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Contact High: Photographer Angela Boatwright On Shooting Solange Knowles for ‘Vibe’

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 took a seat at the table with photographer Angela Boatwright to get the backstory on the early creative process of Solange’s visuals…


New York, 2009

boatwright_the_shoot_solange_copy“I remember looking at the proofs thinking ‘Damn!'” recalls photographer Angela Boatwright of shooting the 2009 image of Solange for Vibe magazine. “During the shoot I was literally jumping up and down with excitement.” Solange, coming out of the shadow of big sis, had just released her second album Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams. It was also the year that Solange cast aside her weaves and wigs to rock a closely cropped natural. But that was clearly after this shoot. Regardless, Solange was establishing an identity as an artist and as a woman, having fun with visual concepts and setting the stage for her evolution as an artist with a seat at the table. Sometimes, an artist’s visual language arrives right on time — with clarity and power and ease– and at other times, they struggle ‘working it out’, experimenting with fusing their overall vibe with a visual statement.

Photographer Angela Boatwright meanwhile had been making a career for herself for over 16 years as an editorial and commercial photographer with publications and clients including XXL, Nylon, New York magazine, Roxy and Urban Outfitters. Her true passion though was documenting the hardcore, heavy metal, graffiti and skate scenes and she did just that with depth and a keen eye. Boatwright then moved to Los Angeles where she brought an idea to Vans to document the punk scenes in East L.A., South Central, Boyle Heights and Watts. She focused on a group of predominantly Latino punk rockers and the backyard concerts they throw in East Los Angeles. The photos led to a series of short documentaries and became Los Punks, her recent documentary film.

The Shoot

boatwright_solange_mass_appeal_copy-3Angela Boatwright: The shoot was for an 8+ page feature in Vibe which was certainly a big deal for me and probably for Solange, too.  I remember thinking that it must have taken huge balls for someone with such an insanely successful sister to recognize her own talent and have the confidence to put herself out there.  I highly doubt that I would have had the courage if I were in her shoes.  I’ve always had a lot of respect for Solange. We shot in a smallish studio on Broadway close to Broome Street in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood. She was really cool honestly, and incredibly articulate, passionate, and informed.  And she was crazy gorgeous, of course!  Good genes kind of gorgeous, good attitude gorgeous, super smart gorgeous, old soul gorgeous.  She was really captivating.  And her team was obviously top notch, which was exciting and very, very intimidating simultaneously.

Solange was very much a team player.  She had a lot of ideas but was also open to trying different things.  She wasn’t rushed; she was really invested in making sure the shoot went well. Her team was very professional; everything they put together was so beautiful and well thought out. I don’t remember having one complaint or concern. I believe Vibe booked the studio possibly based on my recommendation.  I’d shot there several times before. I’m sure I was losing my mind in the day to day but in hindsight what an absolutely amazing time!  I was very busy! And shooting on film was still acceptable which was awesome. Clients were still very open to film.

The Shot

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I let Vibe make the final decision because there were so many great shots; it would have taken me forever to decide.  With film shoots it was harder to eliminate shots you didn’t like before delivering to the client, as a bad shot would occupy the same contact sheet as a great shot.  You could always cross out unsavory images but that didn’t guarantee that the client wouldn’t pick them, sadly.  This wasn’t an issue with this Solange shoot however. I knew the images were gonna come out great.  The dynamic on set was so congruous and positive; Solange really killed it.

The Camera Nerd Out

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These images were shot with my beloved Contax 645 AF, which I still use!  And film wise, probably Portra 400 VC 120 film, actually it might have been 220 film?  I’d have to look at the proofs to see exactly what type of film was used; maybe you can tell me since you have the proof sheets right now!  I shot some 400 black and white, too – I’ve never been terribly picky about my 400 ASA black and white film to be honest.  I used 3200 medium format b/w film on this shoot as well, I LOVE 3200, especially 3200 120!

The Q+A

solange_boatwright_ch_maWhat are the challenges of making a photograph that stands the test of time?

I’m not sure, if I were to consciously try to create a photo that would stand the test of time I feel like I would fail.  As a photographer I think you just have shoot from the heart without particular loyalty to any kind of immediate trend and then see what happens.  If you’re desperately following a trend you’ll never have a truly individual voice.  You’ll be too busy chasing someone else’s tail.  Perhaps the most timeless images are the most genuine, genuine to the moment, the photographer, the subject, or the era.  Great question!

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 make shift darkroom in her apartment, which was 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.

solange_boatwright_mass_appeal_ch_2Why 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 it.  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.

Talk about your film. How did you first learn about the backyard punk scene in California and how did the documentary evolve?

My friend Ron Martinez who plays in a punk band called Lower Class Brats invited me to come see his band in the Valley in California in 2012. I went to the show and was so blown away by how many young punks were there. I knew L.A. had a thorough punk history, so I started researching to learn what was happening right now and in 2013 I was invited to my first backyard show. At the same time, based on some of my previous doc work, Vans asked me to create a series of short 3-5 min. documentaries and in January 2014 five webisodes titled East Los were released on the East L.A. scene specifically.  The webisodes were so successful that Vans commissioned a full-length doc, which became Los Punks.

What were some of the challenges going from still photography to the documentary filmmaking? Was the funding process a challenge?

These are two big questions!  Vans and television channel Fusion backed Los Punks from the very beginning so funding challenges basically didn’t exist outside of gaining Vans’ confidence through my work on the East Los webisodes, prior. This type of funding scenario is incredibly rare.  As for other challenges, there were a zillion. Honestly until you’ve experienced something first hand you can’t assume anything. That’s one of the biggest lessons I learned. Completing a full-length film was nothing like I thought it would be.  You cannot be a micro manager and direct a documentary in my opinion. You have to compromise, all the time. And if you have a good team the movie will be better because of your compromises.  I’m grateful to have worked with very talented people. I’m grateful to everyone that supported me and especially to all of the punks that allowed me to tell their story.

Additional Contact Sheets

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additional_contacts_boatwright_solangeFollow Angela Boatwright on her website and Instagram

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.

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