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.
I could easily post these pictures Online and get thousands of likes on Facebook or Instagram. That, however, would be an injustice to Biggie and his legacy. The absolutely best way to view any photograph is as print. These extraordinary images need to be printed big. Very big – bigger than life! It’s the only way to see every detail and feel Biggie’s presence.
That’s why it has to be an exhibition that’s free for everyone!
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.
1st Reach Goal: Super-Sized
This means going BIGGIE: bigger gallery, bigger prints (60”x60”) and a bigger opening party. Everything will be ramped up, especially the opening party. This will entail adding event management, security and staffing, on top of the increase in the cost of printing and framing.
2nd Reach Goal: The Platinum Collection
Just like Ready to Die and Life After Death went platinum, I want to upgrade to platinum prints. These are the most gorgeous, long-lasting and expensive prints that money can buy. This would truly make a show that’s fit for the “King of New York.”
The majority of this increase will be spent on the printing; each print costs about $5,000. No, that’s not a misprint. Of course, the most expensive prints also require expensive custom frames. BLING! Damn the cost. Biggie would approve.
3rd Reach Goal: Road trip USA
I want to take the show on the road: Los Angeles, Huston, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and Miami. That will cost a lot! (unless we find a sponsor). If we don’t reach the necessary goal that will take us all the way, there will be a vote to determine which cities we visit. In the meantime, use the comments to tell me (unofficially) what cities we should be visiting.
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.
- June 1994: I photography the Notorious BIG in Brooklyn.
- August 8, 1994: The Notorious BIG releases first single Juicy.
- September 13th 1994: The Notorious BIG releases his first album Ready To Die.
- November 1994: Interview magazine article published.
- Feb 1995: The negatives from the shoot can’t be found.
- March 9th 1997: Biggie is Murdered.
- March 25 1997: Life After Death is released.
- April 2014: While moving apartments I find the negatives.
- August 2014: I approach a SoHo gallery about an exhibition. I’m told there is no interest in Biggie Smalls
- January 2014: I start planning a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for an exhibition of the prints.
- July 1015: Campaign launches
Moving forward: Once the opening goal is accomplished, production will start on the final designs for the T-shirts and posters so they are ready to roll out to the backers as soon as possible. No gallery space will be booked until I get a read on the numbers. As soon as the project’s path becomes clear, specific dates will be locked in.
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?
DO YOU HAVE A STORY TO TELL? I want to hear from the fans, to learn their stories and memories of the Notorious B.I.G. “This is my story, what’s yours?” I want to hear from people who knew him, people who saw him perform or were touched by him in one way or another. I want’s to learn from new fans and old. What do you love about Biggie? Did he inspire you? Did he make you laugh or cry? If you have a story to tell, I want to hear it. I will compile a written addendum to the photographs that shares your thoughts and memories. This feedback will undoubtedly spur further audience participation.
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…