Contact High: Photographer Gerald Jenkins On Shooting Gil Scott-Heron In A Land Down Under
"When I walked into the room he said I must be from the CIA as I was following him around which got a laugh from the many people in the room."
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 spoke with photographer Gerald Jenkins to get the backstory on his portrait of Gil Scott-Heron (RIP) in Australia.
Sydney (Australia), 1995
Gil Scott-Heron had been a personal hero of photographer Gerald Jenkins for years before this portrait was taken. The year was 1995 and Scott-Heron was touring his Spirits album across Europe. Having struggled for years with drug addiction and the heaviness that musical genius often brings with it, Scott-Heron was on the road with a new album for the first time in over a decade. Going in lyrically about societal ills and and the turbulence of the times. Political consciousness and raw beauty infused into every bar. Simultaneously ahead of his time and right on time.
Music had always played a big part in Gerald Jenkins’ life, informing is photography practice and inspiring his interest in outsider cultures and Afrofuturism. In his younger days, he was a club DJ playing alternative music. He had met Scott-Heron once before. When presented with the opportunity to photograph the Scott-Heron, Jenkins knew he wanted a performance shot. Jenkins felt this was where Scott-Heron was his most pure self. The contact sheet images — tightly framed and tender– are very similar yet capture the small nuances and gestures of Scott-Heron’s wise and weathered face.
“I was meeting a true hero of mine,” recalls Jenkins. “Of course he was embroiled in his battle with personal demons and the people around the tour were muttering plenty about him showing up late and this type of thing but I knew there was wisdom for me to learn.”
Gilbert “Gil” Scott-Heron was that rare combination of political voice, musical mastery, lyrical skill and an activist spirit. A self-described “bluesologist”, his music and jazz-poetry style, most notably on Pieces of a Man and Winter in America in the early 1970s, influenced a generation of hip-hop artists and informed other forms of black music. Meanwhile, photographer Jamel Shabazz dedicated his book Pieces of a Man to Scott-Heron. Well-known composition “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” has gone beyond a song title to become an everyday expression to describe everyday social discontent.
Scott-Heron died in 2011, having been HIV-positive for several years. In response, the hip-hop community, having sampled Scott-Heron’s music on countless tracks, payed homage: Public Enemy’s Chuck D stated “RIP GSH…and we do what we do and how we do because of you” on his Twitter account; Eminem stated “He influenced all of hip-hop.”; Kanye West performed at his memorial service.
Gerald Jenkins: I had met Gil the week previous at a WOMAD event in Adelaide Australia by pure chance. That was his first ever performance in Australia. I was constantly telling him how much his work meant to me and he was cracking jokes. It was so long ago now. He seemed genuinely happy to meet me and I knew I had been blessed meeting him. Afterwards there was a press conference and all the journalists clearly had no knowledge of history. He kept looking at me so I took his prompt and asked some questions about Creole poetry tradition and how Rap was descending into bitches and telling people to fuck off (the Zombification). After the interview he and I talked for awhile.I remember he was reading a book ‘Western Mysteries’ by Isaac Asminov. This specified shoot was backstage at his next gig which was in the town I was living in– Sydney. When I walked into the room he said I must be from the CIA as I was following him around which got a laugh from the many people in the room. The motivation behind the picture was to get close-up and be a pure as possible – to see if his essence was available. I was lucky to have this second opportunity so soon after the first one and I knew him a little.
The picture was very much a meditation. I took no other pictures apart from these that night. I can’t remember how quickly I developed the film but I do remember thinking that the sum of parts portrayed the man better than one picture exclusively. There are several on the roll that capture his joy and there’s contemplation on his face in others. Hopefully just like the entire contact sheet being his portrait this actual session is an aspect that empowers a much larger body of work with clarity. Gil has always been a star to me. A star being a guide in the darkness. Performers have a certain glow when they have to do their thing and that’s what interested me. You only really have a sound bite type of conversation in those circumstances so make sure what you say contains the right triggers. We got on.There was integrity in the exchange, something I value above all other things when I ‘take’ someone’s picture.
The Camera Nerd Out
The camera was a medium format Pentax 645 with a 120mm lens and Tri-X film using available light (those light bulbs around the mirror backstage). The camera set-up was a polar opposite of the Polaroid set up I had photographed him with the week previous.
Tell us about your interest in Afrofuturism and what are some of the aspects of the movement that you find important to document?
My music taste initially led me directly to Afrofuturism and the bulk of my collection is so. In terms of documenting the movement I have a very clear idea of what I am trying to portray. It begins with an association with Australian Aboriginal cultures I began in 1993. It was the year of the Indigenous person and I wrote to the Special Broadcasting Service in Australia. I was given a commission to work on a documentary with the late Aboriginal director Michael Riley which was based on how farming was destroying the natural environment. It lead me to understand tribal relationships with the metaphysical and of course understanding of universal wisdom. These relationships were many thousands of years old. They call back to the dawn of time. Truth not science fiction. Ancient tradition is knowledge that Western culture needs to be aware of. We need to take the blindfold off. So when I think of Afrofuturism it is a metaphysical relationship with earth culture in contemporary society practiced.
Tell us about your work as a photographer? What artists/photogs/culture inspired you early on?
When I was 19 I went to film school and contemplated a career in cinema. My standout inspiration who still gives substance to my philosophy is Luis Bunuel. Again I was very lucky to have lived in Spain for a few years. The year 2000 was the centenary of his birth. So there were many events. I went to Calanda at Easter where he was born and documented the Easter ceremony. Calanda being the only village that play drums for twenty four hours straight (signifying thunder as Christ died on the cross). In approx 13 of Bunuel’s films this drumming can be heard-it is played when the main character abandons hope. If you have seen Nazarin the end scene is precisely this. I also met his sons and took their portraits. As far as photographers I was impressed by Irving Penn-especially the book ‘World’s in a Small Room’ and Avedon’s book on the West. These two had appeal as there was. no genre they could not master. I am diverse as I use my camera to learn. It is a key for better understanding.
What do you shoot on now? Do you still make contact sheets? what percentage do you think you shoot film vs. digital?
I’ve still got all the same cameras..they never broke or got lost so I never felt the need to change. I’ve never been into the scientific aspect of photography. Most important is the feel and the work’s integrity. Yes I still make contact sheets and I’ve never used a digital picture for anything other than domestic output.
What do you miss about early analogue photography and the contact sheet/dark room process?
The worst thing that happened was Polaroid film being discontinued. Especially 5×4 stocks Type 59 & Type 55. Just when scanning technology was becoming affordable they pull the products. All those beautiful colour shifts gone. I am extremely thankful I used to print my own Black & White and photoshop technique is directly related to darkroom sensibility. I think I can tell when I look at a picture if the person doing post production is classically trained or not. Scanning negatives and doing post production in photoshop bears the same results and you don’t have to stand in a room full of chemicals so there’s not much to miss. As a side note I was told all the lab technicians who used to print the paper’s ‘Cibachrome’ are dead.
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.