Those raised in the era of digital photos may not know what a contact sheet is, but for photographers in the age of film, there was nothing as exciting or stressful. A print of all the images on a roll of film, it showcased an artists’s process and progression, but it also showed all the glitches and failures, outtakes, and goofy moments of a photo shoot.
A new exhibit uses contact sheets to take a nuanced look at both photographer and subject. “CONTACT HIGH: A Visual History of Hip Hop,” opens at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles, California today. It celebrates the work of the genre’s most acclaimed photographers, from Jamel Shabazz’s potent street shots of hip-hop’s early tastemakers, to studio portraits of stars from Salt-N-Pepa to Slick Rick.
“Contact sheets are like looking into a photographer’s private world,” says Vikki Tobak, the show’s curator, who originally published these photos in a book of the same name. “It’s a rare glimpse into their process and allows viewers to see so much more than the final product.”
The sheets from Barron Claiborne’s famous portrait of the Notorious B.I.G. are one moving example. The iconic photo of the young rapper, taken in March of 1997 just three days before he was shot to death, has since been repurposed and remixed into countless building murals and t-shirts. It shows the young rapper stone-faced, his brow wrinkled in a frown, as if contemplating his imminent tragic end. But one of the last images on Claiborne’s contact sheet (seen above) shows Biggie letting his guard down and cracking a smile.
Elsewhere, the work of Ricky Powell is a collage of candid moments with rising artists of the 1980s and 1990s. Spike Lee, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Eazy E all show up in his sheet of slides, their names and the year of the image scrawled on the border. (The Beastie Boys, who are also pictured, even referenced the photographer in a lyric.)
Jamel Shabazz’s work is a raw feed of the street culture of the 1980’s New York City that birthed hip-hop. Everyday people old and young, some stylish, some not, take a moment out of their day to pose for his camera.
Some of the photos feel like artifacts of a time when media ran through a narrower funnel, when print media and record labels dictated a lot of the industry. A single iconic image could define an artist in a young person’s imagination. Today, a fan’s connection to an artist is updated daily on carefully curated and filtered Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat feeds.
Tobak noted that today, “artists are hyper-aware of their self-image and are also very calculated in what the public sees.”
“The 80’s and 90’s were a time when photographers had greater access to musicians, coinciding with the dominance of music magazines and album cover and magazine cover art,” she added.
Also lost is artists’ freedom to be spontaneous and take risks, without risking instant criticism that lives on forever on the internet. It’s that risk-taking, the candid moments captured on film, that these contact sheets offer a glimpse of.
“Nowadays, imagery is so focused on perfection and even the ‘I woke up like this’ moment isn’t always what it seems,” Tobak says. “Celebrating mistakes and the imperfect process is really important in this day and age, and I think the photographers in the book, and now the exhibition, recognize that.”