The Rise of The Hip Hop Photographer

Written by on May 26, 2017

When I grew up, outside a few precious Rolling Stone photos and some album cover art, I didn’t have much of a look into the lives of the artists I listened to. And I didn’t have much of a desire to. I suppose, in retrospect, that Bob Seger was a little too tall and could have used a few pounds, but at the time, honestly, I just didn’t care.

Because music, then, was mine, no one else’s. I had my own life to live and I used music simply as emotional fuel to heighten the experiences I was having for myself. Every song was about me.

MTV, of course, changed the course of our relationship with artists and paved the way for an era where the personality, and really success, of an artist became intertwined with the music.

Lifestyle as music as lifestyle.

So, when Joe Walsh (I still don’t know what he looks like) sang about his Maserati, it was satire. But when Drake (who I see pictures of constantly) sings about his Rolls Royce, it’s a proud, enticing display of wealth. An invitation into not just his music, but his lifestyle. Music becomes more than an opportunity to escape your own life, it demands you escape into his.

And this is the same transition that is happening in photography.

Enter the Age of Hip Hop Photography.

Instagram accounts that revolve around the art of photography, but simultaneously accentuate an extraordinarily cool, streetwise, connected or lavish lifestyle are blending the art of photography with the life of the photographer in ways that we’ve never seen before in the medium, but are highly reminiscent of what we’ve seen in hip hop. The closest we had were the Richard Avedon and David LaChapelle types who became known in equal amounts for their style and access to celebrities. Still, their own personal lives were not nearly as on-display as today’s photographers, nor was their success and access used in such outwardly seductive, branded, attention-grabbing ways. Their fabulous lifestyle felt like the result of all the hard work, not the other way around.

In the same kind of cultural reversal we saw in music, the notion that good work leads to success has flipped. Instead, photographers are out shooting an image of themselves as successful and connected, projecting an image that hopes to lure in sponsors.

Simone Bramante is one of these success stories. Exceptional quality photography — well-composed, fantastic uses of color palettes and an inventive style. Through his lens, one feels a kind-of expensive access to exotic destinations that can take you away from the everyday. But click deeper and one quickly discovers work that is as transactional as it is creative.

Of the nine images above, the first one is a paid partnership with Chase and Hyatt. The fourth is a paid partnership with clothing company North Sails. The next three are paid partnerships with Moet. Back to Hyatt for number 8 and an electric vehicle promotion for E-On rounds it out at 9. The few unbranded images that do exist fit into travel photography standards, portraying beautiful coast lines and picturesque roads that feel as much about the life of the photographer as Italy itself.

The photographer in this case is a traveling, disintermediated channel for brands where content and commercial intermingle nearly imperceptibly. That’s never been a thing in photography, until now. And it’s a coveted creative career that countless young photogs are aggressively pursuing, emulating, and trying to get themselves to, one killer shot at a time. There’s no guarantee that great shots will get you there, but that’s not all it’s about. They are building an image, and today that image gets built from the top down.

There’s a new set of ladder rungs that a photographer climbs on the way to “influencer” status, where one gets paid to post. But it all starts with developing a quick picture of how cool the artist is. An image of confidence and pre-vetted skill. A familiar refrain about self-proclaimed popularity.

“Make an appointment, schedule an interview
Because you know what Big Man’s about to do
50 grand on the Technic at the right peak
Brothers wanna hear the words Big Man speak.” — Christopher Wallace, demo tape, 1991.

Laying preemptive claim to the trappings of success is a standard of hip hop. Turn back the clock to any early demo tape of any unsigned artist and you’ll witness a host of self-fulfilling prophecies of success. It’s become its own formula: act like a massive success to gain an audience that makes you a massive success.

Similarly, today’s photographers are putting together Instagram feeds like artists put out demo tapes, painting a (literal) picture of success and talent — hoping to get seen, followed and, ultimately, discovered. Even creating pseudonyms for themselves (Way2Ill, 13thWitness, 1st, Asteryx) that read like the same cool, branded reinvention that turns a Christopher Wallace into Biggy.

The elements of success within Hip Hop Photography differ from those in music, but they are every bit as appealing and quickly-consumed as a well-crafted, well-delivered rhyme. There’s common themes, language and angles. The colored smoke, the beautiful aerial, the long exposure. There’s even a sort-of unspoken checklist of locations in any given city — which grammers like to keep as secret as possible, enhancing an image of having special access. Combine these cool images with a big active following, a “behind-the-scenes” story line, and a lot of allusions to brand deals and paid gigs — it all adds up to a wow-factor that plays extraordinarily well on the medium and, one hopes, builds on itself.

And a lot of young photographers are looking to emulate what they are seeing from those who are a few more rungs up the ladder. The impressive galleries of even high school age photographers are impossible to ignore.

And while it’s easy to dismiss the images as repetitive or indistinguishable from one artist to another, perhaps it helps to recall the duplicative, limited drumbeat sounds of the Roland TR-808, that have played out in familiar ways through the seminal works of Run-DMC, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Beastie Boys and so many others. The Roland was described as the Fender Stratocaster of hip hop. Perhaps the images we’re seeing across this new breed of photographer are the 808 of today’s rising photographers.
At the same time, this has changed the tune of how photographers look at the world and at themseles. More self-conscious and more competitive as marketers. It’s one eye on photography and another on who’s getting traction where. A new angle or location, seen featured in an article or feature page, can send photographers flocking to a location to make sure they’ve got all the same samples as everyone else.
There’s also a shift toward commerce-driven creativity that has become the hallmark of hip hop, as seen in the feeds of folks like Bramante. Featuring (as in “Featuring Lil Wayne”) is a euphemism for a money deal that borrows on the equity of a better-known artist. It’s art and marketing at the same time. This is nearly-identical to the money deals that are happening in photography, both with brands and with collaborations and mentions. And often using the same terminology. All resulting in an experience of imagery that is infused with proximity to celebrity, shoe deals and boasting of sold work and branded content.
But hip hop is not just an analogy, there’s crossover elements from the two genres that play roles in both. From clothing styles (hoodies and sneakers) to the appropriation of luxury car brands, alcohol, sexuality and drugs. In fact, many photos you see in the feeds of Hip Hop Photographers, actually feature hip hop artists. So tied have the two genres become, most hip hop concerts have both artist and photographer on stage together. A mutually-beneficial branding bonanza.

But the most significant connection between hip hop and the modern photographer is the evolution of the artist. In both, the path of the artist begins with a deep intimacy of the street. It finds its strength and power there. But then seeks to transcend it.

The concrete proving grounds of city life are as rich a territory of story and image for the photographer as for the recording artist. In many similar ways, each takes the raw materials of street life and turns it into their own story. A story with the potential to take the artist well beyond those same streets that they were raised and trained on.

“I made the change from common thief, to up close and personal with Robin Leach.” — Biggy

It’s tempting to dismiss the work simply on the basis of how trendy and repetitive it is, but there seems to be something deeper, more interesting and even, to me, very gratifying just in what Hip Hop Photography is doing for young artists — driving them to document their own stories, discover their own talents, find new revenue models and, most importantly, getting to go see parts of the world they never would have otherwise.

Like, say, the crystal blue waters of Italy’s coastline. Looks nice, I’ve never been.

Thanks for reading.

Josh S. Rose

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