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Contact High: Photographer Lisa Leone On What It Was Like To Be On Set for Snoop’s First Video 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 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.”

For our latest installment, photographer Lisa Leone is going back to Cali for a photo shoot on the set of Snoop Dogg’s first video.

Los Angeles, 1993

lisa_leone_snoop_braidsBronx‐born photographer and filmmaker Lisa Leone is a New Yorker in the truest sense of the word. A no nonsense straight shooter (both personally and photographically) who not only photographed hip hop in its golden age (peep her monograph, Here I Am) but also made a mark on the film world with Just for Kicks, a documentary about hip hop’s infatuation with sneakers and her work on Stanley Kubrick’s last film Eyes Wide Shut.

So when Fab 5 Freddy called Leone to come shoot on the set of Snoop Dogg’s first video in Los Angeles, Leone was slightly apprehensive. She had never even been to LA and, being a subway-loving strap-hanger New Yorker, also didn’t drive everyday. LA’s car culture and vast layout was daunting. “Fab and I were good friends so he called me and he was like yo come to Long Beach. I’m gonna shoot Snoop’s first video,” recalls Leone.

lleone_snoop_contact_dogThe video for “Who Am I? (What’s My Name?)” was for Snoop’s first single from his debut album, Doggystyle on Death Row Records and produced by Dr. Dre. Snoop was one of the most anticipated hip hop artists of the time. So she boarded a plane to LA only to find her visual data points were thrown off upon landing. Guys with curlers in their hair and tattoos on their neck? Check. Teardrop tattoos on the face? Check. Slippers with socks? Double check.

Leone may not have had an intimate understanding of LA street culture but she had, by then, learned to trust her instincts. She also felt comfortable being there with with longtime friend and collaborator Fab 5 Freddy, the hip hop impresario responsible for Yo! MTV Jams and an integral part of the hip hop narrative. It’s not that she had preconceptions. It’s just that she, a tough, survivalist New York girl, thought you couldn’t get any more real than New York. “ I’m from the Bronx,” says Leone, “So I was always like ‘why are they complaining’ in LA, they have backyards and shit. But then I got out there and was like ‘holy shit, these guys are serious.’”
Very serious….

The Shoot

lisa_leone_snoop_dreLisa Leone: So I get out to LA and meet Fab on the set and I’ll be honest, this was my first time encountering real LA gangs and I was scared. Nowadays, it’s so common to see gang imagery and that whole LA thing but back then, well, I was scared. I felt like anything could jump off.
Throughout the video Snoop can be seen standing on the roof of V.I.P. Records, a record store and studio in Long Beach where Snoop recorded some of his first materials. We shot there on the roof and then went to a nearby park for the second shoot. As we were setting up the equipment, I suddenly hear cop sirens and helicopters above and then people start running. So my instinct is to get out my camera and start taking pictures (laughs). Fab was like “you’re gonna get us both shot! stop taking photos and run!”

I never found out what the drama was all about. Just gang stuff I guess. After all that, I didn’t even meet Snoop that first day. But a few weeks later, he came to the studio and when we finally met, he just looked at me and said “You were the one driving Fab the other day in the park. I remember. Yeah you cut me and Shug off when we were trying to drive away.”
Snoop had an amazing visual memory of who was in what car and who did what. It was pretty crazy.

The Shot

lisa_leone_snoop_braidsThis contact sheet is from the studio. Even though we were all around LA with Snoop, we realized shooting out in public just wasn’t gonna work. When you look at certain images on the contact she, you could see that Dre and Fab were running everything. You can see them in deep concentration. Snoop was so shy. Dre and Fred were next to each other the whole time. On the contact sheet, you can see Dre over by the steady cam. You can also see the dog that Snoop transforms into in the video. I think it was a Doberman Pinschers. The dog was chill. But that main shot of Snoop laying back with the braids, that’s the one.

The Camera Nerd Out

lleone_snoop_contact_car“I would always have two cameras with me, one with b/w film (Leica M4-P) and one with color film (Leica M6).”

The Q+A

lisa_leone_snoop_corn_rowsAs a New York photographer going out to LA for the first time, what were your observations?

I was scared (laughs). Some of those guys looked like they looked they could kill you for no reason. At least in NYC, there’s a reason someone could kill you. I was also like “Damn, the car culture is so serious in LA.”

Talk about your relationship with Fab Five Freddy and why he thought you would be the right photographer for this?

Fab and I had been friends for a while and he knew my work and knew I had that confidence and eye around hip hop artists.

lleone_snoop_contact_bedNowadays in the age of social media and broader reach of imagery, everyone is up on different street style and geographical differences. But during the time of this shoot, that wasn’t quite the case.

Nowadays everyone sees everything. Back then, you could actually see stuff for the first time in person. That LA imagery I just hadn’t encountered it until this trip. Being face to face with guys with curlers in their hair and tattoos on their neck..teardrops on the face…socks and slippers, all that.

Follow Lisa Leone on her website and Twitter.

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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