Writer and curator Vikki Tobak discusses her Detroit roots, the genesis of hip-hop, and her new exhibit at the International Center of Photography.
Presented in partnership with ICP.
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If you were born after the late 90s, chances are you probably don’t know what a contact sheet is. Let’s take a moment to reminisce about a time when photography involved things like film and darkrooms, not just a smartphone.
When photographers would shoot photos on film, they didn’t have the luxury to immediately see the results like most people do today scrolling through a phone’s camera roll. The photographers would have to develop the photos and contact print onto paper in order to see what was captured on film. Only after seeing the various versions of a shot, photographers would select which one would make an album cover, for example.
Writer and curator, Vikki Tobak, realized there was more to these hidden gems than what most people considered them to be. Originally the subject of her book, Vikki’s search for contact sheets led her on a journey that surpassed the 288 pages she had intended. These once overlooked parts of the artistic process now allow us to have an intimate look at the creative processes behind some of hip-hop’s most iconic moments.
To better understand Vikki’s personal connection to her current exhibition, which is on view from January 25, 2020 - May 18, 2020 at the International Center of Photography, it’s helpful to know about her childhood and early career. During the 1980s, Vikki was an immigrant child growing up in Detroit, Michigan. And she fell in love. Vikki reflects on these early days saying, “This was the late eighties when hip hop was very political and conscious and growing up in a city like Detroit, it just really inspired me.”
She eventually moved to New York and began working for a startup… Payday Records. As hip-hop started gaining more attention from the independent press, Vikki began writing for smaller publications and then for Vibe magazine and the mainstream press. “During those times, I also met a lot of these young photographers who would go out on stories with me and would be the photographer while I was the writer. So a lot of these photographers that are in this book and in this exhibition, I actually met when we were young 19, 20 year olds who just wanted to document the culture,” says Vikki.
These types of experiences culminated into the marvel that visitors now see as they gaze at the exhibition’s walls. With Fab 5 Freddy, hip-hop pioneer and long-time friend of Vikki’s, as the Creative Director and the help of photographers such as Al Pereira, Barron Claiborne, Jorge Peniche, and Janette Beckman, this group brings the visual history of hip-hop to life.
Janette Beckman, British photographer known for photographing big names such as Salt ‘N Pepa, Run DMC, Queen Latifah, and the Beastie Boys, has had her work appear in numerous well-known labels and publications (Esquire, Rolling Stone, and Italian Vogue to name a few). Janette humorously admits that she was surprised when Vikki asked for her contact sheets for the exhibition. To Janette the contact sheets were merely objects of the past, something she paid little attention to. She didn’t think that they would ever be displayed in a museum.
Vikki reflects on the accomplishment: “For hip-hop photographs to be celebrated this way, in museums and in print, is an achievement few saw coming. In the moments most of these images were created, forty years ago, hip-hop was local and grassroots -- a genre of, by, and for the people.”
Listen to more of Vicki Tobak herself in Gesso Media’s episode, Contact High, in partnership with ICP wherever you get your podcasts and be sure to subscribe to the Gesso Media podcast for future releases. You can see CONTACT HIGH: A Visual History of Hip-Hop on view at the International Center of Photography at 79 Essex Street in New York City from January 25, 2020 through May 18, 2020.
I’m Henna Wang, and you’re listening to Primer— a podcast by Gesso about human creativity, history, and the spaces we live to learn about.
Let’s dive in.
These contact sheets were not really meant for public consumption. And they're very personal. They're like a photographer's diary in a way, if you will.
The voice you’re hearing belongs to Vikki Tobak. She’s the curator of a new exhibition at the International Center of Photography. It’s called “Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop.”
While Vikki is a journalist by profession, the amount of archival digging it took for her to find the photographs for Contact High would give archeologists a run for their money.
Many of them were stored away in shoe boxes and closets. You know, they were kind of tucked away, just kind of unprocessed.
The show took its form after the success of Vikki’s book of the same name. The book, like the show, examines artifacts known as contact sheets, a particular byproduct of film photography that isn’t often used anymore.
In this age of digital imagery and Instagram… the contact sheet is sort of a dying art, but essentially, you know, back in the analog days, the photographers shot on rolls of film and those rolls of film would, you know, they couldn't see them in real time. They would go back and develop them and contact print onto a piece of paper, something that would essentially be a working document, for them to make selections.
A contact sheet, like a film roll, displays a variety of images simultaneously, so that it’s easy for photographers to survey and isolate the strongest of the batch.
The decisive moment would either go onto an album cover on a magazine cover or, you know, where our press shot or wherever that one singular shot was meant to go.
But when you’re looking at the contact sheet, you also see all the photos taken just before and just after the ideal cover shot. You see the bloopers, the outtakes, the almost-but-not-quites.
And this is where the idea of a photographer’s diary comes in. The contact sheet is a snapshot, so to speak, of the creative process of a photographer. It leaves a trail of clues as to what, exactly, they were trying to capture.
Long before she started sourcing contact sheets, Vikki had developed a personal tie to hip-hop. As an immigrant child growing up in 80’s Detroit, she was uniquely situated to witness its inception. It didn’t take long for her to grow an infatuation with the music, as the genre itself grew.
I fell in love with the music. This was, you know, the late eighties when hip hop was very political and conscious and, you know, growing up in a city like Detroit, it just really inspired me.
She moved to New York and got a job at Payday Records, a small hip hop label. It wasn’t long before Payday began putting out debut music from relative unknowns at the time… people like Mos Def and Jay Z.
Soon Vikki started writing for music magazines like Vibe. It was at this point she met photographers, artists and writers who were at the time themselves young upstarts. Many have gone on to worldwide fame and acclaim in the decades since.
Hip hop is now over 40 years old. It is now a global phenomenon. It drives conversations around politics, race, identity, all these really amazing, important things, that hip hop can now, you know, take its rightful place and, you know, in an ownership in.
It wasn’t until recently that Vikki realized, that she had a particular sort of access to those very same photographers she used to work with when she was young. And if she had access to them, she might have access to their contact sheets.
And I started thinking about all the all these iconic moments taken through photography. And then I started remembering back on a lot of these iconic shoots that I happened to be part of.
And then, you know, I was like, I wonder whatever happened to a lot of these outtakes, a lot of these outtakes that started showing people, not just the artist, but, you know, the producers, the DJs, the dancers, the family members, the managers, like the photos that tell this larger story of hip hop are all laid out in the contact sheets.
So she began reaching out to people one by one. To her delight, they responded with enthusiasm. All had bonded as young people, raptly listening to the music of a movement no one anticipated would make it this far.
It really started out from us truly loving the music, and the community. And it started out from a very pure place. You know, nobody really knew that it would become this big global phenomenon.
So Vikki got to work. She archived contact sheet after contact sheet, some from well-known photoshoots, some hidden away for years.
I didn't take lightly, this undertaking, at all, especially, you know, to a music, again, that I go back to, that really changed my life as a kid and a music that I worked very closely in, you know, in my teens and early twenties... it was more than just doing right as a journalist and a curator, it was also just doing right to this thing that was very personal to me.
It was around this time that Vikki linked up with Fab 5 Freddy, a legendary New York graffiti artist, film producer, director, and musician. He made his name in the 1970s alongside legends like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. He was even name-dropped in a Blondie song. Ever since, he’s been on the vanguard of hip-hop culture.
Fab, you know, came to mind really quickly. I mean, he was at the forefront of hip-hop in many ways, you know? I mean, he's a renaissance man on many levels. He directed some of the earliest videos. He was a pioneer, you know, on MTV raps of hip hop, hip hop media. He’s just one of those personalities of the movement.
They began to collaborate. First, Fab wrote an essay on the famous Gordon Parks photograph, “A Great Day in Hip Hop.” It was published alongside several other essays and many photographs in Contact High, the book. Soon, Fab came on the project as creative director of Contact High, the museum exhibit. His creative vision, unique outreach capability, and distinct perspective on historic moments have lent even more depth and authenticity to the final product.
The show made its debut at the Annenberg Space for Photography in L.A., but it takes on new meaning here in New York City, the birthplace of hip-hop. Vikki has high hopes for it to tour all over, interacting with the many different hip-hop scenes worldwide.
Hip hop… started in New York but made noise in every single, you know, urban community. I mean, from L. A to Atlanta, to New Orleans, to places like London and Tokyo and Dubai. It's now like the dominant youth culture.
And present-day hip-hop has much to learn from old-school ways and images. The contact sheets featured in this exhibition are so especially precious because times have changed a lot. Many iconic moments in hip-hop now are accessed through the Internet, not through tangible print photographs.
Nowadays, you know, we're used to just seeing these very perfect moments on Instagram. We're used to seeing these very finished products. And by looking at the contact sheets, you know, you get to see all of the in-between moments, you get to see the process of the photographer. You get to see the artist working it out. You get to see you know, the sequence of what was shot.
And you also get to see all of the, you know, behind the scenes, ...the photographer’s sequences that also showed the artist's friends, their dancers, their family members, their producers and managers. You know, a lot of these satellite characters that were very much part of the hip hop story.
Sometimes those satellite characters weren’t as tangential as they seemed. Poring over an undiscovered contact sheet series of Biggie and Tupac, Vikki was surprised to find another familiar face among the greats: Nas. Nas himself didn’t even know about the photo.
When we put that out, we got this huge response and, you know, and Nas's response was really special to me because he essentially said, like, these are these photos are his history, these are like his, this is like his family album.
So is the priceless artifact of the hip-hop family album lost forever, now that society has moved into the digital age? Vikki’s not sure.
There's been a big resurgence in, you know, shooting on film and, you know, darkroom developing your prints, more of, like, a tactile, hands-on process -- because we've become so separated from the process of actually photographing someone, and that intimacy of being let into an artist’s space… artists are so protective of their image that it's very hard for a photographer to get access to artists the way you used to.
Perhaps the photographs in Contact High will inspire a new generation of hip-hop photographers to keep innovating and developing their craft.
A lot of those kind of candid, intimate moments that you see in this book and the exhibition are just harder to get nowadays. And I think people are really starving for more intimacy and more of that realness of the photographic process in the moment… I don't think that, you know, the digital world or Instagram is gonna go away.
I mean, we'd be silly to think that, um but I think the spirit of how we photograph and how we collaborate, um, that will kind of become more, you know, more settled down. I think I think it's something that artists want and the public wants. And it's something that we're missing right now in this, like overstimulation of imagery that we’re bombarded with.
One thing’s certain. For hip-hop photographs to be celebrated this way, in museums and in print, is an achievement few saw coming. In the moments most of these images were created, forty years ago, hip hop was local and grassroots -- a genre of, by, and for the people.
Hip hop was always the underdog. It was the outsider. It was the voice of communities that were not embraced by the mainstream. I mean, that's just always what it's been. ... And, you know, in the words of Biggie, like, you never thought that hip hop would take it this far... it’s a success story, but it’s also a bittersweet success story because it pushed through despite people not believing in it, or not valuing it. To see it in a museum setting, to see it in a coffee table book, I think it underscores, you know, what people who have loved the music from the beginning always believed in it. That this was you know, this was important, that this was the truth, and the photos show you that.
This podcast was produced by Georgia Wright for Gesso Media, in partnership with the International Center of Photography. It was narrated by me, Henna Wang.
For more primers on the world’s most fascinating places, art, and people, download our app, Gesso Experiences, or look for us wherever you get your podcasts.
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