‘Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop’ At Annenberg Space For Photography

Written by | July 18, 2019 3:30 am | No Comments


Notorious B.I.G. by Barron Claiborne


There is an interesting photo exhibit at Annenberg Space for Photography, ‘Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop’, which retraces the history of this multicultural movement through photos, and films, while putting photographers under the spotlight, as many of them were the first to document the rise of this cultural phenomenon.

If the exhibit presents iconic photos of some of the most famous rappers, it mostly celebrates the photographers, with 140 works from 60 different artists and 75 original and unedited contact sheets. Curated by Vikki Tobak, and based on her bestselling book of the same name, the exhibit makes you travel through the story of a genre which now dominates the culture.

A short documentary also features many photographers in conversation, including Barron Claiborne, Brian “B+” Cross, Eric Coleman, Estevan Oriol, Jorge Peniche, Jamel Shabazz, Janette Beckman, Joe Conzo, Jack McKain, Dana Scruggs, and Danny Clinch. Among many others, early photos of future billionaire Jay-Z or young college dropout Kanye West are noticeable, as well as Janette Beckman’s photos of Salt-N-Pepa. However, there is an abundance of photos of street scenes, public places, basketball courts, beach sidewalks and neighborhoods where it was happening, where hip hop was making its first steps before becoming a global phenomenon. These photographers remind us how photos can capture a moment just before something bigger than the moment blows up, but the pics can be divided into two categories, the spontaneous scenes and the paused portraits, such as the photo of Tupac by Danny Clinch for Rolling Stone, showing his larger-than-life Thug Life tattoo across his abdomen, or the iconic Notorious B.I.G. portraits by Barron Claiborne who made Biggie wear a crown because he was the king of New York… You can even see him laugh in a few shots of the contact sheet,

There is also the historic 1998 group photo ‘A Great Day in Hip-Hop’, by Harlem photographer Gordon Parks, gathering more than 100 rappers Including Debbie Harry), in front of three brownstones,…a tribute to the ‘Great Day in Harlem’ photograph of fifty-seven jazz artists, taken by Art Kane in 1958.

The exhibit goes through 40 years of photo archives, showing all the work done around a press kit, a magazine cover, an iconic portrait, illustrating the change in culture, the new hand signs, or black culture blending into Mexican culture, as it is reflected in 50 Cent’s Chicano-style tattoos.

‘Contact High’ works like a prediction for the future to come, announcing the success of the rappers, who are regarded as leaders and trendsetters. Whether you like rap or not, whether you listen to hip hop or not, it is now the dominant culture with artists selling millions of albums, piling streamings, winning awards and headlining major festivals…. from the streets to influencing culture and reshaping the social structure of our society, we are living in hip hop nation.

‘Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop’ is visible at Annenberg Space for Photography (annenbergphotospace.org) at 2000 Avenue of the Stars, Century City, Wednesday to Sunday from 11 a.m to 6 p.m., through August 18th.


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