Contact High: Photographer Ray Lego Literally Takes Us To Church With This O.D.B. Shoot
"The priest was older but still knew ODB and was a fan. 'No swearing!' was what he kept saying." —Ray Lego
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 Ray Lego the photographer behind one of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s first photo shoots following his release from prison…
The Bronx, 2003
Just a few months out of prison, Russell Tyrone Jones better known as Ol’ Dirty Bastard (or ODB) came to a church in the Bronx for a photo shoot to promote his signing to Roc-A-Fella Records. He had signed the deal the day he came out of prison, having served several years after pleading guilty to cocaine possession. Now, on court-ordered probation, ODB was living at his mother’s house in Park Slope Brooklyn rebuilding his career and making up for time away. The photographer Ray Lego was hired by Blender magazine to capture a telling portrait of the Wu-Tang rapper. Lego, a devout analog shooter who had worked with big commercial clients including Nike and The Gap, was also a major fan of ODB as was the priest at church where they shot.
“The priest was older but still knew ODB and was a fan. ‘No swearing!’ was what he kept saying,” recalls Lego. “I walked him back to the stylist area and he nixed all the clothing ideas except the one red hat.The outfit is his in the image.” Ladies and gentleman, presenting ODB– red fedora, white track suit, Roc-A-Fella gold chain and all.
Ray Lego: ODB was straight out of prison and everyone said he was on meds to help with mental problems. But that i think was people just talking. I was and still am a huge fan of Wu-Tang Clan and had shot a bunch of them already. So, I was excited to add ODB to the list. I picked the church because I thought it was the most absurd location for him and the only real direction I had was to make a great image with ODB, who was then going by a few names: BZA, Ason Unique, Osiris, The Specialist, Dirt McGirt, Big Baby Jesus, Young Dirty, Ol’ Dirty Blocks, Dirt Dog, RJ Tha Mad Specialist, Joe Bananas, Tha Ol’ Dirty Chinese Restaurant. I was shooting upstate with my two assistants (all of us HUGE fans) and we were stoked to make this happen. Once I arrived at the church, I had go through my checklist and start setting up shots on paper and in my head. Kath Kemp was there from Blender and April Johnson was the stylist. It took me a hour to set up a very simple three light (profoto) set up. He walks into the church and I don’t know if it was the subway rumbling underneath or what, but it did feel like the whole place shook. We bumped fists and chatted about a few things like my old Chevy Impala parked outside.
I shot for for 7 minutes and it was in the can. One of the Profoto strobes exploded and it sounded like a gunshot and I could see that everyone for a split second was freaked!
Ok, so my first setup up is ready to go with one assistant loading film the other on lights. ODB walks out and has the red hat on and a white tracksuit. I hated the hat on him, but did not say anything. I wish i did. Even today, I still don’t like and tend to use the images without the hat. We put him in the altar chair, up on the pulpit, everywhere that felt uncomfortable. He was very slow in his movements and did seem sedated. The flashes freaked him out and I was worried that he might have a seizure or something. I shot really slowly. There were tons of local onlookers and people thought it was very disrespectful that we were all over the front end. I picked the image because at the time I loved everything deadpan and graphic. It wasn’t hard because every frame was very close and tightly cropped. I made sure not to direct too much and let him become part of the environment. Since he was in a chair most of the time it was all about his facial expressions, but overall there was not too much happening. I think the meds he was on made him flat and motionless.
The Camera Nerd Out
I used a Hasselblad 500c/m with a 50mm, 100mm and 40mm lens. I used to strip all the Black coating on my cameras and they looked insane! I still use one of those cameras. I also used the Contax T3 3mm and 690 Polaroid. Kodak 160NC 120mm+35mm was the only film I shot on this project.
Talk about looking at the contact sheet for this shoot.
When I got the contacts back from the LAB (ColorEdge/RAY Higgs), I hung everything up on a huge light box I made (10ftx7ft) and I would edit each shot by shot and cut out the frame and tape to 8×10 page. Those pages would be the first thing the editors would see! Most of the time the editors would go with my initial select.
Tell us about your approach to photography.
I was inspired by people who worked from the heart and not their back pocket, people who wanted to do images they could call their own. I always admired the people who were on the cutting edge, doing things that scared me. I was always anti-gear and think you can make great images with whatever you have. I’m not too brand loyal except for Film 120mm cameras—then it has to be the Hasselblad.
Do you still shoot analog?
I do still make contact sheets for my digital work as a backup/ archive. I shoot a lot of film and Polaroid, but it’s mostly for myself and special projects. I always have a film camera on my digital shoots. I think film will last forever. It’s easier for me to find a film project I shot 23 years ago than a digital project 4 years ago. I don’t miss the chemicals involved in analog film development, but i do miss everything else. Test polaroids and range in film stock and how u had to be part magician part scientist part entertainer. Clients loyalty back then as well, they know you would get the shot without seeing it on a monitor.
Additional Contact Sheets
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.