Contact High: Photographer Al Pereira On Shooting “Fly Girl” Queen Latifah
"Every woman is a queen, and we all have different things to offer." -Queen Latifah
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 photographer Al Pereira to get the backstory on the early photographic royalty that is Queen Latifah…
New York, 1991
Al Pereira likes to be first. In his early days as a budding photographer with a day job, he would go to Rudy’s Records on 23rd Street and memorize the contact info on the back of early hip hop record albums. Later, he would go home and call the number of the record label asking to photograph some of their talent. If he didn’t get an answer, he would type letters and ask to be among the first photographers during the 1980s and 1990s to document what would become the pioneers of hip hop music including this iconic shot of Queen Latifah.
This portrait of Queen Latifah in all her feminist Afrocentric glory was captured on the set of the “Fly Girl” video shoot. Several years later, it became the cover image for Pereira’s “Rappers’ Delights: African-American Cookin’ With Soul,” released with a foreword from the Queen herself. Want to recreate Flava Flav’s rice pilaf recipe? Get yourself “A bag of rice and all your favorite sh*t.”
For the past 20 years, Pereira has worked as the official photographer for the New York Jets. But he recalls a time when his hip hop photographs had yet to be valuable. Today, Pereira’s photos are museum pieces. The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture recently acquired Pereira’s photos, along with the works of 58 other photographers, from historian and former Def Jam Recordings publicity director Bill Adler.
Meanwhile, Dana Owens, the New Jersey girl who grew up in Newark is by now solidly ensconced in mainstream Queendom, with movies and television talk shows marking her a voice of today. But behold this photo of a young hip hop pioneer: championing unapologetically black feminism, pride and afrocentrism in her lyrics, style to the mx as expressed in her media image. The Queen in command. Pereira wanted to capture that energy.
Al Pereira: She was always iconic in our hip hop circle, but when I took this shot, I couldn’t give away these photos. Especially the shots of hip hop women. At the time many people who were into R&B weren’t feeling hip hop. I guess the same way jazz people looked down at blues. I tended to gravitate towards women artists and am still friends with many like MC Lyte. Latifah was on Tommy Boy at the time. Latifah’s mom was a big part of her career and was at the shoot. She was a school teacher and made sure Dana (that’s what I called her) was always above board. On the contact sheet you can see that is Dana’s mom, and her dancers. The two ladies were with her from the start and the two dudes came along somewhere along the line.
This was Latifah’s idea to do like a smoking gun kind of pose. We didn’t even have to do a lot of frames. You can see the ring on her finger. You have to read and react and that’s what I did. She was always a visual person and of course later went on to direct and work in film. She did the heavy lifting with this shot. Latifah is gorgeous and she brought power to that portrait. And I love collaboration. On the contact sheet, you can see some of the light leaking in and I almost lost that shot.I wanted her to really so I went tight on the shot. I respect the artist’s ideas and believe they inform the portrait. When I put the little stickers on or mark up the contact sheet, it helps me all these years later remember the details.
The Camera Nerd Out
On a Pentax 645 Medium 2-1/4 negative. Manual focus with a 75mm 2.8 lens. I had a two room apartment and process the stuff in the bathroom at night.
Latifah’s afrocentric dress was so on point and really spoke to that moment in hip hop where black consciousness was becoming the thing. Did she have ideas about how she wanted to be portrayed for this shot?
If you’re an artist and you have a vision that’s a beautiful thing. Latifah was so strong and so confident and had strong ideas about her image. She understood the power of media and photography. I think that’s such a powerful thing and it felt right in the shoot.
Talk about the street style and culture at that time.
I had been photographing for The Source since issue 7 and the style back then was just very pure. The whole vibe was. I even shot Tupac while he was in the audience watching Run DMC and he was just in awe. It was also interesting to photograph artists who were very aware of their image. Chuck D was certainly one. I didn’t want to take pictures of people in front of graffiti and all these hip hop clichés. And I had these discussions with some artists about this: ‘why do hip hop artists have to be photographed with mean mug, graffiti…?” Poor Righteous Teachers was another group I photographed and they had a real vision of how they wanted to be shot. MC Lyte was an early friend of mine and some of the early photos weren’t that good and she was a great friend and she was patient with me.
Being the team photographer for The NY Jets, what are some of the parallels of shooting sports and shooting hip hop?
I’ve wanted to be a photographer since I was 5-years-old. I just couldn’t wait to shoot. I had a little Kodak Brownie camera from the 1960’s. The first thing I shot was a peacock at the zoo—an action shot. Paul Bereswill was a photographer that I admired very early on. He shot sports guys and I would be captivated by his images. I knew early on that I wanted to shoot sports and music. In both genres, you’re literally capturing one single moment. One blip in time. Things are moving fast, big personalities…hip hop and sports are super similar in that way. Barton Silverman from the New York Times who just retired.
I’ve been with The NY Jets for more than 20 years and they have respect for archives or negatives. I keep some slides there and I keep the negatives. I love libraries and I love putting stuff in order and uncovering things that were forgotten. One day, I’m hunting around in the PR department and I find Joe Namath’s original 2-1/4 slide that they did for his baseball card shoot. The guys in the office didn’t really know what it was or the significance. Frank Ramos was the original PR guy and Joe Namath was getting knee surgery and they needed to get the football card done so they came to the hospital to shoot it.
You started out shooting at hip hop shows before you got any editorial assignment. How did you get access?
Yvette Noel-Schure, who now works with Beyonce, was the assistant editor at Black Beat magazine when I started, and she was a huge R&B fan and the two of us would go back and forth on which hip hop photos to feature, and we really challenged each other sometimes. Sometimes it was a hard sell. There weren’t that many photographers on the scene early on. Mostly it was me, Ernie Paniccioli and Michael Benabib who went to all these shows. Michael was amazing technically and Ernie had an innate feel for hip hop.
So many artists today give little to zero access and when they do, it’s very tightly controlled. Is access important in making a good portrait?
Back in the day, you could meet hip hop artists just walking down the street. And for shoots, they would come with their own clothes and show up where you wanted them to show up. That was real access. You would hang out. You would often become friends and have a longterm relationship with the artists. Nowadays, I often get 5 minutes and then they want to approve it and all that.
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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.