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 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

nas-rapture Film

PREPARE FOR ‘RAPTURE’

Mass Appeal’s new Netflix series premieres this weekend at SXSW
same Hot Takes

It Was a Type Beat Year

The search for something new in a year of sameness
shea serrano Features

Shea Serrano Quit His Teaching Job, Now He Has Two Best Sellers and Two TV Shows

"It is funny to just walk in and just be a Mexican, because I’m usually the only one there"
mf doom Features

The 10 Best DOOM Songs of 2017, Ranked

Even after 'The Missing Notebook Rhymes' went missing, the masked villain still caused havoc
worst cops Features

The Worst Cops of 2017

The hall of shame
donald trump Features

32 Songs That Dissed Donald Trump in 2017

The "F.D.T." wave
lil peep News

R.I.P. Gus, Long Live Lil Peep

Resisting nostalgia at the speed of the internet
88 rising Features

Sean Miyashiro of 88rising Connected the Cultures

With 1.25 million YouTube subscribers and a gang of talent, 88rising controlled the new East-West flow
eminem Video

Eminem By the Numbers

You may know how many f*cks he gives, but what about the other crucial figures from Slim Shady's career?
tape Features

Why 2017 Was Rap’s Year of the Tape

Seven labels explain why they're still rewinding cassettes back
safdie brothers Features

The Safdie Brothers Got Gritty as 2017’s Filmmakers to Watch

"You might not like the feeling that you're feeling, but you can still be entertained by that feeling."
best albums Features

The 25 Best Albums of 2017

The essential sounds that defined one very strange year
hey arnold Humor

Everything About Christmas is Awful, Except the ‘Hey Arnold!’ Special

The one redeeming thing about this trash holiday
combat-jack Features

Knowledge Darts Vol. 32: Winter Solstice

I never got to say thank you
jeezy Video

Open Space: Jeezy

"You can’t just crush a diamond with a rock. It’s hard, it’s tough. But it’s bright."
Video

Rhythm Roulette: Boi-1da

The wait is over