In the heart of Century City, two massive photography events are bringing a dose of old-school cool and new-school evolution to the entertainment industry-driven office blocks. Photoville L.A. and “Contact High” both make their debut this weekend; the two are inextricably linked, they’re free and they’re easily the most exciting visual arts events in L.A. right now.
New York export Photoville arrives in Los Angeles for the first time, with exhibitions in repurposed shipping containers, photo cubes and banners. Over two consecutive weekends in Century Park (Apr 26–28 and May 2–5), you’ll find talks, workshops, scavenger hunts and a Smorgasburg beer garden (including a full-blown food fest on Saturday, April 27) throughout the afternoon and evening. You’ll find inspiring, devastating and astounding works from familiar publications like the Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New York Times and California Sunday, as well as tons of independent photographers, including Estevan Oriol’s scenes of lowrider culture and Sophie Gamand’s heartstring-tugging portraits of adoptable pit bulls wearing flower crowns.
The photo fair shares the park during the opening weekend of “Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop,” which runs at the 10-year-old Annenberg Space for Photography through August 18. “Contact High” celebrates the photographers responsible for defining hip-hop’s visual identity with a showcase of nearly 140 works, including 75 unedited contact sheets. The era-spanning exhibition features photos of both the anonymous faces who showed up to hear early hip-hop at clubs and roller rinks in the late-’70s, as well as the genre’s biggest stars: Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Salt-N-Pepa, Kendrick Lamar, Cardi B and more. You’ll spot instantly recognizable images, as well as behind-the-scenes moments, like Nas in the studio recording Illmatic and Kanye West getting a haircut during the cover shoot for The College Dropout.
The exhibition pulls from a visual book of the same name, and it features a few Annenberg-only additions, including a contact sheet of Nipsey Hussle driving around town with his daughter sitting in his lap, as well as a photo of Mac Miller playing piano that was the inspiration for a memorial mural on Beverly Boulevard.
A relic of darkroom photography, contact sheets are created when a photographer places strips of film negatives on a piece of photosensitive paper in order to expose a bunch of stamp-sized photos on a single piece of paper. From there, you’ll see scribbles, circles and x’s as the photographer and subject settle on which raw, unedited images to develop and finesse at full size. But the contact sheets on display at the Annenberg aren’t necessarily about the particulars of photographic technique; instead, they offer a glimpse into the private, untold stories behind some of hip-hop’s most recognizable images.
“The contact sheets tell you the imperfect moments, they show you the neighborhoods. You get to see artists in the studio, just figuring it out,” says journalist Vikki Tobak, who curated the exhibition as well as the book of the same name. She points to a grid of photos of the Notorious B.I.G. adorned in a crown, all with stoic expressions save for one exuberant blur. “The one of him smiling and being goofy, everyone that sees that photo who actually knew him, they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the guy who I knew.’”
Tobak has loved hip-hop since she was a teenager, and when she was 19, she moved from Detroit to New York and started a job at label Payday Records. She was working as a publicist when the label launched the careers of the likes of Mos Def and Jay-Z—as well as the photographers who shot them. Tobak would keep in touch with some of those photographers, and so when, as a journalist, she began to reflect on hip-hop’s 40-year legacy, she turned to them for their contact sheets.
While piecing together her book, she showed off the work-in-progress at Photoville in New York. The folks behind the fair passed word of Tobak’s work along to the Annenberg, which was receptive to the exhibition after the similarly wonderful “Who Shot Rock & Roll” in 2012.
The exhibition shares more in common with Photoville, too: Janette Beckman, whose photos feature heavily in “Contact High,” has four massive works on display at the fair. She teamed up with Cey Adams, the founding creative director of Def Jam Recordings, for a project they’ve called the Mash-Up. In 2014, the two mounted a show in New York in which Adams recruited artists to draw on top of Beckman’s old-school hip-hop photos. Here in L.A., they’ve tapped the likes of Mister Cartoon, Jules Muck, Maxx 242 and Jeff Soto to adorn Beckman’s photos of Ice Cube, Salt-N-Pepa, Slick Rick and André 3000, respectively.
“It just seemed like a perfect fit to me,” says Adams. “There are so many of these graffiti artists who started out in the ’70s and ’80s and they’re not always going to be around forever. I thought this was a good time to put those two things together.”
Beckman’s equally receptive of the idea and excited to see new life breathed into her old-school portraits. “To have someone who I always respected, Mr. Cartoon, to have him actually work on this, his lettering—this is the lettering East L.A. is famous for. It breathes this whole other life into these pieces and makes them into these beautiful pieces of art.”
Those behind-the-photo stories are evident elsewhere in Photoville; many of the artists will be posted at their container-sized gallery spaces across the two weekends. “I think in this culture everyone’s reposting things and not really understanding that someone took that photo,” says Laura Roumanos, who co-founded the event. “What’s really important is understanding who’s actually taking those photos and representing their communities.” The “who” in that equation adds incredible context to many of the photos on display, be they behind-the-scenes set photos from the Society of Motion Picture Still Photographers and Bruce Talamon’s shots of Soul Train, or Lynsey Addario’s firsthand accounts of crises and war zones.
Photoville expected exhibition proposals from about 100 independent photographers; ultimately, they received over 800. It was enough to bump up the footprint from 35 exhibitions to 55, and do have the organizers already talking about what’s next. “If people show up, and they really want us here, we will totally be here [next year],” says Roumanos.
“Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop” is open at Annenberg Space for Photography through August 18; see the museum’s website for special visiting hours. Photoville L.A. is open in Century Park April 26 from 6–10pm, April 27 from noon–10pm, April 28 from noon–8pm, May 2 from 5–9pm, May 3 from 5–10pm, May 4 from noon–10pm and May 5 from noon–8pm; check the Photoville website for the full programming schedule. Both exhibitions are free.