Contact High: Photographer Sue Kwon On Shooting A 40-Ounce-Swigging Ol’ Dirty Bastard

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 Sue Kwon to talk about the mystery wrapped in an enigma that was Ol’ Dirty Bastard…

NYC, 1995

odb_40oz_maImage 36A. One of the last on the contact sheet. Unfiltered and unapologetic, this image of Wu-Tang Clan rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard holding a 40 oz., high on life, cracking himself up among friends and fellow Wu-Tang members essentially captures the raw energy that was the early days of New York hip hop. The photo was taken by Sue Kwon, by now a legendary lens-woman who has earned her rightful place in a male-dominated industry, by documenting the highs and lows of NYC culture for several decades.

On the day this photo was taken, Kwon recalls awaiting word from her friend and video director Diane Martell who was at the helm of ODB’s “Brooklyn Zoo” video set. She thought it would be cool to snap a few photos on set, finishing out the roll of film that also featured some earlier laundromat images. Laundromat to ODB — a typical New York City visual stream of consciousness.

“I wouldn’t necessarily go blowing through rolls and rolls of film, recalls New York City based Kwon. “It would take days maybe weeks to shoot a roll (unless it was for a specific job of course). So that was the roll I had probably started in December 1994 and then grabbed that camera to go to that video shoot. I kept shooting because of course Method Man and ODB were always so great to work with and then I was lucky enough to have room on that roll for the last image 36A.”

In the early days of hip hop, Sue Kwon just seemed part of the ether, evolving her career in the 90’s at The Village Voice and other notable music magazines. Her 2009 book Street Level features photos of hip-hop’s biggest names, including the likes of Wu-Tang Clan and the Notorious B.I.G. Besides music photography, she also captured poignant images of New York City in the ’90s, documenting everything from shoeshiners to strippers.

ODB’s legacy meanwhile was cut short when the rapper died in 2004 of a drug-induced heart attack. For several years now, rumors have been circulating of an ODB biopic. RZA, his cousin and Wu-Tang group mate, recently told Rolling Stone. “If you cut it down, it’s just wood. But if it continues to grow, it produces fruit, and then it grows even more and that fruit will fall off the tree and produce more trees. But somebody like ODB, Pac or Biggie were strong trees that were cut down early, so we didn’t get a chance to see the full blossom of what they would’ve done.”

The Shoot

odb-contact-sheet_crop_2Sue Kwon: This was shot on the set of the “Brooklyn Zoo” video set, in Chinatown on Mott Street. I recall waiting for the director, Diane Martel, to call me (no cellphones yet!) to let me know where they were shooting. I got the call around 9pm and ran down there. This wasn’t shot for anything in particular, just to document the moment. I just had to be ready to shoot him quickly because, in my experience, he would give you 200% and then suddenly, he could just decide to stop and leave, never angrily, but I think that when he had enough, he just did what he felt like at that moment

The Shot

odb_40oz_maI loved that Method Man was in several of them as he is and remains one of my favorites. But as soon as I saw “36A” I knew it was the one. I loved that unguarded moment and his expression. He had been “posing” and maneuvering as he often did and then right after doing what he did in shot 36, he cracked himself up. I don’t feel that I could ever direct ODB, he was always talking or moving or laughing. I was just lucky enough to be in the same space as him and get to point a camera at him.

The Camera Nerd Out

Leica M6 with 35mm lens, Kodak TMZ film.

The Q+A

odb-contact-sheet_crop_4Looking at the contact sheet is really interesting as you have these classic ODB and Wu-Tang shots but then the rest of the sheet is you in a laundromat?
Ha, yes! These were shot while I was doing laundry, that was my laundromat at 194 Mott Street. I don’t know if it’s still there. Maybe it has now become a delicate cafe specializing in macaroons (laughs)? I have a lot of images shot of the neighborhood while I was doing laundry. I liked the woman and the child and I  also think its funny how it’s the laundromat and then there you have it, Mr Wonderful, ODB.

Tell us about your career at the time this photo was taken? What artists/photogs/culture inspired you early on?
I was shooting for The Source, Rap Pages, Ego Trip and a variety of other non hip hop related magazines.

odb-contact-sheet_crop_1What inspired you to become a photographer?
My dad really inspired me. He always had either a super 8mm, 35mm or Kodak instamatic. He was the first person I saw documenting life. He was also very kind to let me borrow his Nikon which I dropped it broke. Later, a chance entrance into a show in Paris for a Sebastian Salgado exhibit further cemented my joy in documenting the world.

As a woman what was it like to work in a male-dominated field like hip hop?
Again, perhaps because of the support I had from my father, I didn’t go into a situation thinking about being the only female at a shoot or concert etc. I was just interested in getting close to the subject and documenting the moment. Perhaps it was ignorance or denial, but I didn’t really feel or think that I was in a male-dominated industry until later on. But by then it didn’t really matter to me because I just continued to do what I started out doing. From the start, I felt comfortable navigating those waters and I think all those who were documenting at that time were very respectful of each other.

What do you shoot on now? Do you still make contact sheets? what percentage do you think you shoot film vs. digital?
I must admit with somewhat of a heavy heart that I probably shoot 90% digital. I currently use a Canon 5D and Sony A7 for digital images. Rolleiflex 2.8 , leica M6, Contax for film.

What do you miss about early analog photography and the contact sheet/dark room process?
I certainly miss the quality. For me, images printed from negatives and onto silver gelatin paper have a superiority to “archival digital prints,” especially black and white printing.

Follow Sue Kwon on Instagram: @suekwon_

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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