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Contact High: Jesse Frohman on Shooting Ice-T and Ice Cube Together

In the 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 look directly through the photographer’s lens. Photographers typically don’t show their contact sheets. They’re a visual diary. 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 Jesse Frohman to take us through his shoot with Ice Cube and Ice-T.

Memphis, 1992

Sometimes, a great portrait takes a little coaxing. Especially when you are dealing with two hip hop greats at the peak of their careers. In 1992, photographer Jesse Frohman traveled to Memphis to photograph Ice Cube on assignment for SPIN magazine. Cube was in Memphis shooting the film Trespass, an action thriller that also featured Ice-T. It was Cube’s second movie role, coming on the heels of his breakout role as Doughboy in Boyz N the Hood and he was hyper focused on set. For Frohman, getting his shot would be a challenge.

Frohman is best known for his iconic images of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, but his hip-hop résumé runs deep. Having photographed everyone from Public Enemy to A Tribe Called Quest, his portrait aesthetics are clean and powerful. Much like his mentor Irving Penn, who hired Frohman to manage his studio back in the 1980s, Frohman’s techniques and aesthetics convey strength and dignified energy as evidenced in these portraits. Ice-T would later use one of Frohman’s images for the back of his Home Invasion album, arms outstretched and shirt off, in a testament to great hip hop portraiture.

The Shoot

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“We rented a studio in downtown Memphis. I had photographed Ice Cube before for either Rolling Stone or Vibe and then this shoot came up. He couldn’t get away from the set so SPIN flew me down. But even when I got there it was really difficult trying to get Cube to come to the studio for the shoot. So I went to the film set and bumped into Ice-T. I figured I could possibly get Cube to shoot with me if Ice-T was part of it. So I told Ice-T to come along to the studio. I had to coax Ice Cube to the set otherwise I would just be sitting around for days waiting. I didn’t know their relationship but I thought it was an interesting combination to photograph them together.”

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The Shot

“They have an intensity that comes along really well on camera. There wasn’t a lot of posturing and posing, which is something I was growing tired of in shooing hip hop. These pictures are pure and honest. A really strong portrait. It’s strong and it has a weight to it.”

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The Camera Nerd Out

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The Q&A

What are your favorite type of subjects to shoot and why?

I don’t think of my hip hop photos as separate from the rest of my work. There’s always a degree of collaboration with shooting musicians. I need to get to know the artist a bit. But you also can’t get to know them too well. Family members are really hard to photograph because you know them so well. When you meet someone for the first time, you do get a sense of who that person is. Ice Cube I had to engage a lot more; I had to talk with him a lot more. It’s hard to get strong portraits. Some people don’t have a strong presence or strong features. Ice Cube had both. Just like his songs.

In your opinion, what role does photography play in hip hop’s legacy?

It was a document of the time. Access was different and photography was still very immediate. I would just call up so many rappers and say come on over to the studio. That’s how Chuck D and Flav came over. Now it’s so publicist driven. It was the last time I experienced that kind of access and casualness with photographing artists. Imagery is so controlled now, and artists limit backstage access and which photographers. If you ask the great ’60s music photographers if they would be a photographer nowadays, almost all of them would say no. They can’t imagine having to fight with publicists on how and where to shoot. That era of hip hop photography was sort of the last era of freedom for us photographers.

Follow Jesse Frohman on his website

The Contact High Project, conceived by Vikki Tobak and published on MASS APPEAK, will be published as a book by Clarkson Potter/Penguin Random House (Fall 2018). Check out the Contact High website, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for more info.

Join us September 13 to 24 as Contact High hosts an exhibition and panel discussion (on September 16) about hip hop photography as part of Photoville in Brooklyn.

 

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