Contact High: Photographer Stephen Shames Talks “Panthers on Parade”
One of the most powerful and enduring images of the Black Panther party
In this 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. A rare glimpse into 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 – their 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 Stephen Shames the photographer behind one of the most powerful and enduring images of the Black Panther party…
Oakland, California 1968
Some photographs, in capturing a moment, come to embody a movement. For the Black Panther party, photographer Stephen Shames’ “Panthers on Parade” would become that image.
On July 28, 1968, Shames documented the Panthers at a Free Huey rally in DeFremery Park, in west Oakland. On this never before seen contact sheet, you see a movement at work. There’s Bobby Seale orating to the crowd, kids listening intently (teach the babies!) and of course that shot. Lined up and focused, these were the rank and file Panthers. The men in this picture (and the women who aren’t in this picture)” were the street soldiers carrying out the work envisioned by the party leadership. The power of the photo lies partly in its anonymity. Quiet power communicated through imagery. The Panthers were quite media-savvy after all.
“The Panthers were very conscious of their media image. They understood that this is America and image is everything,” recalls Shames.
Stephen Shames was still in college at the University of California, Berkeley when he took this shot and had only been a working photographer for one year. “I don’t even think I had a press pass. I was just documenting them because I respected them. There was alot going on. There was the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the voting rights act passing. People were reexamining racism and it was a real time of turmoil.”
Mr. Shames documentation became key to the group’s visual strategy. He met Panther leaders Bobby Seale (whom he considers a mentor and a friend) and Huey Newton in San Francisco during the Spring Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam six months after they founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in October 1966.
This photograph graces the cover of the book by Mr. Shames and Bobby Seale, “Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers” (Abrams), Published last year on the 50th anniversary of the party’s founding.
Brooklyn-based Shames captured both bold and nuanced moments of the Black Power movement. Where the mainstream media seemed to only show the Panthers as gun-toting militants, Mr. Shames’ photographs offered complexity, capturing the community-based activism of men, women and children participating in the Free Breakfast for Children and a host of activism imagery including voter registration drives free medical and legal care and employment training.
In today’s moments of turmoil and introspection (not to mention an elected leader obsessed with his self-image), the movement and the imagery endures. Black Panther ideology would have a major influence on hip-hop culture. From speaking on police brutality and systemic racism to community organizing to informing the voices of Tupac and other conscious rappers, the Panther narratives lived on in hip-hop and beyond. Particularly poignant in a time when everything and nothing seems to have changed.
This is probably my most widely published Panther image. The Panthers were a disciplined group and they understood how to make an impression. In the community, they marched and kept order. They looked sharp. The Panthers understood that a very disciplined image would garner respect. Later on, the community programs would become better known as representative of the Panthers but in the early days these images defined them. Huey was in jail and the Panthers were organizing “Free Huey” rallies. There was a rally that day at DeFremery Park, in west Oakland. and the Panthers were lined up. They were disciplined, looking smart, being charismatic and that became the iconic image of the Panthers.
This image is the iconic early image and one that the media portrayed of the Panthers. And it was also the picture that the Panthers wanted to portray in the early days. Later, they wanted to portray their work in the community like running the free breakfast programs and such. But the government really fought those efforts and the news media continued with the visuals of the militant panthers with guns marching.That’s the thing that’s still in people’s minds. They forget that the Panthers had a 90% positive rating in the black community. The community knew that the Panthers were feeding school kids. I took the photos of the programs and everyday photos too but they rarely made it into the media.
The Camera Nerd Out
The film was Tri-X. Not sure of the camera. My first camera was a Pentax bought in 1966 or 1967. Then sometime in 1968 I purchased a Leica M2 or M3 and a Canon SLR. It was 50 years ago, who can remember?
It so interesting to talk about the Panthers self awareness of their image, their visual strategy and media-savvy. Malcolm X was also very aware of his visual identity and the power of the camera.
Malcolm always understood that visual communication was important. Presidents and CEO’s of companies dress a certain way too. And people respect that.
Talk about looking at the contact sheet for this shoot.
In America we worship superheroes with guns — who are our heroes? It’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, it’s Sylvester Stallone, John Wayne. These are the American heroes. The Panthers fit into this. The problem was that they were black and the second amendment doesn’t seem to apply to black men.
When the hip-hop generation started integrating some of the Panther ideology, were you aware of it?
I don’t know that I completely noticed it at the time but in the 90’s, I did a book on the Panthers and it was still kind of underground. Television certainly didn’t touch it. Last year when I did the book “Power to The People”, it was the 50th anniversary and Black Lives Matter and Ferguson was in the news so it was placed in a larger context.
What is your system for marking up contact sheets? I see that some are marked in yellow, others in red, some in both and some with dots.
The red dots indicate “good negatives”. I have pulled all my good negatives and file them separately in archival boxes by project. I put them in single 35mm strip archival sleeves. The different colors of the grease pencil (yellow, red, blue, or white) do not always mean something. I use whatever grease pencil I had around to mark negatives I selected to print. If there are two different colors, it just means I selected frames to print at a later date. In other words, if the contact sheet had red markings and I was going back and making more prints, I would use a different color. The red dot for good negs did not happen until the 1990s when I started selecting the good negatives. Before that I used the grease pencils to select frames I wanted to print or to remember. So if someone wanted to look at the contact sheets or I was going back through them, I would not have to look at every frame but could go to the best ones, fast. In the 1990s, I started to cull out my best negatives and separate them. I put red dots on the frames I had selected.
What inspired you to pick up a camera?
My mom was a poet and college professor and collected art. I grew up wanting to be an artists. When I was in high school, I admired MLK and SNCC and all the people that went down south to participate in the civil right protests. So when I got to UC Berkeley, I decided that my role was to be an artist for the revolution. One of the reasons I was because people like Bobby Seale gave me great feedback and believed that my photographs conveyed the message of what the Black Panthers were doing. I was able to put into images what people were thinking and picture the revolution and picture the change that needed to come.
Tell us a bit about your process in selecting imagery?
In the old days you would go over the contact sheets and edit that way but now it’s all on the computer. Newspaper people worked off negatives. I don’t have most of my contact sheets. I just kept the ones from the important projects. I threw most of my contact sheets out and maybe that was a mistake but i didn’t want my entire New York apartment filled with contact sheets.
In terms of process, I would do the initial edit off the contact sheets. I used different colored grease pencils. I would do an initial edit in red. If i went back a second time, I would just pick a different color grease pencil so that when I went into the dark room, I knew. The colors of the grease pencils were arbitrary. In the 90’s, I started going through my negatives and pulling the good negatives for my book and exhibition projects. I would take the good strip of negatives and separate them and sometimes i put the sticker “good negs only” on those contact sheets.
Follow Stephen Shames on his website and Instagram. All images courtesy of Stephen Shames/Polaris and Steven Kasher Gallery.
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.