Contact High: Janette Beckman On Photographing Styles Upon Styles Upon Styles of Early A Tribe Called Quest
Here's what it was like to shoot ATCQ in the same year their first album debuted.
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 Janette Beckman to get the behind the scenes of what it was like to photograph A Tribe Called Quest in 1990, the same year they dropped their debut album.
New York, 1990
Amid post-election turmoil and soul searching, A Tribe Called Quest’s final album We’ve Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service arrives right on time. Culturally significant and just damn good, ATCQ’s first album in 18 years (RIP Phife!) seemed to restore some faith as it recalled a time when music and imagery could be conscious, afrocentric and political. Photographer Janette Beckman was looking to capture that vibe back in 1990 when she brought the group to the Chelsea Flower Market on New York’s west side to photograph them for a book project, Jarobi’s little brother in tow and all.
Beckman is of course the London-born photographer is responsible for some of hip hop’s most classic images. Run DMC, Salt’ n ‘Pepa, Grandmaster Flash and of course Slick Rick. After documenting the era of punk rock for British magazines The Face and Melody Maker, Beckman moved to New York in 1982 and began photographing hip hop with the same precision and meticulousness she applied shooting early punk bands from The Clash to The Sex Pistols to three of The Police’s album covers.
Janette Beckman: The shot was taken for a book I was doing with Bill Adler called Rap: Portraits and Lyrics of a Generation of Black Rockers. I wanted to express their afrocentric style. We wanted to get a photo in nature but they didn’t have much time so I decided to take them to the Chelsea flower district, the closest place to find some tropical looking trees in NYC. And yes I am still a big fan. We’ve been waiting for 18 years for this record.
Their style was afrocentric and the attitude seemed to me to be about peace and love and coming together rather than battling each other. Very different from what had been happening in hip hop with groups like NWA and other groups in the late 80’s it was refreshing mellow and new. I just try to find the shot where everyone looks their best.
The Camera Nerd Out
I always shot with my Hasselblad, 2 1/4 square format.
How specific was Tribe’s overall vibe to what was happening in New York early 90’s hip hop? They were of course part of the Native Tongues which you also photographed?
Yes, it was ‘conscious’ hip hop and had a kind of jazzy feel to it. The songs were witty, funny, and the feeling was very positive.
I shot the Native Tongues crew for the cover of the record Doin’ Our Own Dang. I wanted to express their collective sense of fun, individualism and positive vibes. I loved their lyrics and the funky jazzy beats.
Tell us about your career at the time this photo was taken? What inspired you early on?
I had my portfolio with all these big punk people and I went around to all the record companies and they wouldn’t give me any work. They said my work was too ‘gritty.’ I finally I got a job photographing the Fearless Four and started to get a lot of work from the British mags who wanted to me to cover the early hip hop scene. I started to amass this huge archive. That was around ’83. To me hip hop was like punk; the music, the style, the attitude. The labels were all really small at the time. When Paper magazine started, I was good friends with founders Kim and David and I started shooting for them. It was such a different time. Getting rich never occurred to me. You just wanted to the work.
What do you shoot on now? Do you still make contact sheets?
I have two cameras now: a Canon Mark II and Fuji XT10. I miss film, I loved printing in the dark room; take a cup of tea and a sandwich and my music. The whole joy of shooting on film is making the prints.
I don’t like to have a lot of stuff when I shoot. I’m much more about the vibe between me and subject rather than having a load of lenses and doing a load of technical fancy things. I really want to keep it real between me and them.
What do you miss about early analog photography and the contact sheet/dark room process?
I know there is currently a lot of interest in analogue photography. It’s interesting to me because of the cost factor. I and the early photographers wouldn’t shoot loads of film because it was so expensive. Every roll of film has a price tag. It teaches you to edit and learn how to shoot and be disciplined. You were never quite sure what you got. All before photoshop..even to this day, even when I shoot digital I try to get it right the first time and not have to use photoshop.
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.