Contact High: David Corio Shoots The RZA
Up close and personal with The RZArector
In our series, Contact High: The Stories Behind Hip Hop’s Most Iconic Photographs, writer Vikki Tobak talks with those who have played critical roles in shaping hip hop imagery. They offer a rare glimpse of the creative process that went into the making of each photo.
Getting access to the original and unedited contact sheets, we see the “big picture” being created and can look look directly through the photographer’s lens. Photographers typically don’t show their contact sheets. They’re a visual diary. Film negatives on a roll of analog film allowed these photographers (and now us) to see the full range of images in order to develop the “money shot.”
We caught up with UK-based photographer David Corio to take us through his never-before-seen contact sheet of RZA…
New York 1994
Getting up in someone’s face is hardly ever a good thing. Unless you’re a photographer capturing a classic shot of Robert Fitzgerald Diggs aka The RZArector. When David Corio set out to shoot the Wu-Tang Clan mastermind in 1994 he got up close and personal. Using a wide angle lens, Corio positioned his camera maybe six inches away from RZA’s face. “You can’t do that with too many people,” says Corio. “The others I can think of shooting like that were Biz Markie and George Clinton—all great posers for a photographer.”
The photo session was part of a video shoot for RZA’s ‘horrorcore’ rap group Gravediggaz. The London-born Corio began taking photographs in 1978 while working for music magazines including New Musical Express (NME), The Face, Time Out, and Black Echoes, covering a wide range of music and portraiture.
Corio began taking photographs in 1978 while working for such magazines as New Musical Express (NME), The Face, Time Out, and Black Echoes, covering a wide range of subjects. He had already developed a reputation as a prolific shooter of reggae and hip hop, documenting both cultures in a style evocative of classic portraiture.
On this particular day, in an alleyway off of West Broadway and Canal Street in lower Manhattan, Corio captured an image that is enigmatic, open, raw and silly all at once. Call it photographic chess, to borrow from RZA’s lexicon.
James Jebbia, founder of the famed streetwear brand Supreme, reached out to Corio shortly after the shoot. He initially wanted to use an image Corio had taken of Public Enemy on a shirt, but the two ended up talking imagery and Corio suggested the RZA shot to Jebbia as well. The shirt and image have become synonymous with a New York-specific vibe, capturing a moment in both hip hop and streetwear’s evolution.
“I had moved to NYC from London about 18 months earlier and had been trying to get a foothold as a freelance photographer. I’d been getting work for the New York Times and Village Voice but they didn’t know I didn’t have any work papers or social security number. Thankfully this was pre Trump and 9/11 so things were a bit easier to get around then.
“I knew fellow Brit Jon Baker who was running the Gee Street label. He was supportive and gave me some work taking photos of some of his label’s artists including Doug E. Fresh, PM Dawn and The Gravediggaz. The label had asked me to do some publicity shots of the band in Tribeca. I had met RZA before in the label’s offices and he seemed really sharp and had a dynamic personality.“
“He had these personalised vampire teeth, a temporary metal cap for the video,” recalls Corio. “After finishing off with the rest of the band I asked RZA if I could do some individual shots of him, as he seemed to be the strong personality of the group. He had these new tooth caps with his name on them so we did some close ups of him hamming it for the camera.
“It was difficult to get the right angle as RZA doesn’t tend to stay still for too long and the light was beginning to go, but that is good light for shooting in. It was what is called ‘magic hour’—which really lasts for about 20 minutes or so—when the sun has set but the sky is still bright. You can see the highlight in his eyes gives a nice soft directional light.”
“I guess this single shot of RZA was more personal as it wasn’t really wanted or ever used by the record label. I had always developed my own film and printed my own photos, so I went home and developed the film in the kitchen of my studio apartment on Thompson Street. That close-up is the shot that pops out for me.”
The Camera Nerd Out
“My camera set up has always been to travel light. I probably had two Nikon 801s at the time and a 24mm, 35mm and maybe a 85mm lens. I never used zoom lenses as the apertures meant you couldn’t shoot in low light and I always shoot with the manual exposure and manual focus. I’d rarely use more than 2 or 3 rolls of film – partly for the costs as I was on a tight budget, but also more often people lose their concentration after a while so I prefer to shoot quickly before they start to lose interest.”
What did you know about RZA at the time you photographed him? Did he have ideas about how he wanted to be photographed?
Enter The Wu Tang: 36 Chambers had come out the previous year and he also had a clothing line, was producing and had got the Gravediggaz together so he was all over NYC at that time. We had already spent a bit of time together shooting the rest of the band and this last roll was really just more relaxed winding down at the end of the day. We just clicked really. I don’t think either of us had any preconceived idea of what we wanted. It’s always better when it is a natural process and it was just the two of us. I never use any assistants or stylists and it was good as there weren’t any record label people or art directors involved.
What do you shoot on now? Do you still make contact sheets? what percentage do you think you shoot film vs. digital?
I shoot mainly digital unfortunately, much as I dislike it. I had got into a bad habit of not doing contact sheets but reading the negative as contact sheets take time to do. From early days in London in the late 1970’s I was shooting gigs and then going home developing and printing through the night and delivering prints the next morning. Doing a contact sheet seemed to be an extra amount of time and extra paper too. Of course I regret that sometimes as I have thousands of rolls of film and still hardly any contact sheets. I still look at the negative through a loupe. These days it is more likely I will scan it rather than print it but the darkroom experience still helps to get the tones and contrast right.
I still print my old negs as people buy my hand printed photos and I still love going into the darkroom—it is a very meditative process but probably 90% of the time I shoot digital these days.
How do you feel about street style commercializing hip hop imagery? How do you get it right?
Well I guess it has always been a mass marketed thing in some ways with people wearing Adidas or Kangol or whatever brand is hip at that given moment. It helps to be individual though doesn’t it? Seeing more upmarket labels trying to get in on the action is pretty lame but hip hop has never been a musical form that has run away from bragging about how much money or bling they have so I guess you could say it swings both ways.
Who were your cultural influences growing up?
Well I was born in London in 1960 and remember having Beatles wallpaper in my bedroom but spent most of my youth growing up in the countryside. My Dad was an amateur painter so we had lots of art books around the house. I listened to rock and blues and then punk came along when I was about 16 just around the time I left school and went to art college studying photography.
Reggae was beginning to become popular around 1977 as it was played at a lot of punk gigs and it was around then I first heard a proper reggae sound system. That has really been my favorite music ever since along with soul and funk music though I will listen to a bit of hip hop now and again. I’ve always preferred black and white photos from early days and still do now. I started working in an industrial darkroom printing for all sorts of clients and managed to become a freelance photographer in 1980 when I was 20. London was very vibrant then with lots of different types of music and fashion happening and you could live on very little money as everyone seemed to be in the same boat. It would be far harder to do that now I’m sure.
Follow David Corio on his website. And check out his book Black Chord (Universe, 1999, text by Vivien Goldman).
The Contact High Project, conceived by Vikki Tobak and published exclusively on MASS APPEAL, will culminate into a book and exhibition. Check out the Contact High website, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter for more info.