As the clock ticks down and the sun sets - rather beautifully on a Biggie print hanging in my living room - the sad news is we didn’t make it. I gave it my best and had a blast doing so. I learned a lot, I met some great people and had a lot of support. But bigger, better and more gratifying than all of that - I felt a lot of love!
So even though my dream of mounting an awesome Kickstarter funded exhibitions is over, the photographs I took are still an amazing part of hip-hop history and you can buy a prints at davidmcintyre.com. Join my mailing list or contact me for news and updates.
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Before The Notorious B.I.G. was dubbed the “King of New York” by The Source in 1995, and before he released his first album, Ready to Die, I photographed him on the streets of Brooklyn for Interview. This was one of the first in-depth features on Biggie ever published. But after delivering the prints to the magazine’s art department, I lost the negatives. This was long before digital, when pictures could be backed up. Without the negatives, none of these historic photographs would ever be printed or seen again.
Until now. Twenty-one years later, miraculously, the negatives turned up in the most unexpected of places. I was ecstatic. It was like unearthing a time capsule filled with rare and valuable artifacts.
The proceeds from this Kickstarter campaign will be used to mount a Notorious B.I.G. gallery show that will be open and free to the public. it will also finance a red carpet opening party. Contributors will be rewarded with T-shirts, prints and posters featuring pictures from the Interview shoot. And here’s the best part: Everyone will receive an invitation to the show. And for top ticket purchases, the invite will be to the VIP opening event where they can mingle with MCs, have a drink (or several; because Biggie would have wanted it that way) and see these amazing photographs in person.
First, a bit more backstory:
At the time of the Interview shoot, I was new to New York. In fact, this was one my first American photo gigs. It also happened to be my first glimpse of Brooklyn. That’s something to tell the grandkids: “The first time I went to Brooklyn, it was to meet The Notorious B.I.G.”
It was the summer of 1994, a few months before the release of Biggie’s debut album, Ready to Die. I met the future rap star in a local recording studio. He was hanging with LL Cool Jay and Busta Rhymes. Upon entering the studio, LL approached me asking, "Can I help?” I introduced myself and said I was meeting The Notorious B.I.G., not knowing whether to pronounce it “Big” or spell it out “B-I-G.” Amused at my confusion, LL pointed Biggie out. This was hardly necessary. The man stood out in a crowd.
I'd already scouted the area around the studio and found several interesting Brooklyn locations. When Biggie asked me where I wanted to take the pictures, I was ready with some suggestions. We headed out together, completely alone. No handlers, bodyguards, crew, management or PR.
How different things would be once the album dropped and started climbing the charts. Soon Biggie wouldn’t be able to walk the streets alone, in Brooklyn or any other city.
The shoot was a minimalist affair. There was a makeup artist with me, but his services were declined. Biggie and I just cruised the streets of DUMBO alone. What an odd couple we made: a lanky Scotsman (often compared to a piece of spaghetti), with a camera strung around his neck; and Biggie (by name and nature), from the hardscrabble streets of Brooklyn, wearing a thick gold chain.
That summer day in Brooklyn passed quickly. Just 15 shots, and it was goodbye Biggie.
But the story doesn’t have to end there.
My initial goal is to raise $28,000.00 to put on a show in a modest gallery that will feature 30” x 30” gelatin sliver photographic prints. Of this amount, $19,722.00 will be spent on printing, mounting, framing, a pop-up gallery, transportation, invitations, administration and postage, plus the expense for the opening night party. The remaining funds will be divided between the cost of producing the rewards and shipping them to donors.
The pictures were taken with a Mamiya 6X7 camera and Polaroid Pro/Res film, a pairing that meant I was shooting individual sheets of film. It’s a slow way of working compared to today’s rapid-fire, digital SLRs. The process requires patience and discipline. That goes for the subject as well as the photographer. Each picture must be carefully considered and composed. This analog technology may be tedious, but the payoff is huge: unsurpassed quality. This was hi-def before hi-def ever existed. Every last detail, from individual skin pores to the smallest graffiti scrawls, are captured in stunning clarity.
This shoot was as basic as it gets. Photo verité all the way: hand-held, available light only. I prefer it that way: uncomplicated. There's no setting up, no fussing around, no waiting. The atmosphere is natural and intimate.
The Polaroid sheet film comes in packs of ten and delivers a small black-and-white print and a negative, which can be used to print larger photographs later. It was a wonderful film stock, and I miss it dearly because it supplied the best of both worlds: an instant picture that can be checked for exposure and composition, plus a negative to make amazing blowup prints.
From start to finish, Biggie was committed. I sensed that he wanted to get the perfect shot as much as I did. He had a reputation for being prepared and totally focused when he went to the studio to lay down tracks. This shoot was no different.
I can't say we hit it off. I think he was shy, or maybe he found my Scottish accent disconcerting. It wouldn't be the first time people have humored me while having no idea what I was saying. I tried to make small talk, inquiring about his daughter, who I though might have been the baby photographed on the new album cover. He said it wasn’t and joked that it was one of his baby pictures. Not true.
Rap trivia: The cover model was actually, Keithroy Yearwood, a baby model Sean Combs booked through a local casting agency.
Having just moved to New York I didn't know of any good printers in the city. So I decided to print the Biggie pictures myself. I booked time at a rental lab, one of those dingy places in downtown Manhattan where darkroom time was sold by the hour. I edited my favorite shots and made several prints, which I later delivered to Interview. Then I moved on to the next job.
When the magazine came out, I thought the picture looked fantastic. Although, I was bit disappointed that they'd cropped the image down from its original square format to a rectangular full-page. That’s nothing new in the editorial world. Photographers and art directors are always in a tug of war over page layouts and precious inches.
As Ready To Die climbed the charts, becoming a massive quadruple-platinum hit, I went searching for the negatives to make some prints for my portfolio. But I couldn't find them anywhere. I searched frantically. Then I searched some more, but to no avail. And the more I searched, the more vividly I remember each frame I’d taken. They became permanently etched in my memory, impossible to forget.
Eventually, I gave up looking and came to terms with the fact that they had disappeared forever. Life goes on.
In the mean time, Biggie reestablished the East coast sound and inspired another generation of rappers before being murdered just a few weeks before his second album, Life After Death, was released. It went “Diamond,” selling ten million copies and cementing Biggie's stature as the greatest rapper ever. Today, twenty years later, he’s still is considered by many music critics as the definitive rap artist.
Over the years, I’d get calls from magazines asking if they could see and purchase reprint rights for the Biggie pictures. Not wanting to admit the negatives were lost, I’d just say, “Sorry, not interested.” Then they’d offer me crazy money. They thought I was just driving the price up. How much can a Biggie picture be worth? As it turns out, quite a lot.
I still remember when my oldest son was 16. He had heard that I photographed Biggie, and was excited: "You met Biggie Smalls?” For a moment he thought I was the coolest dad ever. Until he asked, "Can I see the pictures?"
At the time of the Interview shoot, my wife and I had an apartment in Chelsea. But after 20 years in the same apartment, we decide to move. And then, it happened. As I was clearing out closets and filling up cardboard boxes with a lifetime of memories, I found the Biggie negatives.
Biggie is an inspiration to many rappers like 50 Cent and Jay-Z, who pay homage by appropriating his lyrics and using them in their own songs. He’s also an inspiration to millions of fans who admire his rags-to-riches story. To quote from Biggie’s first single Juicy: "You know very well / Who you are / No ones gonna hold you down / Reach for the stars..."
But it's the opening monologue in the very same song that I most identify with. “To all the teachers that never believed I'd amount to much.”
That's my story, too. Indeed, it’s every artist’s story: singers, songwriters, painters, writers, actors… It’s the story of anyone who’s ever dared to dream big, especially in the arts. All of us have had to overcome obstacles and fight for what we believe in. It’s a never-ending battle that I’m still fighting! How about you?
Thanks to Rhys & Rondell for shooting the video. Very weird being on the other side on the camera!
Thanks the The Passion Hi-Fi for the beats I used in the videos. Check out these and many more here
Also big thanks to Rene, Logan, Ron, Rachel, Adam, Tamera and Kelley. You all helped me so much.
Finally as my friend Mike would say...
Risks and challenges
Your contribution will go toward funding the exhibition and opening party. A portion of the funds will also be used to produce the rewards and promote the show.
After securing a gallery that can accommodate the number of backers and potential opening night attendees, the next hurdle is logistics. I have had preliminary conversations with gallery owners, event planners and PR companies who are ready to commit to the project once the numbers of backers reach a critical mass.
I hope to have the opening within three months of the campaign being funded, but there are risks to consider. The greatest of which is the timing of the event and delivery of the rewards. The appropriate gallery space may not be available in a timely manner or a huge subscription could cause delays as I try to scale up the production. Going forward, I will keep all backers informed with updates and progress reports. I will also solicit feedback throughout the entire Kickstarter process – from beginning to end.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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