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Contact High: Photographer Kevin Davies On Shooting Public Enemy #1

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 Kevin Davies to find out about one of Public Enemy’s first photo shoots…


New York, 1987

public-enemy-sh1-33-nme_finalThe year was 1987 and a nascent hip hop group was about to release their debut album — politically charged, socially conscious and beautifully in your face — that would change the course of hip hop – and the world. Yo! Bum Rush the Show was Public Enemy’s first step toward critical acclaim and significance. Consisting of Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Professor Griff, Khari Wynn, DJ Lord, and the S1W’s, the group is by now the prime example of music’s ability to speak truth to power and the power of one voice to harness the frustration of millions. As the group would later expound, it takes a nation. But on this day it was all still brand new.

London-born photographer Kevin Davies was working for music publications such as NME, The Face, i-D and Arena and was sent to the states to photograph Public Enemy ahead of their first tour in England. Having already photographed a number of celebrity portrait commissions ranging from U2 to the Royal family, Davies had yet to understand hip hop’s impact on the music world. He recalls meeting Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Flava Flav at the Def Jam offices where the two had ambitious plans on getting an epic shot, a moody image taken on an overcast day at the Williamsburg Bridge that spoke to the greatness that would become Public Enemy.

The Shoot

public-enemy-sh1-14-nme_finalKevin Davies: This was a commission for NME Magazine. I shot two Def Jam groups in one day; LL Cool J was the other. Our team took a helicopter from the airport and this was a very specific moment for Public Enemy. They were just about to do their first show in England and the English press was excited, but also didn’t know much about the group. I didn’t know much about PE before I shot them. I was into punk rock since the late 70’s and then got into rockabilly. Hip hop wasn’t my genre. I was based in London and hip hop wasn’t quite entrenched there at the time. But when I met Chuck D and Flava Flav I could sense something important about them. We first met at the Def Jam offices and talked about where to shoot. Chuck D says “There’s this really cool bridge, all rusty and that will be a good place to shoot.” I didn’t know New York that well so I said sure thing. We went outside and there was a white van waiting to drive us to the location. I remember Flavor Flav saying “you ride shot gun” and he crouched in the back of the van. He was really kind and humble and accommodating.

The Shot

public-enemy-sh2-18-nme_finalWhen we got to the bridge, Chuck D was getting worried about Flav because Flav was kind of hanging off the bridge in a slightly dangerous way. He was having fun with it, but Chuck was slightly uneasy. They had a nice camaraderie between them.

Back then I would make contact sheets, pick a shot or two and then I wouldn’t look at them for a few days. Then I would look at them again and usually the shot would be clear. For this particular shot, the angle of their heads was so perfect and the framing looked right. And it felt right.

The Camera Nerd Out

Mamiya RB67 and Nikon FM2

The Q+A

public-enemy-sh-ch-mass_appealWhat inspired you to become a photographer?

I’ve always taken picture from a young age. I got into Robert Mapplethorpe and Richard Avedon and Irving Penn for their mastery of portraiture.

What makes a good portrait?

Philippe Halsman said that “a true portrait should, today and a hundred years from today, be the Testimony of how this person looked and what kind of human being he was.” For me I try to achieve a natural likeness, hopefully some truth and some spirit of that person at that time, on that day. Oh, and a visually entertaining image.

Do you still shoot analog?

Yes, but mainly for myself. I was very late coming to digital. I couldn’t find digital cameras that I liked that rivaled Leica and Hasselblad.  Anything work related I shoot digital.

Tell us a about your 2013 Phaidon book Philip Treacy by Kevin Davies and your including Grace Jones.

I was commissioned to photograph Philip Treacy for Vogue years ago.  That was the start of a really lovely friendship and collaboration between us. A while later, Philip rang me up and said he wanted me shoot Grace Jones.

Additional Contact Sheet

public-enemy-sh-1Follow Kevin Davies on 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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