erykah-badu

Contact High: Shooting Erykah Badu’s Debut

In the 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 legendary photographer Marc Baptiste to take us behind the scenes with the never before seen contact sheets for Erykah Badu’s classic debut album, Baduizm.

New York, 1997

Enter the visual orbit that is Erykah Badu. In 1997, photographer Marc Baptiste was asked to shoot the cover for Badu’s debut album Baduizm, the now classic album that introduced the world to Badu’s singularly innovative music and conscious out-the-box visual vocabulary. This year marks the the 20th anniversary of Baduizm. The resulting photographs and the beautifully totemic profile shot used for the cover image have come to embody a game-changing time in music, hip hop, and neo-soul culture. The Roots were among the collaborators responsible for the Baduizm sound. The visuals—ethereal queendom—were pure Erykah. The Dallas singer, born Erica Abi Wright, had made Brooklyn her adopted home. Years prior, she had decided to change the spelling of her first name from Erica to Erykah, the term ‘kah’ signifies one’s inner self. An inner self that brought nothing short of fire to her debut…

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Marc Baptiste, who was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and moved Brooklyn when he was nine years old, had a ‘vibe’ with Badu from the start. Having spent time in Paris and NYC shooting for Vogue, Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar, and others, Baptiste found his collaboration with Badu to be seamless and instinctual. The two have collaborated on numerous occasions since.

The day of the shoot, the dream team was rounded out with Andrew Dosunmu, who at the time was an era-defining stylist and then went on to create some of the most important films of recent years (Mother of George, Where is Krya, Restless City).

The contact sheets, never before seen, take us on a visual journey: from the private sanctuary of Badu’s apartment in Fort Green, Brooklyn (the incense, the books, the portrait of an artist as a young woman on the brink of a creative breakout…) to Central Park to Baptiste’s studio…

The Shoot

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“Erykah was living in Brooklyn at the time and I used to see her in the neighborhood when she got signed by Kedar Massenburg [who signed Badu after steering D’Angelo’s 1995 debut, Brown Sugar] who was a friend of mine. He let me hear the music and eventually I was brought on to shoot this cover. We started at like 11am and went until 2am. Shooting Erykah is never one straight line and she is so creative. We push each other and we ended up spending a lot of time on this shoot. We started at her house in Brooklyn on Henson Place; then we went to my studio at 33 Howard street in the city for studio shots; and then I took an 8×10 camera to Central Park.”

 

The Shot

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“Erykah is methodical and she thinks about everything from A-Z. She’s also very spiritual. Since this was her first album and she was all about the music and making a powerful visual to go with it. Back in those days she always rocked the head wrap and she wanted to create a cover image to make people pay attention. She showed beauty in a whole different way and that’s how we settled on the profile shot for the cover. We made each other better during the shooting process. When she likes something, she sticks to it and she fought for that specific shot to be the cover image.”

The Camera Nerd Out

“Shot on Hasselblad and some Pentax 6×7. I did a tight edit of the contact sheets and sent it to her and Kedar and we decided on the specific shot from there.”

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The Q+A

Erykah’s personal style is really powerful. What was it like collaborating with her?

When you have someone like Erykah, you have to include them in the creative process. At the end of the day, we just met and vibed and talked about what she envisioned. She showed beauty in a whole different way.

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You collaborated with Andrew Dosunmu for this shoot, which is just amazing as he has been an integral part of so many early visuals for black music. Many people who know him as a director (‘Mother of George,’ ‘Where Is Kyra?’) but don’t realize how active he was during this time.

I’ve known Andrew since we both worked in Paris and he was an incredible stylist at the time. He is a great thinker and visualist and we collaborated well. He was very in tune with the visuals and how to get that across. I’m proud to have worked with him.

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Who and what inspired you at the beginning of your career?

Guy Bordain and Helmut Newton were big inspirations. Nick Knight has an amazing body of work. Those guys were killing it when I was starting my career.

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Do you still shoot analog?

It was hard to switch to digital. I really loved my Mamiya RZ67 and my Hasselblad but then I was like ok let me try the Canon Mark II. Now it’s hard to find the right people to process it. And it’s expensive and the contact sheet comes back as a digital file. It’s a different time we live in. The negatives used to come back all scratchy and dirty and now they come back too perfect. The game changed forever so for personal projects, I’ll still shoot film occasionally. Technology makes it so fast and easy now. The iPhone and the Mark II changed the game. Clients don’t have the patience and they want images at the end of the shoot. When I was in high school, I used to spend 8 hours and more in the dark room. I used to spend hours until I got it right.

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Follow Marc Baptiste on Instagram and check out his books, all of which celebrate the female form: Beautiful: Nudes by Marc Baptiste  (2001), Intimate: Nuds by Marc Baptiste (2003), and Innocent: Nudes by Marc Baptistie (2006).

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The Contact High Project, conceived by Vikki Tobak will culminate into a book and exhibition. Check out the Contact High website, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter for more info.

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