Contact High: On The Set With Outkast and Bootsy Collins

In the series, Contact High: The Stories Behind Hip Hop’s Most Iconic Photographs writer Vikki Tobak talks with the photographers who have played a critical role in shaping hip hop imagery. These interviews offer a rare glimpse of the creative process that went into the making of each photo.

Getting access to the original, unedited contact sheets, we see the “big picture” being created and look directly through the shooter’s lens. Photographers typically don’t show their contact sheets. They’re a highly personal visual diary. Negatives on a roll of analog film allow these photographers (and now us) to see the full range of images in order to catch the “money shot.”

This week, guest writer Gioncarlo Valentine delves into photographer Eric Johnson’s archive to go deep on his 2002 Outkast shoot and why he’ll always love film photography…

I don’t shoot digital unless I get a lot of money,” says Eric Johnson with a laugh. But he’s not playing. “Seriously. It’s not really my thing,” The New York–based photographer, whose images of such major artists as Lauryn Hill, Maxwell, and Outkast have helped shape the pop culture landscape, remains a staunch believer in not just content but craft. In 2002, he photographed Outkast in all their splendor. As an added bonus, Bootsy Collins was the on set too. 

Though he was born and bred in Newark, New Jersey, Johnson always knew he wanted to document New York’s cultural fabric—with music as a defining element of what the city represented for him. By the late ‘80s Johnson was a fixture on the New York club scene.

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Johnson got his start photographing his friends and classmates at Arts High School before moving to the city to document big names like Faith Evans, Lil Wayne, Dipset, Maxwell, Lady Gaga, Aaliyah, Notorious B.I.G. and Missy Elliott. Johnson was always deeply curious and desired range in his work. He has always been intrigued by underground artists, from Miss Guy and Jojo to Le1f, Cakes Da Killa, Juliana Huxtable and Honey Dijon, to name just a few.

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Prior to this Outkast shoot, Johnson was perhaps best known for shooting the cover imagery for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill — his work appears on the cover and inside the album booklet. You could regularly find his images in the pages of Dazed and Confused, VIBE, and XXLThere’s a raw aesthetic to his photography pulling from various art forms, hip hop, and high fashion.

The role of the photographer is not traditionally a flashy one. It is usually one of great silence, anonymity, and mystery. To many people, even the best photographers are not household names. Johnson is well aware of this dynamic.

 

The Shoot

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“I was shooting for Dazed and Confused pretty regularly and they called me and told me they wanted me to shoot Outkast and Bootsy Collins. I’m not really sure if they worked together or if Bootsy was a just a big inspiration to them, but I know they hadn’t officially been photographed together before, so [the magazine] wanted to get that story. It was a big shoot but it was a lot of fun. I also shot the Dungeon Family for that article. At one point you just look around the studio and it’s like 30 people. I was a big fan of Outkast and Bootsy Collins as well.

“Outkast was really cool. I felt less familiar with them because they weren’t New York artists. It was cool to just hang out in this big space with all these guys together. They were all pretty chill. Andre was playing this song on set, it sounded like Hopscotch. It didn’t sound anything like hip hop. Andre kept playing it on set all day, no lyrics, just the instrumental. We later found out that the song was “Hey Ya,” which wasn’t released until a year later.”

 

The Money Shot

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“There’s no really big trick to the selection process, you go through the film and you pick your favorites. You edit them down and then you show everyone else. For Dazed, it’s different with the editorials—you have more room in the process. They trust your vision a lot more. I sent them my favorites and then the editor and art department picked their favorites from them.”

 

The Camera Nerd Out

“I used the Mamiya RZ67. We shot it with a flash setup, flash photography. We shot it at my friend’s studio, Roger Cabello at 652 Broadway. I shot with Kodak 160VC. This was the camera and color film I was using at the time. No particular reason behind them.”

 

The Q+A

I know you are a film shooter but do you ever shoot digital? What would you say is the difference between the two?

I don’t shoot digital unless I get a lot of money [laughs]. Seriously, it’s not really my thing. If a commercial client needs something like that and it just works for that context and it’s a commercial gig that I don’t really have much of an attachment to, I’ll do that along with film. But for the most part I shoot film. I don’t feel like digital photography has a soul, for me personally. Nothing against people that shoot digital because I see digital photos that I think are really good but just with my brain, the pairing doesn’t capture anything that I think is soulful, organic, or gritty enough.

You and Maxwell always do such great work together. What was the first time like?

Well I mean, let’s see. The first? He was a kid the first time, he was a teenager or whatever. I just thought that he had a cool look, so that’s why I wanted to photograph him. I think Maxwell and I work together a lot because he wants those photos to look like that. I mean, it sounds real simple but he has access to work with anyone that he wants to work with, he always has. And he always asks me to shoot it.  You know, we’re really good friends as well. It’s not really totally that though because I wouldn’t put any pressure on any friends to work with me or vice versa. I wouldn’t really say it’s because we’re friends. I think that for my style, I think that I’m really good at capturing people’s spirits a little bit, you know? And a soulful person like that, a soulful artist, I think that’s really kind of important.

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So you wouldn’t say that your work has a hip hop aesthetic?

Someone could say that I do, for example my pictures with Biggie. I don’t think that those are Hip Hop photos. I think that it’s just a Hip Hop artist. If you look at a bunch of my work I just don’t think that there’s a Hip Hop aesthetic. That’s not to separate myself from it because I love Hip Hop. I think some photos look like Hip Hop because I’m shooting Camron and Dipset in the middle of the street in Harlem. If they were an indie band I would shoot them the same way and I have shot them the say way. If you look at the pictures of Lauryn Hill for example, the ones of her in the bathroom, they’re a lot more glamorous. They’re not really Hip Hop photos either. I feel like there are a lot of photographers that are immersed in the culture, like Chi Modu for example. I’ve been following a lot of his work lately. He has pictures with Nas and Mobb Deep and he’s in intimate scenarios with them.  My photos are of similar subject matter but it’s something that’s not the same. There are other musicians that were far more immersed.

How would you define your work?

I’m one of those people who feels like that’s the place of other people to decide. I know what looks good and I always have. All of my photos from my teen years are good. I’m true to myself as a person. I don’t really follow trends and there’s a consistency that I bring to the table and my archive will show that, It’s just really classic beauty.

Do you pay attention to other photographers working today? Who do you like?

I don’t really pay much attention. I only pay attention in regard to the fact that umm, if I’m looking through a magazine and I see who’s working at the time. I’m way past the type to look and see what so and so just recently did. There are greats but I stumble upon them. Many people send me books and things like that, but I don’t really study photography. I get most of my inspiration from non-photography related scenarios. I don’t look to other photographers for any kind of inspiration

Has that always been the case?

Well, you know, when you’re younger you do look at things because you’re even hungrier for information and at that time there were so many great magazines. So you were very excited to see the images. Per Lui, Jill, The Face, even GQ back then. The Bruce Weber photos with all of those guys. Versace campaigns in the ’80s. There were a lot of things that were just exciting visually during that time in photography. I don’t know, maybe when everyone got crazy with the retouching and digital photography. That’s something that’s just not that exciting for me to follow. Even the models, there were some really sick models. You had Lynn Koester who was really hot, I thought. Janice Dickinson was amazing when she was really young too. Tony Viramontes was a hot photographer back in the day. Yea, fun times.

Are you heavy into gear? If so, what are you favorite cameras and lenses?

No I’m not. [Laughs] I don’t really care. I’m not really like that. I mean lately I’m a Contax person, I’m into Contax cameras. I have the same cameras. I get new ones but it’s the same model that I’ve had (The Contax G2). I’ve never been a big tech guy as you can tell from my photos. I’m really into lighting and setting up lights and things in the context of portraiture but I don’t know anything about what the latest camera is. In those scenarios I hire really good technical assistants.

Can you tell me a little bit about working with Aaliyah?

It’s interesting that I’m so tied to Aaliyah because I didn’t really know Aaliyah that well. I’d never met her before the shoot. But I loved her; I always thought she was so cool. She’s like an enigma to me a little bit. Even though we crossed paths and we did something really amazing, it’s interesting that those pictures were so ingrained in public. It would be great to say we did this and we did that and we’d go out to dinners, but that wasn’t our exchange. She showed up at the shoot, I was excited to do it. She was totally lovely, her mom was lovely, she came to the shoot and we all got along famously. I saw her one more time after that. I was walking down the street and Jason Farrar, the stylist JJ, he and Aaliyah were walking down the street and she had this really outrageous coat and he was behind her lifting it up from the back. I knew it was a shoot because he was a sick stylist. I just saw them I didn’t interrupt. I didn’t say anything but that was the last time I saw her. She passed a couple of months after I shot her. The album had just come out and at that time she was on a promotion thing.  She was putting out a record and she was on a promotional blitz where she was coming out in all the best magazines. After my shoot I only saw her that final time.

You’ve recently gotten into making clothing. Is there a more of this coming in the near future?

Yes, it’s a lot more. I haven’t even scratched the surface. The interest that I have in it that is so exciting that I don’t want to blow myself up before anything happens. I will say we’re close to making some major deals and they’re going to be in the best places. We started making them from scratch. The details are going to be the way that I see them.  I’ve got so many photos and so many ideas for things that I want to do. I will say, one thing that I’m really excited about, one of those collections that I’m working toward is going to feature a lot of my work from when I was a kid. I’m still putting a lot of those things together and I think that it really works

What do you consider your biggest accomplishment to date?

You know what? I feel really happy that I’ve got a lot of really successful photos as opposed to one. No one wants to be a one hit wonder. I think it’s really great that I have this body of work. Some fans online think that shoot of Aaliyah is everything. Then the Lauryn Hill album is officially a part of history. With the shoot with Biggie I’m on National Geographic. Seeing myself in context with news about Bill Clinton and all of these things that are important in the 90s then having me shooting images of the Notorious BIG, it’s crazy. I worked all of these years and I’m going to keep working. I’ve shot so many great photos of people less famous than those guys that I think are equally great. I just keep going.

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What is the best life/photographic advice that you have ever received?

I guess it’s to really contribute something to your craft every day.  I want to create an environment for myself where my work space and my personal and professional life are all one thing. I’m always involved in being creative in my work. Whether it’s editing photos or taking photos, editing films or making films, working on your site, you can’t get around it. For younger people it’s very important that every day you contribute something.

What would you like your legacy to be—both personally and photographically?

You know what’s so interesting? When Prince died it really threw me off on lots of levels. It just kind of seemed like there was someone who just bounced. For someone who was so serious about owning his things and just all of this privacy. The fact that he just seemingly left without a will and with no direction for what happens to his things when he’s gone, it just throws me off. It doesn’t matter what I say. At the end of the day, shit, all I’m concerned with is creating as much content as possible, because the more that I produce, and at a certain level the more that it’s out there. It doesn’t matter what I want because my work will speak for itself. Whoever is left will decide what my legacy will be I know it’s going to be a crazy full body of work.

Besides that I don’t know what’s important to feel that I left behind. We’re romantic about people when they die but at the end of the day they’re gone. I know that while I’m alive my goal is to live a long time, to be able retire to a nice villa in the country with nice land and space and all that.  And basically have access to having my work all around so that I can have studio visits. I want to be putting out books and showing things in galleries and to be the type of person that can tell you that story about the 80’s, the 90’s, the 00’s, the 2010s, 2020’s, 2030’s. I would like my story to be that one, to have sick ass work from every decade for like 6 decades, and having started a teenager that’s very realistic.

Follow Eric Johnson on his website and Instagram and check out Gioncarlo Valentine’s website and Instagram

The Contact High Project, conceived by Vikki Tobak and published on Mass Appeal, will culminate with a book and exhibition. Check out the Contact High website, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter for more info.

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