Contact High: N.O.R.E
Robert Adam Mayer getting Thugged Out
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 Robert Adam Mayer, known as Photo Rob on social, to take us through one of his rarely seen contact sheets of N.O.R.E .
New York, 2004
Photographer Robert Adam Mayer is one of the rare hip-hop shooters who lives for documenting live, underground shows. He specializes in capturing artists at the start of their careers, when they are still trying things out on the mic or vibing in a room of their peers for that moment of lyrical glory.
Starting out as a street photographer, Mayer went on to apply that spontaneity, candidness and skill for quick character studies to hip-hop. “I was always enamored with Henri Cartier-Bresson,” Mayer says. “His photographs had these stories and moments and great compositions. Jazz photographer Herman Leonard was probably my biggest inspiration. I love that element of in-the-moment with my hip-hop shooting.”
The NYC-based Mayer started out documenting backstage at the Knitting Factory where stars including Pharoah Monch and Rakim would take the mic alongside MCs on the come-up. It was this dedication that finally caught the attention of Duck Down Records, who enlisted Mayer to shoot the cover for 9th Wonder & Buckshot’s The Formula and work closely with Sean Price (R.I.P.).
In 2004, Mayer was commissioned by Pound magazine out of Toronto to shoot an editorial session with N.O.R.E, who was also one half of Capone-N-Noreaga (C-N-N). The shoot took place in N.O.R.E’s studio, Thugged Out Militainment, in Midtown Manhattan.
“During this time, the transition from film to digital was happening,” says Mayer. “Film was not cheap. If you shot digital, you could play a bit more without the expense. We didn’t have a lot of time and I wanted to get the most out of the shoot time that I could. I got there and spoke with N.O.R.E about some concepts and it was just very loose. The space was set up for recording music but I tried to find a space with a neutral background where I could get a clean portrait shot.”
“This was the time when Photoshop started being used and you could use the airbrusher,” says Mater. “You would make a print and send it to an airbrusher. These particular shots of N.O.R.E are chrome slides. I also feel like with this shoot I had great access and collaboration. The part of the culture that I’m involved with is the New York hip hop scene. I’ve been documenting the Brooklyn Hip-hop Festival for many years now and there are a lot of organic moments that happen there and I find it to be a very open process.
The Camera Nerd-Out
“I started out shooting on a Minolta X570 Mamiya RZ medium format 6×7. The RZ was quick and loaded fast which was great for magazine editorial shooting,” says Mayer.
How did you first get your foot in the door with shooting hip hop?
The first hip hop artist I shot was Lil Dap in 2000. He released an album called Brooklyn Zone and I shot the cover of him in front of the World Trade Center. He was always really good to me. After the shoot that night, Ricky Powell was having an exhibit so we went to this club in the village. Jeru went with us. I love hip-hop and consider myself a deep fan.
You’ve collaborated with so many underground New York MCs. Sean Price is one that stands out. Tell us a bit about your work with him.
Sean Price, he was one of the greatest and I’m honored to have photographed him. The entire Duck Down [Music] crew is great people. I photographed him several times and earned a lot of creative trust which lead to me working with Duck Down on several projects.
You’re also known for doing a lot of live concert shooting and backstage shots. Why did you start shooting in this way?
I started shooting at the Knitting Factory where I would throw up a backdrop and shoot these portrait style images. I called it the Backstage project. I met a lot of MCs that way and a lot of them were early in their careers. I also started documenting backstage at the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival and also Knitting Factory. The final show at the Knitting Factory was the Rakim show, and he happens to be my favorite MC of all time. That night, Rakim turned to me from the stage and was like, ‘Yo, picture man, get this shot.”
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The Contact High Project, conceived and curated by Vikki Tobak will culminate in a book and exhibition. Check out the Contact High website, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter for more info.