Contact High: Photographer Trevor Traynor On Shooting A Flip Phone-Carrying Redman
"Mic, bright lights, camera, action!" -Reggie Noble
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 and 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.”
We caught up with photographer Trevor Traynor to get the behind the scenes of the time Redman came to a still sketchy Meatpacking District for this shoot…
New York, 2005
Trevor Traynor embarked on his career as a photographer through one of his first loves: New York. You can see it in his intimate photographs of the urban streetscapes, subways, newsstands. But where you really see the love is in his hip hop photography. The New York native was a deep fan long before he became a photographer. As he describes it, hip hop was the very essence of how he interpreted the city in his early days. He put in work as an underground MC, his older brother was a producer (making beats for DITC, Dres and others), and he cites early MC-driven underground clubs like Lyricist Lounge as informing his visual vocabulary. “It was the New York hustle. Hard work,” says Traynor.
Born 1979 in Brooklyn, Traynor grew up in the Bronx and upstate New York. He first picked up a camera, his dad’s Nikon FM, to take photos of his brother skateboarding. From there, he saved up and bought a Hasselblad medium format and started shooting hip hop shows and editorial in medium format, the square shape now ubiquitous in the days of Instagram but back then less common. “I just gravitated towards it,” recalls Traynor.
It’s no surprise then that Traynor’s Redman shoot for RIME magazine in 2005 was all so very New York in its mid aughts, Brick city hip hop glory. Witness Redman, styled out in his bright head-to-toe yellow and baby blue, showing off his flip phone. Witness the Con Edison workers watching from the sidelines to get in the last shot. The contact sheet is a testament to it all.
Trevor Traynor: This was for RIME magazine which was based out of LA. I was a huge fan of Redman. He was promoting the album Red Gone Wild which ended up getting a pushed back release. I remember him kind of grumbling about the label. This was very Brick City – New York style. I sent him an address in the meatpacking district. He pulled up by himself. He gets out of his car and we shoot for about half an hour. The meatpacking district was still kind of raw. Very New York. I shot this with natural light midday. I ended up shooting in front of a Con Edison truck and at the end we took a group shot with the workers for fun.
He showed up in classic hip hop style with these patent leather Air Force 1’s, super matching and colorful wearing yellow and black. Very much the style of the time. And the flip phone! The editors ending up choosing the close up for the cover and some additional shots for the editorial layout.
The Camera Nerd Out
I shot this with a Hasselblad and I only shot one roll of film, which is crazy to think now. If someone tells you today to shoot one roll of Kanye you think they’re crazy.
Talk about what your first impressions of Redman?
He was really down to business and showed up to get the job done. The street style of the time is summed up perfectly in what Redman is wearing.
How do you decide what imagery to put on Instagram?
I was super excited when Instagram came along because I was always into that square format. I just put up images I believe are strong or relevant.
You shot a lot of portraits at early hip hop shows. How did you get such deep access?
I would figure out a way to get backstage. The shows were much more accessible back then. I was a fan. The Hasselblad was a beautiful camera and very impressive and it made me ‘legit’ in a way. The artists took it seriously. I made a book of the photos and would show. I found that artists were easier if they were on home turf. That’s why I shot a lot of early stuff at New York shows.
So it sounds like just being a part of the fabric of the city made it easier to capture those moments and have artists be open to letting you shoot them?
In the photo Redman has a flip phone. That says a lot because people’s faces weren’t in their phones as much as they are today. About 10 years ago, I saw Kool Keith on Canal Street and I just said “what up Keith, I’m a photographer” and we ended up doing a whole shoot, even went down into the subway to shoot. Nowadays, it’s different. Completely stylized, planned campaigns, creatively controlled very tight. It’s not as casual.
Talk about being so influenced by New York. For example the series you shot of newsstands really captures an element of the city one doesn’t often easily focus on.
The newsstand is such a transient experience and people are flying by and to take that moment. I shot my first newsstand in New York City and immediately found myself stopping to take portraits at every stand I passed. I’m drawn to the vibrant organized colors and compact product placement that provides an instant time stamp via magazine covers and headlines. This element of communicating through the city is very New York. I communicate before I start shooting. I’ll show them previous images on my phone and we start chatting and it’s all body language and being comfortable. Out of the 80 newsstand owners I shot, only 4 said no. There’s a power to references and visual communication.
Do you still shoot analog or make contact sheets?
I take out the Hasselblad once in awhile but usually for personal projects or things I’m extremely personal to me. And that’s largely because of budget. Film is expensive. But even when I shoot digital, I treat it as though I have a limited number of shots. I don’t just hold down the shutter.
Follow Trevor Traynor on Instagram.
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.