Contact High: Shooting James Brown At Rikers
The stories behind Diana Mara Henry's iconic shots.
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.
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….
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.
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
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.
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.
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.