photography. Can you talk about some of the copyright issues you’ve had with it?
Most people just come up to me and shake my hand. As a photographer, to have a photo that everybody knows is rare. I’m proud of the image. It’s so different from my other work that they don’t realize I took that photo. Biggie was very unlikely. He was a big black dude. Tupac was the complete opposite. I like the duality of it. They’re both considered kings. But Biggie has the crown.
Do you still shoot on film?
Technology is watering down photography. It’s so easy nowadays. A camera is just a tool. I mostly shoot on large format now, 8×10 Field camera Zone VI. I was a printer when I first came to New York from Boston, so I absolutely love the darkroom process. When photographers shoot only digital, they don’t learn about time and temperature and things like that. With digital nowadays, sometimes the journey of what it means to take a great photo is being eliminated. But at the end of the day, it’s really all about the unique idea, regardless of what technology you use.
The Contact High Project, conceived by Vikki Tobak and published exclusively on Mass Appeal, will culminate into a book and exhibition. Check out the Contact High website, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter for more info.