From Amsterdam to New York City, Dana Lixenberg has captured iconic images of pivotal figures in music. The acclaimed photographer’s work has been published in Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, and our very own VIBE Magazine.
To celebrate Lixenberg’s most memorable shots, the visionary publicized her contact shots of fallen rappers Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur for a pop-up beginning Wednesday, Sept. 25, followed by her Tupac Biggie book signing (Sept. 26), in collaboration with Patta, that hosts added images. The book also features a passage from executive Rob Kenner, a founding editor of VIBE Magazine.
“Guillaume Schmidt, with Edson Sabajo co-founder of Patta, contacted me years ago to do a collaboration for a small scale signature collection,” Lixenberg says. “Basically we selected 10 portraits of cultural icons from my archive, including A Tribe Called Quest, Noam Chomsky, Aaliyah, PJ Harvey, Gill Scott Heron and of course Tupac and Biggie. It was like a mini-exhibition presented on shirts instead of on a wall, with a text about the shoot on the tag and my signature on the back of the shirts. This was the beginning of a continued friendship and work relationship.”
Read an excerpt from the book below:
IT WAS WRITTEN: VIBE MAGAZINE, 2PAC & BIGGIE
By Rob Kenner
When the legendary Quincy Jones established VIBE magazine, his stated goal was to found “a Rolling Stone for the hip-hop generation,” but the staff—which I joined at the magazine’s launch, in 1993—aspired to create something closer to Vanity Fair. Twenty five years ago it’s become clear that we created something much more important.
With all due respect to The Source, Rap Pages, and Murder Dog, VIBE changed the game in hip-hop journalism. With backing from Time Inc., we had deeper pockets than most, and we served up some of the best writing, photography, and design hip-hop has ever seen. Yet our multiracial staff and corporate connects were always viewed with some suspicion. We had to earn respect by doing great work—and we did a lot of it, printed on large format heavy stock paper, left over in a warehouse after Life magazine folded.
VIBE was the first periodical to cover rap, R&B, rock, reggae, dance music, fashion, sports, and politics—all through the prism of what people were just beginning to call “urban culture,” another way of describing what Steve Stoute would later dub The Tanning of America.
“At the time there was no Internet,” says Keith Clinkscales, the magazine’s first president and CEO. “There were no text message updates. There was VIBE. As the president of VIBE, I was the commissioner of the culture. CNN, all those guys—when shit got real they were coming to VIBE. It wasn’t just some rap magazine.”
Of all the talented creative spirits who collaborated to make VIBE, none was more indispensable than the late great George Pitts, VIBE’s founding director of photography. Deeply committed to artistic integrity, George was a remarkable creative force in his own right: he was a photographer, painter, educator, and writer whose work has been exhibited around the world. In addition to his work at VIBE, George served as director of photographic practices at Parsons School for Design. A tireless advocate for new talent, George would spend long hours in his cluttered office late at night, reviewing the portfolios of aspiring and established photographers and returning them with thoughtful written critiques to help them develop their craft. The chosen few who were blessed with the opportunity to work with him had earned their shot. George took his work seriously, ever conscious of his responsibility to create images that would come to define hip hop in the 1990s, long before most people foresaw that it would become the world’s dominant cultural force.
“With the catalyst of a great subject — that being the hip-hop explosion—VIBE’s photographers have explored a generous vocabulary of visual possibilities that jumpstart the intensity of picture making,” George wrote in the introduction to VX: 10 Years of VIBE Photography, a coffee table book that I edited with him. “Our photography runs the gamut of style and taste from glamorous fashion shoots to harshly realistic portraiture and documentary work. It’s a rare photographer who is truly suited for every story. Finding the right photographer for any given subject is a dare that we accept with love, acute attention to detail, and a competitive zeal to exceed all previous depictions. The right photographer can reveal the presence of an artist and weave a narrative that is built picture by breathtaking picture. We may buy into the mythology that encircles a star— their work, their look, their entourage, all refracted through the distorting lens of celebrity—while at the same time seeking to discover the person packaged inside the media image. Although pop imagery is considered disposable by cynics, an inspired editor can aim high, and assume there is a discerning audience for discerning images.”
Let’s just say that George Pitts aimed higher than most. He championed a fresh, profound and expansive view of Black celebrity, lifestyle and culture. And he respected the audience enough to believe that they would appreciate his efforts. “It’s a relief that at VIBE we’re encouraged to pursue beauty in our photography,” he wrote. “Too many music pictures are sight gags, with no other reason for existing than to fit some half-assed idea—commonly known as a ‘concept.’ Beauty implies that the photograph will warrant being looked at again and again. Beauty entails enough visual and psychological and emotional resonance that one wants to see deeper into the image. Beauty can also be so simple, and so purely (and so rigorously) on the surface, that one isn’t motivated to look harder; one can just rest with the sheer spectacle of the visual feast, which may be enough. But this is a problematic sort of beauty because it is an end in itself with no fear of being perceived as shallow. This brand of beauty is evident in virtually every magazine today. Newsstands are overflowing with ravishing, expensive-looking images that pander to alleged sophistication of their audience. Such images are destined to evaporate into the pop culture ether, only to be replaced by yet another set of beautiful, interchangeable images. But there is always the possibility that an image will outlive prevailing taste and lodge itself in the cultural archive, maybe ending up on a museum wall with the work of Avedon and Newton and Van Der Zee. One can only hope for such things.”
George was fearless in taking on new and untried talent, fostering the careers of many young photographers. It would have been much easier to go through the motions of hiring “Big Name” photographers to shoot superstar rappers. Instead he took the time to pair subjects and shooters in much the same way a sommelier pairs a fine wine with haute cuisine. He was famous for challenging talented if untested image makers with the chance to exceed even their own expectations. One of his favorite “discoveries” was Dana Lixenberg, who first caught George’s eye with a series she shot in Watts, Los Angeles. Her portraits of the residents of Imperial Courts housing project look every bit as iconic as the Prince cover she would later shoot in Monaco.
“VIBE has had the good fortune to work with photographers who hail from all over the world, and we’ve turned them loose on subjects whose musical talent has also allowed them to travel the world,” George wrote in VX. “The reciprocity and exchange of transcultural perception discloses an obvious awareness of difference, as when Dutch-born Dana Lixenberg made it her mission to document the residents of Watts, L.A., but it also reveals how the difference there is in the core of our beings. We travel across distances and across streets. We connect, or resist connections, as a result of these differences, these distances, these streets. For many years, hip hop has been isolated in a sort of media penal colony. But really it’s an epic film that demands a cast big enough to bridge the distance between generations and cultures. At VIBE, we strategize over how to represent this culture to the fullest: with love, with flair, with wit, and with glamor — or without it.”
Dana’s Imperial Courts project started with an impulse to disrupt the prevailing visual narrative about people living in South Central L.A. “I wanted to make really decent portraits of gang members,” she explains. “That is how it started. In the end, it became a portrait of this entire community. For me it was all about subtlety, and George went on to say ‘Dana, you know, you don’t always have to be so subtle. Sometimes maybe a bit less subtle is OK.’ He liked to challenge me in small ways.”
George reflected on the Biggie cover in VX: “VIBE’s decision to put a sober, confrontational, non-accommodating portrait of the Notorious B.I.G. on the cover isn’t necessarily commercial suicide—as conventional magazine marketing wisdom dictated in the days before VIBE came along. To this day, the unspoken policy of most magazines is to avoid putting “threatening images” of black men on their covers, a policy justified on the ground that they wont sell. VIBE recognized the strategy of marrying the image with the lyrical agenda, and the lack of bullshit in Biggie’s own persona. Such pairings of the artless visuals with the artless glamour of the subjects has often worked extraordinarily well for us. Although it may not be a strategy other magazines can use as effectively, it’s been a winning formula for VIBE, especially with regard to hardcore male rappers, who have disdain for looking too cute.”
“I’m trying to make an image that really can tell a story and you can spend time with,” Dana Lixenberg says of her intentions when approaching a photo shoot. “An image that can live beyond the context of what It was shot for.” With her Biggie and Tupac images for VIBE magazine she did that and then some. Her pictures of Tupac standing in the rain with the bandana tied around his head and Biggie in a Coogi sweater counting out Benjamins have been indelibly seared into the popular imagination, perhaps in part because both artists’ lives were cut short so soon after these photos were taken. But many people photographed these two artists during their all-too-brief time on earth. Almost a quarter century later, the staying power of Lixenberg’s images cannot be denied.
Creating images that take on a life of their own can be a mixed blessing for photographers. On the one hand it’s great to know that so many people have responded to your work. On the other hand, unauthorized reproduction of those images means that other people are profiting from your work. Lixenberg has no problem with he murals and tattoos, but all the bootleg T-shirts are another matter. “My lawyer made the point that you can’t separate the persona from the image anymore,” says the photographer, who won a landmark decision that set a precedent for photographers controlling the rights to their work. “When people think of the artist, they think of them through existing images.”
As this book was coming together Dana reflected on how those images came to be: “I barely knew who Tupac was when I first photographed him—I did not come from the sort of ‘music scene.’ I mean, I listen to music and I’ve photographed many musicians. But my approach was different from someone who specializes in music. I was getting more acquainted with gangsta rap when I was doing the Imperial Courts series. That was the time when The Chronic had just come out. I started listening to Tupac more after I photographed him. At the time I was aware of him as someone important, but in some ways, I was coming to this assignment as an outsider. George was not concerned about that at all.
“Tupac had just been through some court stuff and on the day of the shoot he showed up hours late. That happened with many shoots, it was a part of the experience. I didn’t mind waiting for hours. I was very serious and I didn’t let myself get distracted by all the noise surrounding Tupac and the entourage. He did show up with a lot of people. There were people hanging around the shoot and his publicist and a stylist but I was so focused on what I need to get I didn’t waste a lot of time trying to be all friendly with the people.
“I’m always thrilled when you can kind of win someone over by just being really professional and being really focused. I think with the writing it’s different because the writer has to really have a conversation, so it’s almost a dance. You have to get a little more personal and talk to everybody. But with the shooting, I find it’s very intimate because you have this moment you share with the person. You meet so many people, especially with celebrities, but it all comes down to that exchange between you and the subject.
You can read the full passage within Tupac Biggie and mark your calendar for January 12, 2020, for Lixenberg’s American Images book launch at GRIMM in New York City.