From iconic moments like DMX drenched in blood on the cover of Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood to Barron Claiborne’s photos of the Notorious B.I.G. adorned in a crown, photography has been an essential part in launching hip-hop from its humble origins in the Bronx to the worldwide sensation that it is today. Given that hip-hop began as an artform meant to give voice to the experiences of black and brown youth, it’s easy to recognize photography and visual culture as an extension that helps to shed light on those society has ignored.
Despite beginning in the 1970’s and being a relatively new music genre, many accomplished photographers have documented hip-hop’s rise from the inner-city streets of New York City to globe trotting artists such as A$AP Rocky or Frank Ocean. One renowned photographer is Chi Modu, a photographer born in Nigeria and raised in New Jersey who is known for a body of work that includes rap legends such as Biggie, Nas, Snoop Dogg, and many more. As a photojournalist who honed his skills working for The Amsterdam News in Harlem, he noticed that there was a void in reporting about the hip-hop culture that was bubbling beneath the surface of mainstream society. He took his unique ability to put people at ease and his interest in people to The Source, where he served as a photo director throughout the 90’s.
A current photographer that’s been quickly making a name for himself within hip-hop circles is Gunner Stahl. The 25-year-old photographer from Atlanta has shot every major modern rapper, from 21 Savage and Gucci Mane to Playboi Carti’s cover for his debut mixtape Playboi Carti. Watching interviews you can’t help but notice similarities between Gunner and Chi, both of whom have a quiet personality that does well at putting people at ease. Gunner himself confesses that he’s often the quietest person in the room, “I like just basically being a fly on the wall, just chilling and taking pictures. I never like to ask ‘yo let’s go take this super staged picture with you over here next to this and I’m gonna be over here’. I just chill and they do whatever they do and I do whatever I do”.
Scrolling through his feed there’s a remarkable intimacy to his work, whether it’s Lana Del Ray playing with a fidget spinner or Chance the Rapper mid yawn, that seems to remove the celebrity persona and capture something a bit more personal. It’s not surprising that Gunner cites Chi Modu as one of his inspirations, given that the two share an appreciation for a photojournalistic style and both seem to put their subjects at ease through quickly gaining their trust. When asked how he makes celebrities feel so at ease his advice was simple, “Just be yourself. People will like you more if you’re just being you and not trying to be someone else.”
Perhaps one of Modu’s most iconic set of photos was his work with the late rapper Tupac Shakur, in which he photographed the artist at his house in Atlanta, Georgia. The photos capture a side of ‘Pac that was different, a more vulnerable style that sees him removing the bold public persona and letting his guard down. Shot in a simplistic black and white style, the photos evoke both the innocence of being 23 along with an awareness of mortality that permeated much of Tupac’s life as the child of a Black Panther.
In an interview that Modu did with Cheddar TV, the photographer explained that his greatest strength as a photographer is making people feel comfortable. He said, “Once you’re comfortable you can kind of let the bravado go and just be yourself. It also requires their trust in me, because once you trust me then you’re going to be yourself which allows me to document you forever. Because I think it’s the pictures where you’re natural that get remembered forever.” He also warned current hip-hop photographers against becoming too obsessed with style, emphasizing that they should focus on substance rather than the ephemeral glamour and allure of celebrity.
In our current era of social media and Instagram where music is consumed visually as much as it is through audio, photography has become as essential to hip-hop as beats that slap in the whip or going on tour. Yet at a time when cameras have become so accessible and anyone with a phone can call themselves a photographer, Modu’s words ring truer than ever before and beg the question, how do you create something that lasts when it seems like society has the attention span of a goldfish?
A trend that’s been on the rise within music, and hip-hop in particular, is a constant desire for new material. Fans seem to be consuming music faster than ever and feel as though artists should be dropping new music constantly. While some musicians such as Frank Ocean have been able to withdraw from the pressures of social media and its constant pull on our attention to create great work, it requires tremendous self-control to disconnect in a time of constant connectivity. We’ve discussed our relationship to social media as photographers on the podcast before, both for the benefits it offers as well as the struggle of feeling like we constantly have to post to stay relevant.
While we recognize the importance of having a social media presence at a time when everything is consumed digitally, we questioned whether feeling like we have to post daily to stay relevant distracts us from cultivating skills that go beyond the latest trend on the ‘gram. Some questions that we had for our listeners are:
How do you strive to create work that has substance?
What are the ways in which you make the people around you feel comfortable?
How do you think photography and hip-hop have changed with the rise of social media?