Michael Miller Photography / California
Michael Miller Photography
For over two decades, Los Angeles, California-based photographer Michael Miller has shot some of the most amazing covers in the rap music industry, and now he’s put together a new book called West Coast Hip-Hop: A History In Pictures which showcases his work and memories of working with some of rap’s biggest names. With artists like Eazy-E, 2Pac, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Cypress Hill, and many more, this is the perfect coffeetable book offering nostalgia for longtime rap fans and an excellent source of history for younger ones. AllHipHop.com caught up with the famed photographer to talk about his new book, which is also now available in stores and online retailers:
AllHipHop.com: How many years have you been involved in photography?
Michael Miller: Almost 25 years.
AllHipHop.com: Some of these pictures are almost that old, so that means you really developed your skills quickly.
Michael Miller: Absolutely. I moved back from Europe, and I was shooting a lot of fashion. I signed to an agency, and right away, my style was picked up by the music labels. My first job was Roger Troutman for Capitol Records. Herb Alpert, the co-founder of A & M Records, called me one day at home and told me that I was his photographer from now on. I shot a bunch of their covers before the company was sold. I started doing different covers for Heart and then some R&B and Jazz acts.
I did Ice Cube for Street Knowledge, The Arabian Prince for EMI, and then I did the Stussy Clothing campaign – which a lot of rap artists dug because it was “street.” I met DJ Muggs through that and we clicked. Muggs and I started collaborating about his new project, “Cypress Hill.” He had just finished with his previous group, 7A3, and he was telling me about his new group and how he wanted his photos to look. We actually started hanging out and this was all before Cypress Hill became big. I hung out with him on Cypress Avenue and tagged along while he DJ’d.
Muggs also brought me into WC’s first album with Low Profile because he was sharing a place with DJ Aladdin. The only thing they had in their house was two coffin cases for the turntables and mixers. Muggs and Aladdin would just battle. They had no furniture – just some clothes and a couple of beds in the back bedrooms. All they did was DJ against each other all day and night. As a matter of fact, they had just come off of the DMC DJ Championship where they came in first and second [place]. They were the baddest DJs in the land at that time. So Muggs and I did Cypress Hill’s demo photos, and in the book, I even have photos of the group while they were in the studio recording their demo. After they got signed to Ruffhouse Records, I did the cover for the album and “The Phuncky Feel One” and “How I could Just Kill a Man” side A & B single.
DJ Muggs brought me in to a lot of studios, and he hooked me up with a lot of people just be association. I almost got pigeon-holed into rap, but I still managed to do shoots for groups like Pantera and Lynrd Skynrd. Hip-Hop really embraced me, though. I got along with everybody and there were never any issues.
AllHipHop.com: Your 2Pac photos are iconic. They’ve been posted just about everywhere on the Internet, and are usually the first images that pop up when you Google his name. Did you ever imagine those photos would be so huge?
Michael Miller: I knew it was going to be good. First off, 2Pac was already famous. I knew that this job was going to be special. At first, 2Pac asked me not to shoot his face, just his belly. After we started doing a couple of set-ups, he changed his mind and had me shoot his face, too. He knew exactly what he wanted. Plus, I work hard, so I expect every job that I do to be above average. But those shots are iconic because he’s so iconic.
AllHipHop.com: Out of all of the great shoots that you’ve done, have there been any that you regretted because they didn’t turn out as good as you hoped for?
Michael Miller: I think every one [laughter]. I’m a perfectionist. However, now that I’ve put the book together and gone over the shots again, I really like them. I would shoot the cover, the package, and the singles – then keep the film in storage. Twenty years later, I’m putting this book together and going over the pictures, and I was blown away. I came across photos of Nate Dogg and other artists like Mista Grimm – some of which I had forgotten that I had taken. I was very happy with these photos looking at them again. I work hard and do my homework. I prep and search for locations. With the 2Pac shoot that you mentioned, I spent a few days looking for them. It’s not like we stumbled upon it.
AllHipHop.com: Without giving away too much, what is your favorite story from your book?
Michael Miller: The Source Magazine asked me to shoot Dr. Dre in the studio while he was working on The Chronic. When I walked in, Dre told me to wait until he finished what he was working on. Snoop Dogg was in the booth doing vocals, so I just blended in the background for a couple of hours. When the session was over, he gave me a few minutes to get the shot. Dre posed on the mixing board for a quick second and then he left. It’s been a long time since that day, but so memorable. I could draw a diagram of the studio layout.
AllHipHop.com: What about a favorite or most memorable story that didn’t make it in the book?
Michael Miller: Hollywood Basic’s was a record label owned by The Walt Disney Company. Dave Funkenklein, rest in peace, ran the company, and he hired me to do a shoot for the Lifer’s Group. They were a group of convicts serving life sentences in Rahway Prison in New Jersey. These inmates were on a television show called “Scared Straight”, aimed at keeping kids out of prison.
The call time was at 7a.m., and it was a cold and rainy morning when I pulled up to the prison. I was greeted by a guard, and we walked across a yard and then he introduced me to the group. I remember counting 22 people, and that was the most that I had ever shot for an album cover. My idea was to place them under a watch tower with guards holding rifles overhead. After that, we shot in the auditorium where they filmed the TV show and had prison concerts. While they were showing me their recording/rehearsal studio, the head guard said that we needed to leave because they were letting the general population out.
The inmates had to be on good behavior in order to be in the group. I asked them about what they did to get locked up. One dude told me that he kidnapped the Governor’s son, chopped him up, and left him in the trunk of his car for a few days before getting arrested. I knew it was time to leave when the leader of the group told me that I looked like Denzel Washington! Before I left, I asked the head guard who had worked there for over 20 years, if I could see the weapons that he’s confiscated from the inmates. He took out a box and placed it on the floor of the office. I took a shot of it and included it inside of the CD package.
Reisig & Taylor Photography
Reisig and Taylor Photography
Stage 8, Booth 703
Los Angeles, CA
TWO THINGS REMAIN CONSTANT ABOUT REISIG AND TAYLOR PHOTOGRAPHY: AN INFATUATION WITH LIGHT, ALL KINDS OF LIGHT, THE WAY IT PLAYS OFF SURFACES, SEARS PAST OBJECTS, THROUGH FABRICS AND BOUNCES AROUND NATURE, WHETHER WE SUPPLY IT OURSELVES OR FIND IT ON SIGHT, UTILIZING, CONTROLLING AND CAPTURING LIGHT AND ITS ABSENCE, IS PHOTOGRAPHY. SECONDLY, WE HAVE A PASSION FOR OUR WORK THAT IS CONTAGIOUS AND THE SHARED EFFECT CAN BE SEEN THROUGH THE EYES OR GESTURE, OR CAPTURED MOVEMENT OF OUR SUBJECTS. CHRIS REISIG AND LEEZA TAYLOR HAVE A SUCCESSFUL PHOTOGRAPHY BUSINESS FOR TWENTY TWO YEARS NOW. WE TRAVEL AND EXPLORE AND HAVE MADE THOUSANDS OF PHOTOGRAPHS, AND NOW DIMENSION 2.4 PRESENTS US WITH AN EXPLORATION OF THE FAMILIAR IN AN UNEXPECTED VISUAL DYNAMIC. ALL ASPECTS OF THESE IMAGES AND THEIR PRODUCTION ARE IN HOUSE, LITERALLY.
2pac / Deathrow
Gotta follow your sergeants directions or get your ass popped with the Smiff N Wesson!” Eazy E on Real Compton City Gz
Its been said that Tupac signing to Death Row was the gift and the curse. The gift was the fact that it helped Pac reach his peak as the biggest name in rap and officially made him a mega star. Him signing to Death Row proved to be a smart move career wise as he would sell 7-8 million records with his double disc All Eyez on Me. The album would be the highest selling album in 1996 along with Death Row Records being put back on the map as a megaforce due to Bad Boy dominating much of 1995. The Curse being that his death would lead the fall of the empire.
When Pac was locked up, He felt depressed, betrayed, and angry about the whole incident. He was robbed, shot 5 times and sent to prison within 24 hour span along the media crucifying him and trying to assassinate his character by potraying him as a rapist and a knuckleheaded convict. The epic pic of Tupac being carried in and out of court in a wheelchair with his head wrapped up stuck in many people’s minds for years. The reality of prison life started to set in on Pac. His so-called friends didn’t visit him or took time to write letters checking on him. He was an open target for no only in prison due to the nature of his reputation but in hip hop as well as New York artists and DJs started disrespecting him on New York Radio stations and even went as far as to spread a rumor of him being raped in prison,
It was hard for Tupac to sit in prison and receive this treatment without having the outlet to respond to it. Despite having the #1 album in the country with Me Against the World, Tupac still had a lot of anger in his heart and wanted to extract revenge. He knew that he needed a team because he felt betrayed by Puffy, Biggie, and all of New York so he signed with Death Row Records in late October 1995 and was released on 1.4 million dollar bail.
Death Row Records was what Tupac felt he needed at the time. He finally felt that he had a team powerful enough to go against Bad Boy, Who was running the game heavily at the time and had finally had a platform to abstract revenge on his adversaries. He also felt that he had Suge’s street muscle to give him the protection he needed as well so people would think twice at firing back at him.He felt now that he can intimidate his enemies and he did so throughout 1996 with his onslaught of diss records towards the Bad Boy camp, Nas, Mobb Deep, JayZ or whomever said anything slick or disrespect towards him.
The difference between Tupac and the rappers today is that he didn’t care about industry politics. Tupac didn’t care if you sold five million records or five records, You said his name and he was gonna come after you. Everybody from the biggest artist(Biggie) to the smallest(Chino XL) got hit with Tupac’s wrath. He was on a mission to eliminate those who felt betrayed him and said anything bad about him or the west coast. It wouldn’t be until Dre’s departure is where he would officially be Suge Knight’s pitbull as he would even go after Dre as well.
But on the inside, You can tell deep inside that Tupac didn’t want to be on Death Row. He even said himself that “He was successful on Death Row but not happy”. It was an obligation that he felt he had obtain. He felt obligated to take on all of Suge’s demands because Suge bailed him out of prison. He also owed money to Death Row as well and was already in debt due to his incarceration.Therefore He had to prove his loyalty to Suge and had to partake in alot of Suge’s beefs from taking parts of the Death Row beatdowns, Going after Dre for leaving the label and even if it had to go through certain bizarre rituals that were demanded by the label such as this picture here with Pac naked covered in chains in a bathtub:
Now why Pac decided to take this picture in this manner I would never know. Maybe its to boost his sex appeal but its clear that on the shoot that he looked very uncomfortable and not happy in having to go through this. There have been many people who worked within the label that claimed that Pac wanted to get out of Death Row badly and was the main reason why he would release these albums so quickly even though Pac himself publically never admitted any friction between him and Suge. Its obvious from hearing the stories of people who knew him personally including Fredro Starr and Tha Outlawz that He wanted out of Death Row as he told them to NOT sign with them.
Pac felt trapped in a obligation that he didn’t want to obtain. He felt that he sold out his beliefs and himself as he would even switch his style from the political conscious route into a more street savvy style rapper to represent Death Row’s gangsta rap image.
The rituals that Pac seen within the Entertainment industry started getting more bizarre and it drove him crazy. From having Quincy Jones(Pac was engaged to his daughter) asking him to “fuck him in the ass”(According to Professor Griff) to the weird pictures takened in the tub wrapped in chains. Tupac seemed to have had enough of the Industry and was gonna work on his Makaveli album which was gonna be a bombshell. He not only would address not only his enemies but also the people who were pulling the strings which is why he named it Killumanti the 7 Day Theory. From turning down the Jones ritual and actually claiming to “kill the illuminati” Pac was marked for death and he knew it.
The Makaveli album was gonna be the album that was gonna shake up the industry. He said himself that he did All Eyez on Me was an album done for Suge and that this album was gonna be darker and him going back into dropping knowledge. Upon recording this album, It seemed that Pac was either foretelling his death or figured his name was calling so he was gonna spend his last days fearing no one. He completed the album in SEVEN days further showcasing his genius as an artist and further fueling the rumors of him wanting to leave. Many of the Death Row artists were afraid of asking about their money and allowed Suge to punk them out for many years. Pac realizing that his deal was almost up felt he had nothing to lose started asking Suge about the money that was owed to him and there were many arguments between the two which Pac was ready to fight Suge and he would throw him a couple of grand and a car to keep him happy. It would be the same tactic that Suge would do to many of his artists as Snoop Dogg would claim in the March 1998 Source Issue.
Another thing that people didn’t notice is that Pac wasn’t even wearing the Death Row medallion as much anymore during the record of Makaveli. He was wearing his Euphanasia medallion even more into the public. He actually walked in NYC which was Biggie’s stomping ground to address Nas in front of seventy of his people at Central Park with just fifteen of his people with him. Snoop Dogg talked about this during an interview earlier this year. Pac had plans of doing a One Nation project featuring Boot Camp Click, Greg Nice, Melly Mel, Bone Thugs, Spice 1, Scarface, Big Daddy Kane, The Luniz and others to show that he still had love for NYC and that his issues were mainly with certain people in that state, He also had plans of Makaveli Records and further continuing that movement after leaving Death Row.
Suge knew that he couldn’t have his biggest asset leave the company at a time where they were making so much money. He had already lost Dr Dre which was a huge contributor to their sound and was actually the originator of the Death Row sound so having Pac leave would result into many questioning from his artists that he knew cheated money out of and Pac leaving would put the company in a serious hole.The only way Suge could have possibly kept Pac’s masters and catalogue with him is if he had him killed according to one of Death Row’s ex Bodyguards.
Pac didn’t even want to go to Tyson fight in Las Vegas that night but he figured that it was in his destiny to go and knew he was gonna go down sooner or later so he went ahead after confinement from Suge and company. Im not gonna breakdown the details of his whole death because its been done many times before but there was no denying that Pac’s reasoning for being killed has to be his new inner fearlessness of Suge Knights muscle or the fact that the higher-ups seen him as too much of a serious threat. A rapper selling 7-8 million records addressing the Illuminati and wanting to kill it? Thats way too much power for a young black artist to have. Mix that with his Black Panther background and you have a serious problem.They possibly felt that they had to eliminate Pac and use Suge to do it.
Chi Modu Photography
Chi Modu: You know what’s wild about photographs? Once you see a photograph it triggers things. When I see the photograph, I can damn near tell you the airline I flew in on—just from looking at the photograph.
TUPAC CALLS ME IN THE BACK, HE WAS LIKE “CHI LET ME SHOW YOU SOMETHING.” WE GO TO HIS BEDROOM, HE SHOWS ME HIS WHOLE GUN COLLECTION—HIS AK, HIS GLOCK, EVERYTHING, RIGHT? THEN HE MOVES A PICTURE ON THE WALL TO THE SIDE AND THERE’S A BULLET HOLE
"Like even some of that Tupac stuff where he’s tying his bandana—Rob Marriott was with me that day in Atlanta. And that was actually the first cover story Pac did. And I remember that because it was the only time I had to send Tupac home. My equipment malfunctioned, 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.
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.” We go to his bedroom, he shows me his whole gun collection—his AK, his Glock, everything, right? Then he moves a picture on the wall to the side and there’s a bullet hole. He was like, “Yeah I’ve been on probation, you know—so I just let off a shot in my bedroom.” I was like You’re an idiot” and we both started laughing."
Danny Clinch / Photography
"This is 1993," Clinch remembers. "Rolling Stone calls and gives me this photo shoot. I was told it was going to run a quarter page. It was one of my first RS assignments and in my mind I said, 'I'm going to shoot this as a Rolling Stone cover in my mind.' I was just dreaming.
"Tupac showed up and was very cool. I've done a lot of hip-hop. A lot of the musicians would come with sometimes 20 people, but at least five or six people would come to your studio and make themselves comfortable. Tupac showed up with one guy and they came up to my studio. He was really professional and he was very excited to be photographed for Rolling Stone. He understood the magnitude of that since it's not just a hip-hop magazine. It's the gold standard. He was really into it.
"At one point he was changing up his clothes so we'd have some options. I saw his tattoos and said, 'Hey, can I get a couple without your shirt on?' He said, 'Sure.' I shot a couple like that. The shoot wasn't really that long. I felt like we got it. We shot there and on the roof of my studio. Then three years later, the inevitable happened and it actually ran on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Talking about your upcoming book, what are some of your favorite images from that?
I like the pairing of things. There’s a pairing that has Jay Z on one side and Tony Bennett on the other and why would those two be together? Because they’re both super interesting people who are owning it. There’s a new image of Tupac that I have in there—if it has been published, it hasn’t been published a bunch—so I’m excited about that. There’s some great Tom Waits [photos] in there. There are some Neil Young photos that I love.
Bruce Springsteen wrote the foreword to the book which is super exciting for me. There’s some good Springsteen photos in there as well. The way it’s broken up, it’s not only live concert stuff, it’s backstage stuff, hanging out, relationships that have taken me ten years to build that I love. Being on the road with Radiohead on the back of a ferry going over to Liberty State park are things you can’t really get unless you have spent a lot of time and invested in a lot of time in a good relationship with people so that they trust you.
How did your relationship with Radiohead start?
I met Radiohead when they first came to America with the "Creep" single. We were going to do a shoot together and they were really happy with the photos. So when they were coming to town, they would call me and we would hang out and I would shoot photos, whether it was social or I had an assignment. I think it’s important that you’re choosy about what photos you publish, that you make sure everybody’s comfortable. Some people enjoy trying to get the scandalous photos out there and putting people in compromising positions but that’s just not my style.
What would you say your style is instead?
It’s photograph as a document, on the more artistic side of things. A portrait can be really powerful but I also like to pull back and show atmosphere, capture a moment that makes it real. It’s not flashy, it’s soulful and authentic. You hear those words all the time but it feels right to me.
Recently you shot Ringo for John Varvatos. Can you talk a little about that experience?
This is my twentieth campaign with him. John is a huge lover of music. Rock 'n' roll has certainly influenced his brand. We had shot Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, Green Day, Jimmy Page, Eric Carr Jr. and then KISS—where do you go from there? This year we went to the Grammys and John reconnected with Ringo. I think he was wearing something of John's and we were like, 'Man, we got to try for Ringo.’We reached out to his manager and publicist and they were onboard. We built the campaign around Ring's charity, Peace Rocks. Certainly Ringo doesn’t need the money, he wanted to be able to help support his charity and bring attention to it. He’s super psyched to be on board. He was quoted as saying that he’s always wanted to be a male model.
The cool thing about the John Varvatos stuff is that it’s one of those things that’s helped me transition into filmmaking. I’ve been making films since the early 90s like that documentary on Ben Harper, but I decided to venture into filmmaking and when I started the John Varvatos campaign. I started to bring my Bolex camera. I said to John, 'If you don’t mind, I’m just going to shoot some b-roll stuff that I can put up on my website,' and he was like, 'Yeah, sure.' It turned into now that we really think about the campaign not only from a still aspect but also from a film standpoint for me as a director.
Dana Lixenberg Photography / Corbis
Mossless in America is a column featuring interviews with documentary photographers. The series is produced in partnership with Mossless magazine, an experimental photography
publication run by Romke Hoogwaerts and Grace Leigh. Romke started Mossless in 2009, as a blog in which he interviewed a different photographer every two days; since 2012 the
magazine has produced two print issues, each dealing with a different type of photography. Mossless was featured prominently in the landmark 2012 exhibition Millennium Magazine
at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; it is supported by Printed Matter, Inc. Its third issue, a major photographic volume on American
documentary photography from the last ten years, titled The United States (2003–2013), will be published this spring.
Dana Lixenberg is a photographer who focuses on the individuals and communities on the margins of society.
Although she shoots editorial jobs for a variety of magazines including the New Yorker, Vibe, and Time, she maintainins a rigorously sensitive personal practice of documentary photography.
These series include photographs of a South Central LA housing project called Imperial Courts, begun in 1993, pictures of a center for homeless families in Jeffersonville, Indiana, and documents of a disappearing culture in Nome, Alaska.
Throughout all her work, Lixenberg draws out the humanity of her subjects and ultimately photographs the fragility of human life.
It's interesting to look at your pictures of celebrities next to some of your other subjects.
It really brings it close to home. I find it very interesting that I have had the chance to set foot in all these different often contrasting worlds. Entertainment culture, sports, all different parts and layers of society. I’ve never taken a different approach between photographing celebrities and un-known individuals, The fragility of life is experienced by all.
When shooting people who have had a lot of media exposure I’m not interested in reinforcing their public image. I try to really see the person that’s in front of me, the way they are at that particular moment stripped from all the surrounding distractions like their entourage and to slowly bring them to a place where they don’t present a persona basically where they don’t try to hard.
Even if I’ve always enjoyed that part of my practice, I’m clearly not going to spend my own money pursuing projects on celebrities. It is ultimately more limiting, more fleeting than doing the kind of work I make for my personal projects. I find that the [documentary] portraits and landscapes are really about slowing down, cutting out all the noise and really taking time to contemplate the world around me every time with new eyes. The plain and the everyday is often very exciting to me. It can reveal a lot about life. I’m really inspired by details and I am usually more inspired by non-dramatic settings. Some of my images may seem boring, where there is nothing obvious going on, but I like playing with that, being on the fringes of boring.
My project Jeffersonville, Indiana, takes place in a town that is very bland. It’s a place you kind of pass through, nothing about it really stands out. You know, there’s such an amazing history of photographers that explored Americana. I try to add my own voice to that. I am very interested in social injustice. While I have no expectation that I can influence social change or that I can ever make a concrete impact with the photographs, I do feel it’s kind of empowering to give the people you photograph a timeless presence in the larger world.
Mossless: You are Dutch, but you have taken a great interest in photographing and documenting in the United States, like the hardships of industries that are slowly falling by the wayside as time goes on. What has drawn you to this subject matter?
Dana Lixenberg: My work is partly about the inevitable downside and consequences of capitalism which can result in a sense of alienation.
I don’t think I’ve necessarily photographed in areas where there was huge industry in the first place. Maybe for a while there was more production going on in the US, so it must be the consequence of that, but there was devastating poverty when there was a lot of industry going on, and now there’s still devastating poverty.
You photograph some of the most extreme examples of the economic changes.
Yeah, and actually I am part of it, and even people I photograph are part of this system and keep it going. I think [capitalism] has become a given because you can see how former and current communist countries are going the same way. I'm really aware of that, and want to face the realities and the downsides of that system that I find also attractive. And I find it interesting that I have gotten to photograph so many celebrities.
They certainly have an impact. I can’t stop thinking about those communities like on island of Shishmaref, Alaska, seeing their own settlements slowly wear away. What’s the mood up there?
Just before I first visited Shishmaref, I was about to move. For many years I had lived at a place on Broadway, and it was sort of hanging over my head that I had to leave at some point. But that is nothing compared to losing your community, where your ancestors have lived for 2,000 years. I think the Inupiaq are also slowly losing their culture and their history. It is slipping away. The kids are becoming a little bit more Americanized, and that makes sense. They are going to be receptive to different influences like we all are.
They have a subsistence lifestyle—they still have to hunt for food, because it is very expensive to buy food from the store. There are high depression rates in Alaska. People are isolated so there is a lot of freedom, but in the winter they don’t get light, there is a pretty high suicide rate, especially among the Inupiaq youth. I did feel a sort of heaviness over there, and I do see people might feel a little bit stuck, where it is hard to move away to another place to pursue work opportunities because this is their community.
Imperial Courts was one of the first series you photographed in America. It documented the residents of a housing project in California in 1993, and you are currently revisiting this series after many years. Was it your intention to come back from the beginning?
No, it was never my intention. The series began at a pivotal time in their history, after the [Rodney King] riots and during the retrial of the four officers, so there was a lot of the media attention on South Central LA, specifically Imperial Courts, Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs, the three oldest housing projects in Watts. With the series I found my language as a photographer. I started working with a 4x5” field camera, the same one I still use for all my work. I showed the work to Vibe, a new magazine about to be launched back then. They published a portfolio of the work and they started hiring me for commissions, so all of my [photographic] work in America indirectly or directly came from this series.
I stayed in touch with the community. In 1999 I visited Imperial Courts with a Dutch camera crew because they were filming me for a documentary about my work for Dutch television. They filmed people looking through the old contact sheets and already quite a few people had died, including Tony Bogaert, the leader of the PJ Watts Crips who had become a community leader paving the way to a peace accord with the Bloods. He had first brought me into the Imperial Courts in ’93 and basically gave his approval. He was killed in 1994. The photographs had become an important document for the people there. Initially I really felt that series worked as it was, but then more and more time passed and more people that I photographed had ended up in jail or had died
Then Katrina happened, and people were shocked by the response to these [poorer] communities, where people were really left in the cold and basically treated quite inhumanely. I always thought, Yeah, it’s no surprise. Like many of these communities in the US, they somehow don’t count, they live in a state of neglect. In this case of course, a lot of these boys are—and girls as well, but more boys—spend a lot of time in prison, and basically a whole segment of the community is wiped out by the prison system.
Also in time the response to the old images became more charged and more intense in Imperial Courts, and they started asking me, "Are you going to be coming back for more pictures?" I became interested in the challenge.
In '93 I focused mostly on individual portraits, to capture the charisma of these very strong individuals, partly in reaction to the extremely one dimensional portrayal by the media at the time. When I started shooting again in 2008 I re-photographed many of the same people and their children but, as my connection to the community grew more personal, I started expanding my scope. I started recording sound and filming and shooting more still-lives and landscapes and doing more group portraits because I’m now more aware of all of the family relations and all these connections.
To make a long story short, I continued until now. I did my last visit in November. It’s been 20 years, so I’m on the third generation.
You mentioned that they were relatively unseen people in our society, I think the same could be said for your subjects from Jeffersonville, Indiana, who were homeless at the time you photographed them.
I was first sent there on a commission for Jane magazine in 1997, and I was very struck by the place. At first sight [it seemed] sort of bland and Bible Belt. Then the people I met completely defied the stereotypical image of homelessness. A lot of them were women with children, or families. The husband or wife loses their job or goes into debt—you know these stories of how easy it is to fall through the cracks. I really wanted to come back, and so every year I would spend a week or two in Jeffersonville and hang out at the shelter. I didn’t really want to photograph people in the shelter sitting on the beds, I didn’t want people to be defined by these (often) temporary circumstances.
You didn't want to denigrate them; you want to embrace them as people.
I want to make the issue more easily identifiable, because I think there’s been so many series already done on [being] down and out and these people are not down and out, these people are just...
It’s frightening for people to not have a home. Having a home is a very fundamental need.
And in some ways they are even more vulnerable than the people in Imperial Courts because they are without a community.
How do you choose your subjects?
It's hard to describe. I’m drawn to people who are photogenic to me, which is very personal. Being photogenic has nothing to do with looks;
it is what someone exudes, a certain emotion, a particular body language, something that moves and intrigues me that I can relate to.
Michael Benabib Photography
2pac a.k.a Makaveli / Marco Polo Ralph Lauren Fashion /