Contact High: Photographer Ray Lego On Shooting Recent ‘College Dropout’ Kanye West
"I started calling him Mike. 'Hey Mike.' It was on his jacket. And that really got him going. He was getting pissed."
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 Kanye West’s early photo shoots and the evolution of Kanye’s visual vocabulary …
New York, 2005
Visualizing Kanye. As Kanye West the artist has evolved over the years, so too has his visual identity. Kanye has increasingly placed value on his visual identity — experimenting with unconventional styles and referencing/ collaborating with artists including Takashi Murakami, George Condo, Peter De Potter, Vincent Desideri and photographer Jim Goldberg.
But 2005 was still early in the game for Kanye’s visual aesthetics when photographer Ray Lego was hired by Blender magazine to capture the moment. Kanye had released his debut album The College Dropout a few months earlier and had yet to become obsessed with his visual narrative within hip-hop. Lego, a devout analog shooter who had worked with big commercial clients including Nike and The Gap, was ready to have a little fun with it.
“I started calling him Mike. ‘Hey Mike,'” recalls Lego. “It was on his jacket. And that really got him going. He was getting pissed.”
Then things got meta. “ I was running out of set ups so I asked him what he had in his knapsack and he dumped it out on the ground,” explains Lego. “He had tons of photos of himself when he was young and I picked a few and shot him holding them. The image of him with the “mini afro” was my fav and is still on of my favorite images.”
Ray Lego: Kathy Kemp, the editor at Blender called me and asked me if i wanted to shoot Kayne West for a feature and ” said ‘Who????’
It was right after his “Through the Wire” single and the College Dropout album and his car accident leaving him to sing through wired jaw (some people say that this never happened). I did my research as always, and there wasn’t tons of info out there, but he was HOT and about to explode.
Blender loved when I do “quirky” imagery and I had the perfect location that was so NOT hip-hop/rap: The Explores Club on East 70th in New York. The Explorers Club is a professional society with the goal of promoting scientific exploration and field study and has served as a meeting point for explorers and scientists worldwide. Blender loved the location as well, but it came with a steep price—it was around $1500 per hour and i would need at least 1 hour to load-in, 1 hour to set-up, 2 hours to shoot (if i was lucky) 1 hour to get out. The whole shoot was about 1 1/2 hours. The space had all this taxidermy and quirkiness. I found a room that I liked and my assistants started to set up the lights. At the time “taxidermy” was a recurring theme in my work. The room I chose had tons of that plus a red leather couch and some epic paintings of club explorers. In 28 years, I never have used a light meter. Ambient light is easy to figure out and strobes I can tell by the “Sound of the Pop” what to set the camera at. A few minor tweaks with the light and we’re ready to go.
Kayne walks in with a Varsity football jacket on that has the name “Mike” on it and a knapsack that is super filled large. He was suppose to come camera ready and he never got the memo. He thought there was going to be a stylist and we thought he wanted to style it himself. Anyway, I liked what he had on and it would of looked “wack” if he came in with “safari” gear! The first set up was on the red couch and I had him pretended to be sleeping to start the shoot off. He talked very strange because of his jaw was healing. Even though it was very early in his solo career, he had tons of attitude and not in a good way. I could have stopped after the first roll (Porta 120 NC)
because I was already loving it. The colors were insane. Red and Browns my light was spot on etc. Knowing that I got what I needed, I to started to “EXPLORE” and shoot him
in other locations using just one Large Softbox/Profoto 2400ws.
I let him do his own thing as far as poses, putting him in various vignettes. Looking at the contact sheets there were so many great shots it was hard to pick.
The Camera Nerd Out
I shot with 4 Profoto Pro 7 2400 WS packs with Large Chimera Banks up from and Small Banks in the back. V-Flats white on both sides and Black
flags to cut the light on front light and camera.
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. These days I shoot with anything and everything. I try not to let “gear” get in the way, from $50K Phase One to a $300 iPhone to a $25 Polaroid. Seeing is believing.
I shoot I stop, then I shoot again!
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.