Words by Daniel Isenberg (@StanIpcus)
It’s time for another edition of Picture Perfect, and this week, we linked up with professional hip-hop photographer and amazing all-around artistic talent Alexander Richter to break down some of the most iconic photos from his many years of capturing images of our favorite rap stars. Without knowing it, you’ve probably seen Alexander’s work all over your Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook feeds, and definitely on blogs like NahRight. And that’s not by accident. Dude makes phenomenal pictures, straight up, and they’ve been used for everything from album covers to press junkets to feature stories in magazines in the U.S. and overseas, and in turn have spread like wildfire to make a major impact online as well (whether he’s been properly credited or not). Read below as Alexander Richter takes us behind the lens to discuss these ten timeless photos he’s made of rap stars—from 50 Cent to Mac Miller to The Clipse—in detail. As you will find out, there’s way more to it than just point and click. Respect the shooter.
1. 50 Cent
Alexander Richter: “The commision was for KING magazine before it went down. I think it was the 50th issue. It was at that time when 50 was heavy G-Unit, heavy sweatshirt, heavy all of that. When they asked me to do this shoot, he was starting to transition into more of the power music mogul that he was becoming. And I remember specifically asking the magazine, ‘It would be amazing if we could get 50 into some suits to break the street image and bring in more of the corporate, music mogul image.’ Then towards the very end of the shoot I saw the wall with the nine shots—some people might catch it and others might not catch it—and I was like, ‘Man, put him in front of that.’ And we had the juxtaposition of two different worlds coming together.
“I have to say that 50 was really great. That was one of my earlier, big celebrity jobs, so I had my idea from working with other guys that, ‘Fuck, it might be a little bit crazy. Dude might come through with mad entourage.’ But anyone that’s worked with 50 knows that’s not really how he moves. He came with himself, maybe a barber, and one dude who potentially was there in case something did go down, like a ratchet man. But aside from that, he was punctual, and we actually ended up shooting for a couple hours. The energy was good, and he was very receptive of what I was doing.”
2. Max B
“That was in Harlem. I think we shot that on his block, or down the block. It could’ve been 140th? I don’t know, it was something and Lenox. After he had gotten bailed out, he came home, and he was connected with the label, and I got brought on to shoot the photos for an album package. And, you know, Max is Max. This is the Wave God, as they would say now. Just on the block, doing what he did. He had oodles of cash coming out of his jeans.
“It was a crazy afternoon actually, because right before these photos, two of his boys got arrested on the block. The energy was thrown off for a second. But as a photographer, you gotta troubleshoot all of that. You can have a pre-conceived idea, and then as soon as you arrive to make your pictures, every angle, or lighting condition, or emotional decision might change. You really have to kind of be a psychologist at the same time.
“So he was in a bit of a bummer because his boys just got arrested, but it was like, ‘Let’s bring this focus back to you, and the attention back to making these dynamic images that will last a long time.’ It’s not like I wanted to say, ‘You’ve got court cases pending,’ but these were pre-dated before his situation really changed. And of course, we all know where he’s at now. This was my moment to make some iconic images of him. This guy’s influenced a lot of people, whether they acknowledge it or don’t.
“That’s one of those that became a heavy bootleg joint. If you ran a hashtag for Max B, you’d see print t-shirts with this image all over. My boy just sent me a picture of a large stencil of it that someone had done on North 7th [in Brooklyn]. It’s wild that people are starting to make stencils of it, but it’s also nauseating with the amount of bootleggery that I’ve seen.”
3. Mac Miller
“That was a commission for XXL. If I remember correctly, that was a ‘day in the life’ feature, which I wish more magazines would do. Embed a photographer with an artist for the day or a couple days or whatever. I think this was his first big New York show for the Blue Slide Park album, and my assignment for the day was to be around Mac and be a fly on the wall and document what was going on as he proceeded to sound check, talk with management, and bullshit with friends.
“This picture was after we were shooting photos inside. I think I was like, ‘Yo, let’s go outside and have a walk-around,’ just to change up the energy a little bit and go get some other photos on the city streets of a Pittsburgh kid coming into New York to rock an Irving Plaza show. That was big.
“There were already people lining up to see his performance, and I was like, ‘Damn, this guy’s got a pretty decent following.’ But as soon as we hit Union Square, that’s when I really saw how big it was. These young teenie girls, who probably were only a little younger than him, started to flock to him, like, ‘Oh my God, Mac Miller!’ This is pre-Mac knuckle tattoos, before he was all tatted up. It’s a relatively young Mac Miller. And these girls were just gassed to have him sign their binders.
“This was totally unrehearsed. It was pure documentary, reportage-style, trying to capture that moment and that exchange of energy. If you look at the girl on the left, you can see her holding her hand to her mouth, and her eyes are fixated on the pen as he signs the binder. That’s like your typical three-ring binder that someone would have at study hall the next day showing off to their friends, like, ‘Look here, I met Mac Miller yesterday, and he signed my binder!’”
4. DJ Premier
“Preemo had a rap group, NYGz. They were Bronx rappers coming up under Preem. This was for a feature for a British magazine that now is defunct called Hip Hop Connection. This is at the legendary D&D Studios, which is now Preemo’s Headquarterz. We had gone up on the roof of the building to shoot some photos, and as a dude growing up who ripped his photos out of The Source, Preem was one of those cats that’s been an inspirational figure sonically for so long. And his ‘Reputation is the Cornerstone of Power’ tattoo on his arm was applicable to me in the way that I feel about photography. I don’t care about my face, I don’t care about anything but the reputation of myself as a photographer, which is how he is about his beats. I felt like this was a reflection of myself.
“It was right before the sun went down fully. It was an off-camera flash to the left, lighting him a little bit underneath his hat so he doesn’t have full black over his eyes. You can see the bottom part of his eyes there are exposed, and the shadow falls off to the brim. I don’t rely on one style of image making. Some people use the same flash every picture, and that’s kind of their calling card. My whole thing is I really try to use less gear and make more photos. If I hadn’t used the flash, I would’ve got a silhouette of Preem, which is kind of cool, but I would’ve lost all the detail on his tattoos, his face, and his arms.
“I think I maybe got three photos of him by himself, because the assignment was for NYGz. So being respectful to the situation, I wasn’t just gonna bust a whole shoot on Preemo. But I definitely made my move to isolate him and get a few portraits, because I didn’t know when I might commence with him again.”
5. Sean Price
“We were at Sean’s apartment for that photo in Brownsville. I had worked with Sean before. I had shot his Jesus Price Superstar cover, and done some other stuff. I think this was for a magazine in Canada that ended up canning the feature, so it never ran in print. But the story about Sean is he’s always been that dude who will punch a hole through your favorite rapper. He’s an amazing rapper, and one of my favorites. But it’s not interesting to make a tough rapper a tough rapper. It’s more interesting to make a tough rapper a good father. That, to me, is more inspiring.
“His daughter is named Shaun. This photo of her looking at the camera, and him looking down on her—you can see that she’s the apple of his eye. It’s that unconditional love, where he’s like, ‘That’s my everything.’ Look at that little smile as he looks down at her face, and look at those hands that would knuckle your whole shit up if you fucked with her.”
6. Troy Ave
“This was a commission for a German book that I work a lot with. This was probably a year ago. The shoot went down and everything, and they canned the story because I think, like magazines do, if you’re not popping enough, they worry about putting it in print, because they have to pay money or whatever the case is. So this was one that was sitting in the cooler for a while.
“We shot that somewhere out near Eastern Parkway. It was Troy, pre-New York City: The Album. When he arrived on the set, he was heavily encrusted in diamonds. Being a photographer, you want to take those full-length portraits, you want to establish an environment, and you want to start pushing in. And I tell artists, ‘You just tell me.’ Because, give me my opportunity, and I’m literally within inches of somebody’s face with the camera. That’s not like a long lens across the street. That’s with a 35 millimeter lens, and I’m probably 11 inches from his face, or maybe a bit further back because I have his shoulders in there. Instead of just getting the wide shot with him, with his full jeans suit, I suggested to him, ‘Hey, would you be up to biting on the Jesus piece?’ Pause.
“Sometimes American rappers don’t understand how important [overseas press is for their career]. I think they’re starting to more now because of the Internet, and the way people can get you Euros for gigs in Europe. But there was definitely a time when dudes would sleep on a feature in a European magazine because it’s not an American-based book. But I always convey to them, ‘Dude, you want to rock these photos because you’re about to open up to a whole new audience. You gotta think globally. You don’t want to be just popping here in New York. You want to be popping everywhere. And these images are an immediate way for people to connect with you and be like, ‘Damn, my man is flossed out, Jesus piece in his mouth, looking Don Corleone gangster as fuck.’’ And that’s what I feel these pictures are all about. Creating something dynamic so the viewer can say, ‘This is composed well. Lit well. It’s sharp. It’s got a feeling. It’s got an edge to it. It’s visceral.’”
7. Action Bronson
“I co-directed a bunch of Action’s early videos with Tom Gould. I did ‘Barry Horowitz,’ ‘Brunch,’ and ‘Not Enough Words.’ Once I heard his music, I was like, ‘This dude his nice.’ Then I connected with Tom, we both had a connection with Action, and we were interested in doing some video work. One thing led to another, and we ended up doing those three videos.
“He had his project last year with Harry Fraud, Saaab Stories, and Action reached out to me, and then Paul Rosenberg I think called me, and they were looking for a photographer to shoot the cover art for Atlantic. And again, we’re talking about making images that are going to be lasting. So as I soon as I got the job to do the photos, I was like, ‘I gotta get the cover art, I gotta get press photos.’ You know, I had a shot list that the label needed for assets. And I started scouting locations.
“Not like it hasn’t been done before, but I was thinking of the EPMD cover when Janette Beckman shot them at the end of a dead end in Long Island with the ocean in the back. And this dude is always New York City, Queens everything. So while this location wasn’t exactly in Queens, my approach to it was, ‘How can I get some iconic images in the background of the photo?’ So the skyline becomes something that jumps out at me where I’m like, ‘Let me find a place where I can get him with that.’
“We shot those photos, and you know, this dude loves his old school BMWs. Everyone’s always talking about the new school rides, and he’s like, ‘I’m in the ‘88 BMW station wagon.’ It was a no-brainer to put the skyline in the background with the Empire State Building, and have Action just be him. One pant leg up like we’re in the ‘90s, some New Balances unlaced, and a hoodie.”
8. Pro Era
“RIP to Capital STEEZ. It was tragic. I didn’t have any connection to him other than this moment of time, but I definitely felt when he passed like, ‘Damn, that’s too bad. You were a talented artist with a lot of potential, and as it is with youth, you may not have had a clear vision to see that things will get better.’
“This in on the top of the building in the old Complex office on 23rd Street, which was also the location of the Cinematic office [and the location where Capital STEEZ committed suicide]. It was a pretty hot day, and we were on the rooftop, and when I saw that bridge, I was like, ‘This is probably gonna be my only opportunity to really spread these guys out and give them some space.’ Even if you’re not pressed right up on all of their faces, you get a connection of the energy of all of these kids there together.
“It was a funny situation, because there was another magazine there, and the dude was trying to poach my shot. And I was like, ‘B, don’t be trying to take my pictures that I’m setting up. This is what I do. You don’t come around after I establish my photos and grab your photo and run it on your online blog tonight.’ You gotta put your foot down sometimes and control the situation, or shit will get out of control.
“I’m yelling like I got a megaphone on me trying to get all those kids to focus on the lens at the same time. I’m loud, and I’m vocal, and I’m very assertive, and that’s why you got that many people all dialed in for that moment. And bong, we got it.
“It’s crazy to think that we were up there and we shot those photos, and then at a certain time, [STEEZ] was like, ‘You know what? My life is not here, and I’m gonna take it from this specific spot.’ And that picture was a happy moment. You can see when artists are just taking photos for press junkets and there’s no energy, but that’s not going on here. They were having a moment of like, ‘Yo son, we about to be on.’”
9. Danny Brown
“This was another one for my German client. Danny wasn’t fully blown up then. I don’t know if XXX was even out then, or if it was gonna drop soon, or what was going down. I shot this in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, because I had to meet Danny and his manager at the Fool’s Gold record store. So let’s say I have a shoot at 2 o’clock, and it’s not somewhere that I’ve set up, I try to go early and location scout. As far as my style of photography, I am very location driven. I think it’s imperative to find stuff that’s compelling.
“I think at this time, I was listening to a lot of the stuff from The Hybrid, which is one of his early projects, and thinking about the Detroit stuff that was happening, and the urban decay. But we obviously weren’t in Detroit, and I wasn’t interested in putting him in front of a brownstone or some ruddy cruddy building that looks New York City. I needed to find a location that was gonna be in what I view as connecting to what Detroit might look like. And Detroit, if you know anything about it, is a deindustrialized city, with a lot of urban blight, and a lot of abandoned buildings. And it’s become a landmark for a lot of graffiti writers to pilgrimage to.
“So I was driving around looking for a location, and I saw this place, and it was not lit like this at all. It was in the shade, totally dark and underlit. It wouldn’t have been your ideal situation. But because of my photo experience, I had my equipment with me. I had a portable strobe with a battery pack set up with a pocket wizard where I could create artificial lighting in a place where there is no lighting.
“The door is by this guy Kenny Sharf, who’s this old school pop artist, graffiti writer, funky dude. And thinking of Danny’s music, I was like, ‘With all this vegetation here, if I light him right, and put him with those eyes behind, I can create a portrait where I don’t have to even have him looking at the camera, because I’ll have the eyes behind him looking at the camera. And I can have him looking a bit more contemplative off-camera. And that was what he did that day. That was just him. That wasn’t really me giving him too much direction. That was more one of those moments of me shooting and shooting and shooting until I get that 1/100th of a second where it’s like, ‘Boom. That’s it right there.’”
10. The Clipse
“That was for Hip Hop Connection. This could’ve been promo for Hell Hath No Fury. It’s got to have been a while back. As you know, publicists will schedule a bunch of people to be at one location at a certain time. And unbenounced to me, there was I think an XXL shoot happening, and this was at this very gothic church on the Lower East Side. I walked in and saw all the crosses and stained glass and was like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna kill it.’ Then I saw this other photographer there, and he was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ And we had a moment of confrontation, because he was telling me how I couldn’t shoot in the space because he had rented the space for his shoot.
“I couldn’t relocate to another place because I had the shoot scheduled. So I started walking around, and I went to the basement, and I found this area, and I was like, ‘Oh shit.’ So I dragged the chair and put it in the middle of this space, I saw the candles on the side and I grabbed those and put those there. And I set up my lights and I went to work and made my pictures.
“I feel very blessed to have been able to take that photo at that time. If Pusha and Malice come together now, it’s still amazing, but things have changed.”
Previously: Picture Perfect with Retch
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