James Brown Contact6 copy

Contact High: Shooting James Brown At Rikers

In the series, Contact High: The Stories Behind Hip Hop’s Most Iconic Photographs, writer Vikki Tobak talks with the photographers who have played a critical role in shaping hip hop imagery. These interviews offer a rare glimpse of the creative process that went into the making of each photo.

Getting access to the original, unedited contact sheets, we see the “big picture” being created and look directly through the shooter’s lens. Photographers typically don’t show their contact sheets. They’re a highly personal visual diary. Negatives on a roll of analog film allow these photographers (and now us) to see the full range of images in order to catch the “money shot.”

This week we catch up with photographer Diana Mara Henry to talk about the time she photographed the legendary James Brown at Rikers Island…

Rikers Island, New York 1973

On the one…

For decades, activists and hip hop celebrities have called for the closure of Rikers Island. In recent years the calls have grown louder. The #CLOSERIKERS campaign was formed in 2016 and more recently Jay Z recently threw his support behind the movement by funding the ‘The Kalief Browder Story‘ documentary, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Browder, a teenager from the Bronx, was wrongfully jailed for three years, and committed suicide after his release.

Copyright © Diana Mara Henry / www.dianamarahenry.com

The roots of the creative community’s focus on criminal justice go back decades. Here’s the story of one such day. In 1973, photographer Diana Mara Henry shot  James Brown in performance at Riker’s Island at the behest of William vanden Heuvel, once Chairman of the New York City Board of Corrections, who led a campaign to investigate conditions in the city’s prison system. Henry was working as a photographer for vanden Heuvel and, realizing the significance of the assignment, shot several rolls on her Canon F-1. Johnny Cash had played a concert a few years prior at Folsom prison and the idea of bringing the Hardest Working Man In Showbiz to do his thing for the inmates was a powerful, and potentially subversive, effort.

James Brown was, of course, singularly funky. The inmates proved to be a powerful audience as well, locked in with this musical legend who had come to offer a moment of magic. Although it’s still unclear exactly how Brown came to perform that day, the visual legacy of the moment lives on. Just as his musical legacy lives on in hip hop. A short break on Brown’s 1970 single, the “Funky Drummer” (RIP drummer Clyde Stubblefield!) has been sampled on more than 1,000 songs and served as the backbeat for countless hip-hop tracks, including Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” with the powerful opening verse “1989, the number, another summer | Sound of the Funky Drummer….

The Shoot

Copyright © Diana Mara Henry / www.dianamarahenry.com

It was one of my most exciting assignments ever. Total adrenaline rush. William vanden Heuvel hired me for the job, at the time he was running for District Attorney of Manhattan and I was photographing for him. In the 1970s, vanden Heuvel, as Chairman of the New York City Board of Corrections, led a campaign to investigate conditions in the city’s prison system. He has had a lifelong involvement in the reform of the criminal justice system. I knew James Brown’s music but I didn’t realize what a rush it would be to be there that day. He was wearing this bare-chested outfit and then he changed into a white suit and was really putting on this production.

The Shot

Copyright © Diana Mara Henry / www.dianamarahenry.com

I like the humility of the gesture in this shot. As an artist, you put everything you can into a performance and at some point you turn it over to your audience. And this shot captures that moment. He’s communing to his audience.

The Camera Nerd Out

Canon F-1

The Q+A

This was such an unusual moment in time to capture these images. What did you know about James Brown before this day?

I was really just doing a job as the photographer for William vanden Heuvel. In the 1970s, vanden Heuvel was Chairman of the New York City Board of Corrections and he led a campaign to investigate conditions in the city’s prison system. This was important to him and he had lifelong commitment to reforming the criminal justice system. This was the same year he challenged Frank Hogan in the Democratic Primary for the position of Manhattan District Attorney.

Copyright © Diana Mara Henry / www.dianamarahenry.com
Copyright © Diana Mara Henry / www.dianamarahenry.com

What do you remember about walking into Rikers? Were you apprehensive or just doing your job?

I don’t remember being nervous or anything. We came in with a big group and it wasn’t a big deal as far as I can remember. Years later, I taught college English at Otisville penitentiary so I remember what it was like going in and out of a facility like that but that day at Rikers I barely remembered going in. I felt the apprehension that anyone would feel going into a prison but being a woman photographer wasn’t an issue.
Follow Diana Mara Henry on her website.

Copyright © Diana Mara Henry / www.dianamarahenry.com
Copyright © Diana Mara Henry / www.dianamarahenry.com

All Images courtesy Copyright © Diana Mara Henry

The Contact High Project, conceived by Vikki Tobak and published on Mass Appeal, will culminate with a book and exhibition. Check out the Contact High website, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter for more info.

Related Posts

News
News

O’Reilly Issues Bullshit Apology For Dissing Maxine Waters AND James Brown

Photography
Photography

Contact High: N.O.R.E

Music
Music

Danny Brown “Pneumonia”

Features
Features

Contact High: Photographer Kevin Davies On Shooting Public Enemy #1

Art
Art

Contact High: The Shoot That Made Nas Illmatic

Ad

Latest News

bape Style

Bape Unveils Collaborations With Champion and Undefeated

A Bathing Ape is never washed
Erykah Badu Music

Erykah Badu to Curate New Fela Kuti Box Set

“Please listen to these tracks, preferably with a nice blunt”
tyler the creator's solar power colorway for his latest collaboration with converse and golf le fleur Style

Tyler, the Creator Reveals His Second Converse x Golf le Fleur Sneaker, The “Uno”

Tyler vs Kendrick vs Gucci
Image of Young Dolph Performing Music

Young Dolph Takes Nothing for Granted on “While U Here”

Two weeks after being shot, Dolph gets introspective
gucci-mane-evan-guest Features

‘Mr. Davis’ in the Year of Gucci Mane

Forget the trap, this is self-improvement rap
Maydien Features

The Music Industry Broke Maydien, Until He Stopped Worrying and Built His Own Break

“I lost myself”
stop-and-frisk News

Why NFL Players Should Move Their Protests to Touchdown Celebrations

How’s that for an audible?
foisey Music

PREMIERE: foisey. “ChocolateRaspberri.” + “Cuff’nSeason.”

A double-dose of this Mutant Academy beat monster
Oddisee and his band Good Compny prep for a live album, Below the Surface. Music

Oddisee Announces His First Live Album with “Hold It Back (Live)”

Feel free to feel good
black panther Film

The Epic New ‘Black Panther’ Trailer is Here

Soundtracked by Vince Staples and Run the Jewels
Preseason Music

PREMIERE: Knuckle Sandwich Deli “Preseason (The Warm Up)”

If this is just the warm-up, we don't know if we're ready for regular season
califronia-inmates-fire News

California Inmates Are Risking Their Lives for $1 per Hour to Fight Fires

New slaves?
killer-mike-cuz-lightyear Video

Studio A: Killer Mike x Cuz Lightyear (Part 2)

“This is the one… I knew that probably we were gonna go kill somebody after”
diddy Features

Diddy Hosts “Hip Hop Vs. Donald Trump” Panel at Revolt Music Conference

Industry conference becomes resistance rally
larry-flynt,donald-trump News

Porn Legend Larry Flynt Offers $10 Million For Dirt That Could End Trump

“I can’t think of something more patriotic to do”
Chika Hey, You're Cool

Hey, You’re Cool! Poet and Rapper Chika

“The things that you’re afraid to admit to yourself you’ll admit in a song, because you know someone can relate”