Contact High: Chi Modu Celebrates Tupac Shakur’s 45th Birthday
Chi Modu gives us the details on his time spent with the late Tupac, producing iconic photos
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 can look 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.”
For our latest installment, photographer Chi Modu gives us the backstory of his shoot with Tupac.
All eyez on him: Tupac Amaru Shakur would have turned 45 years old today. As both a musician and a person, he was a force. Singular. Intense. Transcendent—and he knew it. The photographers and creatives who worked with him over the years knew it too.
Photographer Chi Modu felt that intensity from the moment he turned his lens on Tupac. Having shot over 30 cover photos for The Source magazine in the 1990s as their Director of Photography, Modu captured everyone from Notorious B.I.G., Mobb Deep, Mary J. Blige, and L-L Cool J. The Nigeria-born and New Jersey-raised photographer has a remarkable archive of images, including Biggie WTC (standing in from of the World Trade Towers). From the start, he had a sense that hip hop visual culture would be important.
A pivotal player in the formative years of hip hop photography, Modu developed strong relationships with the artists he photographed and Tupac was no exception. Prolific and unflinching, a child of activists, Pac revealed himself in both rhyme and visuals. Much like his songs, Tupac’s imagery evoked the bravado and rebellion of a child equal parts of the Black Panther Party and of the hip hop hardrock generation. We all know the middle finger(s) up was a go-to pose for him. We ain’t mad at him.
It’s fitting then that Modu will release a book of Tupac photos this September. Tupac Shakur: UNCATEGORIZED (Drago Publishing) that will go beyond the familiar pictures of Tupac, delving into unexpected moments that capture the candid, point-blank perspective. In photographing Tupac, Modu’s method was meticulous yet loose enough to allow for spontaneity and nuance.
By now, Tupac has become equal parts myth and equal parts icon. Murdered in 1996 in a case that’s still unsolved, he remains one of hip hop’s most vital figures, an intellectual and visual strategist that still figures prominently in the global conversation around racial politics and the power of cultural imagery. Below, Chi Modu takes us through the day of this iconic shoot.
Chi Modu: It was really a time like no other. This was in Atlanta for a Source cover, the first cover Pac ever did. He had a house in Stone Mountain Georgia. The pictures tell it all. He was super friendly. Always early never late. And we went back to his house to hang out after. Tupac was confident. He knew who he was. And he trusted me to bring out these images. To the point where he would tell me ‘wait I need to do 20 pushups’ and then he would come back to the shoot. You make an unnatural process, natural. Once you’re welcome, you’re welcome.
Pac was a very forward thinking person and he knew I was genuine. Since his passing, I’ve treated his photos with ultimate respect. That’s his brand and I protect that. I’m the keeper of the image and I honor that. I’ll protect them whether the artist is here or not.
I was actually doing this shoot in 4×5..i would always keep a 35mm nearby and I would take. What you see in this contact sheet are in-between outtakes. Outtakes end up becoming more important than the main shots. Vulnerable moments. Where they can just be. And Tupac and I were at that point. You have to get them to a point where they can be comfortable.
The next time I saw Pac after this shoot was after he went to jail and he signed to Death Row. There was more security around. It was hotter in the streets. He sees me and I gives me a hug and says ‘I’m good. I’ve been watching you.’ And I said ‘I’ve been watching you too.” And then we took more pictures.
My shots of Pac are simple..being himself, tieing his bandana or whatever. It takes a lot of courage to take simple photos. In a lot of the photos he doesn’t have his shirt on and that’s because I was like “lets pare it back and lets go with just you. The shirt he had would be this patterned shirt and that took away from the simplicity of the shot” and now those photos are timeless.
After we were done he was like, everybody come back to my house let’s go hang out. And in his house he calls me in the back, he was like “Chi, let me show you something.” He showed me a bunch of guns and a bullet hole in his wall. I was like, “You’re an idiot” and we both started laughing.” Normal stuff you do with a friend… a 20 year old black guy dealing with a 20 year old black guy. I could say that to him.
The Camera Nerd Out
This was shot with a Nikon 35mm using Tri X black and white film. It’s funny, my camera equipment malfunctioned that first day of the shoot, and I was like, Shit—whatever town you’re gonna be in I’ll fly out and meet you there and do it there. And he was like, “No I’ll come back tomorrow.” The second day he came early, sat and waited patiently, and we did the shoot.
Mass Appeal: Tell us a more about your time photographing Tupac?
Chi Modu: My approach to hip hop was to document the movement. I approached it as a photojournalist. As a storyteller. Not a studio or portrait photographer. I think I was the only one.
We went back to his house after and hung out. He confided in me and gave me pictures that he said were just between us. For example, the shot with the cross across his back. That didn’t get published in the magazine. He said ‘this one is just for you’. I don’t always engage with artists. I keep it professional but when I looked at these young brothers back then I appreciated there energy and they could feel that. I wasn’t viewed as an outsider, I was viewed as an ally. It was a different time. You had to be an ally. The image, that brand that lives forever..sometimes even beyond the music. Pictures are very important and I knew how important they were even as I was taking them.
Our generation, those of us who came up in hip hop, changed the world.
What was the process of looking at the contact sheet like? Was there an obvious stand-out shot?
When you take photos, you needed a confidence to know that you could get it right when you were shooting. I knew I had the Tupac shot but didn’t know how many good shots I had. I only did half a roll with this particular shoot….15 to 20 frames. But there were like 5-6 great shots…years later Rolling Stone used one for their Tupac cover. I always felt like I had to get the shot have right. There’s no “I didn’t get the shot.”
How does this photo compare to some of your other work?
When you look at my pictures, you get a feel for the time. You get the whole story of what was happening back then. I had to put my camera in a position where you understand what was happening at the time. It could be a sweaty club or a studio or someone’s house. Most of the hip hop photography was more publicity shots more literal shots but what we started doing was making it less literal. We knew this was documenting a movement.
What percentage do you think you shoot film vs. digital?
I’m trying try to slide back to shooting 50/50 digital versus analog. There are advantages to digital. But all of my hip hop stuff you see is mostly on slide film. There’s a permanence – and nuance and depth — to film that digital cannot match. I like shooting on the Leica M240 and Leica M7 film camera. I love the Mamiya RZ 6×7, which is what I shot a bunch of covers on. And also the Sinar 4×5 I love too.
Tell us about the upcoming Tupac book.
It will release this fall. It’s the first photo book about him. Nobody else has the volume of Tupac images that I have and it’s the 20th anniversary of his passing. So it’s time to share it with the public. This is the public’s Tupac.
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 website, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter for more info.