Contact High: Photographer Angela Boatwright on Nicki Minaj’s First Feature Shoot

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 Angela Boatwright to get the backstory on the early visual powerhouse that was Nicki Minaj …

New York, 2008

I love powerful women, sexy or more demure, however they want to be.  Honesty and inner power are very attractive to me.  Nicki had that.” recalls photographer Angela Boatwright of this early photo shoot that would be instrumental in forming the early visual vocabulary that is Nicki Minaj.

Shooting on her birthday, Boatwright brought the Trinidadian-born, South Jamaica, Queens-raised performer to a diner in Queens and proceeded to make magic. It was Minaj’s first feature shoot and she did not hold back, embodying a direct and fearless kind of feminism, pancakes and all. Overtly sexy, powerful and humorous. Bad bitches I’m your leader…

For the shoot, Boatwright wanted to capture imagery that both embraced and subverted the male gaze.

The Shoot

We shot in a diner in Queens, I don’t remember the name of the diner, unfortunately.  Vibe’s photo editor Dionna chose the location and I believe it was important to her to have the shoot in Queens, yes. I was photographing hip hop artists and other musicians, but mostly hip hop artists a lot at the time.  And shooting for Vibe regularly. I’ve been going through the photographs recently and they’re so powerful.  Was this Nicki’s first shoot for Vibe?  I believe so but am not 100% sure.  Her first feature shoot, probably yes.  I’m thankful to Dionna King at Vibe for hiring me.    

The Shot

Even looking at the proofs now I can’t see one stand out shot.  Every time I look at the proofs I see another insane image I hadn’t noticed prior.  At the time there were a couple of shots I really liked but 10 years later I prefer different shots.  I let Vibe choose the images, as long as I nailed the shoot then I was happy to let Vibe pick.  Every photo editor I worked with at Vibe was amazing and I always respected their decision.  There are so many strong women photo editors.

Nicki was cool.  Down to earth.  Again this was probably fairly early in her career as a superstar.  I’m pretty sure she was on board with mine and Dionna’s ideas – we wanted her to lay on the countertop, hold pancakes, play with syrup – the usual kind of thing.  She was down, anytime I asked her to do something lascivious she was down.


The Camera Nerd Out

I always shot both color and black and white back then.  This was before digital had a complete presence in the industry and I personally didn’t believe in “just shoot color, we can always turn it into black and white in post.”  Although I’m more comfortable with digital these days I very, very rarely turn a digi image into black and white.  In my mind black and white images are born of black and white film, period.  My camera set up was my favorite, my Contax 645 AF medium format camera.  I shot some 35mm 3200 film with my Nikon FE2 as well.  I still have and use both cameras.

The Q+A

What made you first want to become a photographer and who were your inspirations?

My first photographic inspiration definitely came from heavy metal magazines in the ‘80s.  I would buy 2 or 3 of each issue so that I could cut out literally ALL of the Guns N’ Roses images and plaster them all over my bedroom.  I wasn’t overtly into photography until 1990, ‘91 when my mom, who was a budding photographer, installed a makeshift darkroom in her apartment, which beyond cool!  I would go out on weekends, shoot photos of my friends, and then get to print them myself in my mom’s apartment.  As a 15 year old this was absolutely magical for me.  It was during this time I fell in love with Glen E. Friedman then Nan Goldin.  I loved Sally Mann, Mary Ellen Mark, Eugene Richards, and conversely fashion photographers Sante D’Orazio, and Herb Ritts. I was turned on to Joseph Rodriguez’s photography around 1994 after the release of his book, Spanish Harlem; he inspires most of my recent work.

Why is visual representation so important for an artist? Is it more important today with the overload of imagery in the culture?

A photo-shoot used to define an artist.  The photographs allowed the fans a point of connection outside of the music itself.  With the collapse of the music industry for all but the biggest artists, an upstart musician will choose someone to take their photo who can work for very little or in most cases, no money at all, because there is no money.  This oftentimes leads to a lot of similar looking images, and everything by default becomes homogenized.  Digital tends to be a good low budget solution because most photographers own a digital camera, it’s a misconception that this camera is free simply because it’s already in the possession of the photographer however.  There’s the cost of accumulated hard drives, hours of editing and post to consider.  And digital itself is very homogenized.  Unless you’re adding skilled retouching, a clever concept, dynamic lighting, a distinct awareness of composition, etc. everything will look the same.  And all of those things cost time/ money.  On shoots where there’s a legitimate budget the images might be required to adhere to the most basic marketing and style elements with little room for creativity.  Music and visual arts have become so devalued that there’s no longer any room for risk.  Perhaps within this landscape of evolved mediocrity it’s even more essential to invest in and create something of quality, something distinct?

Do you still shoot analog? What are the factors in deciding to shoot analog vs. digital?

Yes, I still shoot film!  Most of the time film is better but I do prefer digital in certain circumstances.  Recently a client requested I shoot only digital in a scenario where I would have preferred to shoot film.  I proceeded and was actually really happy with the results.  My retoucher friend Jason Jamal Nakleh introduced me to VSCO plug ins for Lightroom a little while back which has allowed me to produce better digital shots.  I’m head over heels in love with the entire process involved with film so I will always prefer film.  Always.

What do you think is lost now that the darkroom process is pretty much gone for many photographers?

A tangible connection to what you’re shooting, an investment of time and money that teaches hard lessons.  There’s nothing like shooting 10 rolls of film on the wrong exposure, paying for the film and the processing and then having everything come out blank, or spending 12+ hours in the darkroom for the reward of one, imperfect print.  Digital has made photography more democratic, especially for people with less access to the never ending piles of cash film requires.  Nowadays there are so many new and exciting voices, if you can show us a world we might never see with a $15 point and shoot camera or a cell phone that’s great.

Skill seems pretty important to you when you speak about the way you push film, color print and just the printing process overall? Talk about what that means to you.

I am stuck in the late 80’s and 90’s in a million different ways.  The music I listen to for example.  I LOVE shooting film.  I loved learning to hand process negatives, printing everything myself both black and white and color.  I loved tasting fixer in the back of my throat for days after a long b/w print session.  Sounds gross, right?  If I ever get cancer you’ll know why.  But I loved it!  I worked at a pro lab for years in the 90’s and enjoyed explaining different techniques to the customers.  I was proud of all of that knowledge and still am.  I LOVE talking about older photo techniques, especially with younger photographers that never experienced them viscerally.  I’m a nostalgic person and all of these processes coincide with the romance of my life as a teen/ twenty something young person.

Do you consider yourself a subcultures photographer? Why do you tend to gravitate towards hip hop, skate, punk culture?

I grew up within a zillion different scenes.  I’m from a city in Ohio where all of the outsiders hung out together.  Graffiti writers, hip hop kids, ravers, metalheads, straight-edge kids, etc.  I’m absolutely attracted to subcultures but I certainly haven’t documented every sub culture.  There are certain scenes that resonate with me more than others, like graffiti, metal, and punk.  I’m not terribly attracted to documenting something that has already gained popularity that’s for sure.  I’m more interested in young people because they are ground zero for change.  They’re oftentimes dismissed but their voices echo the future, their ideas are important.

Follow Angela Boatwright on Instagram and take a look at her website. Check out her documentary film Los Punks.

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

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