‘contact high,’ the stories of hip-hop’s iconic photos

October 16, 2018
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There’s a couple of different ways to approach Vikki Tobak’s great new book, Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop.

You can treat it as a long-awaited treat, a coffee table book of iconic photographs from hip-hop culture’s four-decades-long timeline — opening with images of New York innovators such as Kool Herc, Rocksteady Crew, Futura and Keith Haring, and Gradmixer DS.T, and closing on portraits of today’s greatest rappers, the likes of Kendrick, Nicki, Tyler and Gucci. Or you can look at it as an unexpected alternative, an archival hip-hop journal where the storytellers are not just the artists inside the frame, but the hyper-talented people behind the lens.

Tyler contact sheet (photo; Jorge Peniche)

Alongside the world famous images that graced the covers of albums and magazines, and sometimes became the defining snaps of people’s careers (thinking of Barron Claiborne’s image of Biggie as King of New York), Contact High is full of the contact sheets from which those shots were chosen, and which often tell a broader tale. Additionally, Tobak, a veteran music journalist and photo critic, asked each of the photographers to recount the story of each photo session, with results that are never less than insightful.

“Biggie, King of New York” contact sheet (photo: Barron Claiborne)

The resulting collection includes work from some of the most important photographers of the era—street-shooter legends like Martha Cooper, Glen E. Friedman, Ricky Powell and Jamel Shabazz; as well as iconic music photographers, including Janette Beckman, Danny Clinch, Brian “B+” Cross and Angela Boatwright. There are also essays by, among others, Fab Five Freddy, Questlove, RZA and AFROPUNK contributor Michael Gonzalez (writing about the 1998 shoot when groundbreaking photo-journalist Gordon Parks was persuaded to recreate the “Great Day in Harlem” photo, but with rappers), bringing an on-the-ground perspective to the evolution of what a hip-hop image can be.

Salt-N-Pepa Contact sheet (photo: Janette Beckman)
Outkast contact sheet (photo: Janette Beckman)

Don’t sleep. This one’s a keeper.