Contact High: How Eve Arnold’s Photos of Malcolm X Impacted Hip Hop

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 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.

On what would have been the 92nd birthday of Malcolm X, we celebrate this iconic image by photographer Eve Arnold…


Chicago 1962

Today, May 19th, Malcolm X—El-Hajj El Malik Shabazz—would have turned 92. He hasn’t walked this earth for decades yet his image looms larger than ever in the public imagination, thanks to his life and his work. Certain indelible images also played a part in shaping the Malcolm mystique.

In 1960, LIFE magazine assigned photographer Eve Arnold to document Malcolm X. She spent more than a year following Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam movement around the United States from Washington to New York to Chicago. She produced some of the most well known images of the man who has had an undeniable impact on hip hop, his legacy interwoven into the fabric of urban culture and the hip hop generation.

Both Malcolm and Arnold—subject and photographer—understood the power of images. And they collaborated to get the story right. Malcolm helped Arnold get the shots she needed and made sure his own portrayal spoke truth to power. The result of Arnold’s work was a series of pictures that included the above iconic image—Malcolm X sitting in profile, stoic, refined and stylish AF, fedora tilted forward, his hand geometrically placed on his neck to frame a ring on his finger bearing the star and crescent moon.

For Malcolm, style was subversive. A beautiful composure and a quiet power. The contact sheet is part portraiture and part documentary as Malcolm visits enterprises owned by Black Muslims during a trip to Chicago.

“This photo speaks to the way Malcolm carried himself and also the way he dressed—the classic suit and tie” explains Sohail Daulatzai, an associate professor at  UC Irvine. “That was the jazz generation thing too. Rebels wore that. This was about self determination and claiming authority over how one is portrayed. He’s rooting black style into politics. He was brilliantly aware of how his image served the bigger movement.” Professor Daulatzai is the author of Black Star, Crescent Moon and the curator of the exhibit Return of the Mecca: The Art of Islam and Hip-Hop.

Visual references to Malcolm X in hip hop run deep. Building on the influence he had on politically conscious artists to spread knowledge of self through through lyrics, Malcolm’s image also became an integral part of their visual representation. The Roots’ Tipping Point album cover bears the mugshot of an 18-year-old Malcolm, while the alternate cover features The Roots’ frontman, Black Thought, similarly styled. The cover photo for Boogie Down Productions’ sophomore album was directly inspired by an image of Malcolm holding an M1 Carbine and pulling back the curtains to peer out of a window (it’s title, By All Means Necessary, is a modification of Malcolm X’s famous phrase, “By Any Means Necessary”). Gang Starr’s Daily Operation album cover showed a carefully placed portrait of Malcolm, along with a paperback copy of Elijah Muhammad’s Message To The Black Man in America and a closed turntable case. That’s just a few of the numerous references to Malcolm used in hip hop’s visual history.

In this video, Yasiin Bey speaks on how Malcolm’s image impacted hip hop culture.

“I think photographs are very important. It’s just extremely important when you’re telling a story, ” says Ilyasah Shabazz, an author, activist and the third daughter of Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz who grew up immersed in hip-hop culture.

Storytelling through photos was Eve Arnold’s passion. Born into a Russian-Jewish family in Philadelphia in 1912, she died in January 2012 at the age of 99. She was the first female member of the Magnum Agency, a small photojournalist collective set up 70 years ago and led by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, among others. In her book Flashback: The 1950sArnold writes of Malcolm’s role as visual strategist. She tells of earning Malcolm’s trust as a photographer and of the way he inserted himself into her process, guiding her through Black Muslim enclaves in Chicago, New York and Washington. “Malcolm set up the shots and I clicked the camera. It was hilarious,” she wrote.

To say that Malcolm X was media-savvy is an understatement. By the time of his assassination in 1965, he was not only one of the most photographed black leaders in history, but also had a deep understanding of photography and created a strategy to utilize the mainstream media to his benefit, He’d guide photographers toward specific affirming shots when they visited the community and strategized every aspect of his persona. Malcolm was also a virtuoso behind the lens, often seen with a King Regula 111c and Nikon 35MM still film camera, or a Bell and Howell 70dr 16mm “Filmo” movie picture camera.

The Shoot

“When it comes to Malcolm and photography, he was very aware,” says Daulatzai. “Photographers like Gordon Parks did a whole series on the Black Muslims and Malcolm was very much a part of that of course. Malcolm was very skilled with media. He was skeptical of the mainstream press and how they portrayed Black people and he sought to seize control of his own image. For example, he  used the newspaper Mohammed Speaks to control information and imagery. This was before social media of course. That’s the connection to hip hop—taking what’s given and claiming an authority over it. Malcolm was invested in self-fashioning and rebellious attire, and that’s very hip hop. It’s so resonant.”

The Shot

“This photo is so stylish. And it also speaks to this problematic American distinction between style and substance,” says DAulatzai. “The bigger question is, ‘What was the impulse that made that style a necessity?’ The style is the substance for Malcolm. Through the style, you get a deeper idea of what the substance was. And Malcolm was highly aware of this. Yaslin Bey calls Malcolm a style icon. It’s a stunning photo in its composition and tone. But it’s also very specific in its references with the ring and the fedora.  When it came to hip hop, Malcolm was highly influential because he spoke truth to power. Black youth identify with Malcolm because he came from the street and he defined himself. That is hip hop.”

The Camera Nerd Out

Although Arnold often used a Rolleiflex to document her subjects, representatives from Magnum belive this photo was taken with a  35mm camera.


All images courtesy of Magnum Photos.

Follow Sohail Daulatzai on Twitter and Instagram.

Follow Ilyasah Shabazz on Twitter and her website.

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 websiteFacebookInstagram or Twitter for more info.

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