by Stephen Tringali
Popular hip hop culture is all about image — not necessarily the pictures people take of hip hop performers, but certainly the effect that those images have on a potential audience. Buy the stunner shades, the shiny spinners, the dope-ass Doberman, the hardcore posse and take press kit photos. Not concert photos, not candid photos, but press kit photos.
Such is the plight of hip hop’s international image. Audiences around the world are exposed to its upper crust through a series of hermetic press photographs that do more to paint an unrealistic image than to expose an interesting art form. A professor at the College of Santa Fe, photographer David Scheinbaum hopes to alleviate the stigmas that hip hop’s false kings — The Game, 50 Cent, DMX, etc. — have given the genre with Recognize!, a series of photographs currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery in D.C., which highlight hip hop’s intellectual and underground elite: MF Doom, Talib Kweli, The Roots, Common, DJ Shadow, and many others.*
It’s difficult to discern whether Scheinbaum accomplishes his goals. Many of the National Portrait Gallery’s visitors gawked at the photographs in Scheinbaum's exhibit with noticeable confusion. One kid took a look at Common’s picture and asked whether it was Eminem. Another visitor perused the photographs slowly, reading each name under her breath. When she came to a photograph of Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, she muttered it, and then laughed out loud. At least one couple successfully discovered an image containing some resonance. After having gazed about the room, the two found Cee-Lo’s image. One repeated the name, almost as though she hoped to remember why this image looked so familiar. Gnarls Barkley, the other said.
Though Scheinbaum’s subjects may be too esoteric for some tourists to Washington, D.C. to recognize, fully understand, or appreciate, Scheinbaum captures them in a wholly appropriate manner. He understands that photographing a hip hop performance must be done through completely different methods than photographing a rock performance. Unlike rock, usually, the hip hop stage does not provide angular objects (guitars, basses, microphone stands) that often serve to frame musicians within the photograph’s own frame. Instead, the hip hop performer often exists on stage with only a microphone (not typically attached to a stand) and a DJ.
In step with the nature of hip hop music and its live performance, Scheinbaum’s photographs are organic. They depend more on motion than muscle, more on intuition and energy than on intellect and exactitude. The subjects are never framed particularly well. Such an aesthetic choice implies an improvisation that attempts to mimic that which occurs on stage. For instance, his photograph of Souls of Mischief’s Tajai seems rather plain with regard to composition and subject matter. Tajai stands in a medium-close up, centered in the photograph with the microphone to his face. However, the picture is blurred to such a degree that the action becomes interesting.
Motion blur is just as much a staple of Scheinbaum’s hip hop photography as plain composition is, and it achieves the same effect that the compositional choices do: motion blur livens the captured concert atmosphere; it suggests an energy that would not normally communicate through freeze-frame images. The best example of his motion blur can be seen in his photograph of Public Enemy’s Professor Griff. The MC stands above his audience, his body transformed into wisps of black and white that blend with the wisps of waving concertgoers.
What Scheinbaum has done with his hip hop photographs is certainly interesting, though their ability to communicate beyond a niche audience is questionable. Photography that relies on subject also relies on audience awareness of subject. In this case, it is clear that not all audiences will recognize those rappers pictured in the gallery. Still, Scheinbaum insists that everyone take notice of these images and acknowledge the artists featured. And it’s difficult not to — especially considering the compelling and unique manner with which he has rendered these pioneering hip hop artists.
(Editor's Note: Recognize! will be on display at the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. until Oct. 26, 2008.)
*For the full names of rappers MF Doom and DJ Shadow, please see "Music Review: Buck 65's Situation." Here are the other full name references: Jayceon Terrell Taylor, "The Game;" Curtis James Jackson III, "50 Cent;" Earl Simmons, "DMX;" Talib Kweli Greene; Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr., "Common;" Marshall Bruce Mathers III, "Eminem;" Teren Delvon Jones, "Del Tha Funkee Homosapien;" Thomas DeCarlo Callaway, "Cee-Lo" of Gnarls Barkley; Tajai Massey of Souls of Mischief; and Richard Griffin, "Professor Griff" of Public Enemy.
(The photo of Chuck D — Carlton Douglas Ridenhour — of Public Enemy performing in Albuquerque, N.M. in 2002 is © copyright David Scheinbaum; as this is a commentary about Scheinbaum's photography and his exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, use here constitutes fair use.)
National Portrait Gallery
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by Stephen Tringali