Contact High: Photographer Ricky Flores On Shooting Early B-Boys and B-Girls
"At the time, hip hop wasn’t officially called hip hop. It was people just making up stuff on the fly."
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 Ricky Flores to talk about the image that speaks to the unbreakable bond of hip hop and b-boy (and b-girl!) culture…
New York, 1983
When photographer Ricky Flores captured this black and white shot of a young b-girl named Myrna, he only partially understood the important role it would play in documenting the rise of hip hop and b-boy culture. “You don’t often see a girl doing groundwork, “ recalls Flores, “I realized over time how significant that image was. First of all, it was the beginning of a new culture being born. In some ways, it was a male dominated culture and now of course we also see a commercial manifestation of this culture. But at the time, it was just organic documentation.”
The photo was taken in the South Bronx a few years following the systemic destruction of that borough by arsonists that was famously narrated by sportscaster Howard Cosell. Born to Puerto Rican parents, Flores started creating a vast archive of photojournalism with an insider’s view of the highs and lows– from drug use and devastating fires to dancing in the park. Even as a teen, Flores was increasingly annoyed by the stereotyped portrayals of his Bronx community and pursued a decidedly realistic and nuanced document of the everyday lives to counterbalance the narrative.
In 1980, Flores used a small $600 inheritance from his father to buy a camera. As he describes it, he ran down to B&H, picked up a Pentax K-1000 with a 50 millimeter lens and started taking pictures as a high school senior. After attending college in Puerto Rico for a year he met Mel Rosenthal, a photographer and chronicler of the South Bronx, teaching at the SUNY Empire State College, who would have a major influence on Flores’s commitment to community photography. Today, Flores continues to photograph the streets of his youth as a staff photographer The Journal News in Rockland County.
Ricky Flores: The contact spans two different shoots. One shoot in Manhattan, in El Barrio, of muralist Maria Dominguez white washing a wall in prep for a project and a park jam at 52 Park in the South Bronx. 52 Park was one of those locations in the South Bronx which was the nexus of musical culture for the Puerto Rican community as well as a place the nurtured the beginnings of hip hop culture. The other half of the roll I shot in the park of a pair dancing along with all that was going on in the park. I was actively documenting my surrounding community. I had recognized that was happening was of historical significance. At the time, hip hop wasn’t officially called hip hop. It was people just making up stuff on the fly. B-Girl and B-Boy dancing was relatively a new thing and most was improvised on the spot. History happens to you whether you like it or not. The trick is figuring what the historical significance of what is unfolding in front of you.
Myrna is the girl’s name and she would hang out and loved being photographed. We were hanging out a lot during that time – going to park jams and just having fun. Photography is a funny thing. There are many images that you don’t see as significant at the time but as you move on through life you see the true significance of the image in context of history. In the case of this photo, the impact of Puerto Rican contributions to dance in the hip hop culture is celebrated. Add to that the role that women played in its development is even more buried in our history. This photo breaks that all down. This shot was also the poster for a show at the Bronx Documentary Center and Myrna came and just talked to everyone and was super excited.
The Camera Nerd Out
I can’t remember exactly, but it was either a Pentax K1000 or a Nikon FM.
These photos of b-boys and b-girls are just part of your larger image archive of the Bronx. How did you know it was important to capture these images at the time you were shooting?
I came to realize over time that these photos were documents of history and very important. The media was portraying us as burning down our community and that was just not true. Yes there were burning buildings, but that was our neighborhood and our culture happening all around. And that’s why I started asking why is this happening and when you peel down the layers turns out the building owners cashing in on insurance and profiting from our neighborhood. Showing everyday life in the community was the real truth.
Let’s talk about the importance of being an insider in taking the kind of documentary photos you are known for.
There are lots of photographers who are amazing shooters and can show a lot of empathy for the subjects they shoot. These days you can also run an image through photo shop and make it into the story and feeling you want. But look, I grew up in the Bronx and I saw everything first hand. And I documented everything that might have been a challenge for an outsider.
You were very influenced by meeting professor Mel Rosenthal at Empire State College after studying photography first at the School of Visual Arts. Why was that so important in your career?
Mel Rosenthal was a very committed documentarian did an amazing job documenting the community in the South Bronx. He influenced so many photographers by telling them to be storytellers and to connect. That was revolutionary for me. I met Mel at a particularly tough time for me at SVA. He began to challenge me to really look at what was happening in my community.
Let’s talk about your involvement with the Bronx Documentary Center. The Bronx is seeing it’s own wave of gentrification. What is the role of photography and storytelling right now?
We are grooming the next generation of storytellers and that’s really important. I mean look at the Bronx Documentary Center and teaching the next generation the implications of shooting in the community. The discussion around gentrification is important and ongoing as are so many other conversations that these young storytellers are responsible for.
Follow Ricky Flores 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.