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Contact High: Xavier De Nauw on Shooting Ice-T

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 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 Xavier De Nauw to take us through his early shoot of Ice-T.

Paris, 1990

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Back in 1990, a young French photographer named Xavier De Nauw snuck backstage after Ice-T’s performance in Paris and captured the rapper “flipping the bird” after one of his first performances abroad. Just a few years earlier, Ice-T had released his debut album Rhyme Pays, the first hip-hop record to feature the Parental Advisory warning label. To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the album, streetwear imprint ONEST HOMME used De Nauw’s image for an apparel collaboration. De Nauw’s collection of slides as well as his contact sheets from his shoot with Ice-T a few years later, speak to a certain level of access that is rare in today’s photographer/subject relationship. French-born and L.A.-based De Nauw also recently curated Represent, an important online auction of hip-hop photography presented for ArtNet.

 The Shoot

“I shot Ice-T the first time in February 1990, live in Elysée Montmartre, a famous French venue in Paris. After that show, I snuck into the backstage and shot the “flipping the bird” image of him wearing a New Jack City tee-shirt. BEST Magazine in Paris published my live photos to illustrate the concert review and 2 years later they commissioned me for an article regarding his 5th studio album. I flew to Los Angeles on March 21st, 1993 for 48 hours and 48 hours before the official release of Home Invasion. It was my first time in California and when I arrived I felt totally lost.”

The Shot

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“The next morning, I took a cab for my meeting with Ice-T, at his villa. I buzzed the door and Darlene (Ice-T’s wife at the time) opened the door. It was kind of unreal for me to be in L.A. entering Ice-T’s house. Ice-T was on the phone with a French journalist for the interview. He welcomed me like if I was a friend and allowed me to shoot anytime. After the phone, he asked me if he can shave so he will look “so fresh so clean” for the picture. We start to shoot on this roof and then we went for a walk with one of his dogs. It was such a hot day, but the vibe was chill, no pressure, no rush—just a perfect day for a 2 hour photo shoot with an artist happy to take the pause and get strong attitude in front of my lens. I was on the top of the hills really feeling the City of Angels. 20 years later I moved to L.A. and I feel really proud to have discovered this city with the OG Ice-T as my usher.”

 The Camera Nerd Out

“Nikon F-301 with a 28mm and 85mm lens, plus a Rolleiflex. My film was Kodak EPT 120, Ilford HP5, Ektachrome 100 and Polagraph. I always loved to try different films as I never used Photoshop and never retouched any of my shots during my entire analog photography career.”

The Q&A

What was your career like at the time of this shoot? Were you shooting a lot of hip hop?

I was 23 and I was shooting for 3 years as a professional freelancer, I was shooting a lot of French hip hop artists and American artists while they were in France. At the beginning, I was requesting a photo pass more to have access to the show for free to enjoy the performances more than to become a photographer, but after a few gigs the photography started to become a real passion. It was my quest to collect photographs of all my idols which included Isaac Hayes, Al Green, Prince and Gang Starr to name a few that I had the chance to meet and photograph.

What made you first want to become a photographer?

Prince was the key of me becoming a photographer. When I was 16, the song “Let’s Go Crazy” really created a “click” in me. I bought a ticket for the Parade Tour show at the Zenith in Paris. After that insane spectacle, I became a huge fan. I didn’t have talent as a musician, but I wanted so much to be part of the music industry; however, I did not know how to infiltrate the world. I worked for 2 months in a bank as a summer job and with that money I bought my first camera. I started as an unauthorized photographer and step-by-step I made contact with venue managers and traded photo pass access in exchange of a print. In December 1989, I was on the French TV set of “LUNETTES NOIRES POUR NUIT BLANCHES” where Lenny Kravitz performed for the first time in France. I proposed the pictures to TELERAMA a weekly magazine that published one image to announce his first live show at “Le Zenith” in May 1990. I made 1400,00 Francs, which was a lot of money at this time, so I decided to focus on photography.

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What was the process of looking at the images/contact sheet like? Was there an obvious stand-out shot?

The discovery process was always a celebration because back in the days you were waiting for your films to be processed and it was always a magical moment when the guy from the lab was giving you your envelope full of the images you took the day before; opening that envelope was always a gift. The digital era erased that latency time, but it was such a precious moment for me. I always felt that the magazines in France never published the images I like the most. There is always several stand-out shots, but they will always chose the most academic and never published the one I think was the best eye-catcher. Having said this, I was always happy to be published because each time I saw a photo printed with my credit made me feel alive like a graffiti artist spraying his name in the city—my playground was the press and my goal was to be seen everywhere for my work !

What are your favorite type of subjects to shoot and why?

Artists are my favorite subjects, because they are soulful and I always wanted to share and capture a moment of their life and create an iconic photo. Artists always give a lot and I consider it an easy task for a photographer to have them as subject.

What was your first camera you used and what is your favorite camera to use now?

My first camera was a Nikon F-301. My favorite camera? This is a hard question… I always wanted to shoot with different cameras, but the 6×7 Pentax and Hasselblad 503c were my favorites until I bought an iPhone. Now I shoot with a Canon 5D.

What do you miss about the darkroom process?

You would lose the notion of time. You never knew how many hours you had spent there, just focusing on the print process and the red light made you forget about how many hours you were spending there!

In your opinion, what role does photography play in hip hop’s legacy?

I think photography plays a huge role as a witness of an era that no one was interested in at the beginning. Photographers and photojournalists didn’t just do an image, they wrote the history of the music through their imagery that hip hop heads would have engraved in their minds forever. Iconography and words are the key of journalism and a good article to be read is sold thanks to the photos which illustrate it. A recent example is the stunning book WALK THIS WAY from Sophie Bramly who reveals so many stories about the hip hop era that only her eye could catch because she was the only one there with a camera. Also, album covers are a major part of the hip hop legacy. For me, album covers are “art majeur.” A recent example, the picture done by Denis Rouvre for Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly–it’s so strong that it will be part of the hip hop photography history.

What are you inspired by in the current cultural landscape (literature, music, art, films, etc.)?

I am always inspired by music; it is my major engine and photography is my language. I am also touched by painting and art in general… I was absolutely amazed by Kerry James Marshall show at the MOCA this year and Kahlil Joseph’s DOUBLE CONSCIENCE video installation last year. I was moved by the exhibitions NON-FICTION, curated by Noah Davis at the Underground Museum. I was also honored to meet with Dana Lixenberg after I worked with her on “REPRESENT.” I am so impressed by the images she produced over 22 years with the people of IMPERIAL COURT.

In a larger sense what are some creatives, artists, experiences or people that have had an impact on how you approach your work?

Photographer/director Jean-Baptiste Mondino was one of my mentors. Like me, he is obsessed with music. All his photography and videos are timeless. Also, the work of Bruce Davidson, Gordon Parks, Eli Reed all helped me to understand the power of an image. Today visual artists using photography as a medium like Mambu Bayoh, Delphine Diallo, Shawn Theodore, Jalan and Jivril Durimel are the ones I am looking at with passion because they have a new visual writing and such an honest vision on our world. They give me a huge feeling of freedom.

Could you give us some more insight into your creative process?

My creative process is really intuitive I try to do the best with what I can get access to, but my key focus is simplicity. I consider a good image one that will be good forever, an image that will never change in meaning or impact!

What is something that you can’t get out of your head these days?

I aim to produce content that will hopefully create a reflection. It is a hard quest, but I always try to be real and create imagery where the people I shoot look proud. Photography is a unique moment that is forever and if you manage to capture a stunning moment, people will be reminded of this moment in their subconscious, which will always touch their soul.

What was your inspiration is organizing REPRESENT? Does hip hop photography get its proper attention in overall photography world?

Artnet had an idea to focus on hip hop photography but did not know how to proceed. I was honored to be asked and I knew I would be able to unite the “dream team” of the photographers who created the iconic hip hop imagery. It was a hard task as there are so many images I wanted to include, but I think Artnet and I did a great job in the end. We sold almost all the images which made the photographers really happy. It also made them part of the art world with an official value for art buyers. Hip hop photography is not really considered “art” for collectors, but the success of REPRESENT made the art world look at this art form in a different way for 5 days. Hopefully, other initiatives will assure these images to be recognized as Art.

Talk about why you chose to use this photo for an apparel collaboration?

I collaborated with the new apparel brand ONEST HOMME. It’s a collection created by Danielle Johnigan with roots in major record labels (Virgin, Interscope and Capitol). The company “officially” launched at the top of this year. Onest Homme is born from the French expression “honnete homme,” the honest (hu)man. The brand is an urban concept with a new and unique vision with a strong motto: Be “onest” in all that you do. My last collaboration with the brand was a limited edition tee of iconic skater Harold Hunter. The brand has most recently cleared my image of Ice-T “flipping the bird” to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Rhyme Pays, Ice-T’s first studio album and the first hip hop album to feature the Parental Advisory sticker. It’s also very exciting to work with a young, fresh company that’s clear about their vision.

Follow Xavier DeNauw on his website and the Onest Homme collaboration here.

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

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