Opening this week at HVW8 Gallery Berlin – an exhibition showing the work of Lisa Leone, a Bronx-born photographer and cinematographer that had organic relationships with some of hip-hop’s most influential artists.
From in-studio photos of Nas recording his first album ‘Illmatic’ to being on Snoop Dogg’s ‘Who Am I’ (What’s My Name) video set during a shootout between gangs in Long Beach. The artist was in the midst of the generation’s hit singles and music videos, making her known as the photographer whom photographed hip-hop’s history. We had the pleasure meeting Lisa at the gallery before the opening to get an exclusive insight on her work and stories…
What sparked your interest to explore and capture the community of the emerging Hip Hop scene in the 80s?
It just kind of happened, you know. There was definitely a moment where I thought I wanted to be a fashion photographer. I worked in a very famous fashion photographers studio, doing his printing and I realised really quickly that fashion wasn’t for me. I love the photography [of fashion] but I wasn’t in love with the fashion world around it. In the Hip Hop community I felt at home.
Do you feel that during that time it was an issue being a woman working in the industry?
I mean it was a ‘double-sided sword’. Sometimes I felt because I was a woman they would be more open to let me in like ‘Yeah take my photo, what’s up’. Then there were definitely times where I felt like they didn’t take me as seriously as some of the other guys. “One time Big Daddy Kane was right in front of my camera and he was like, “Why don’t you get a real camera?” It was funny because I used a Leica and you see the other guys had these big cameras. So you know, one time Big Daddy Kane was right in front of my camera and he was like, “Why don’t you get a real camera?” and I thought ‘you don’t even know the half of it’. That was that but at the same time it kind of let me be more invisible. I could just hang out and it was fine. But there were definitely times where I had to, you know, put people in check because they were trying to push up too much.
Even though most of the big names of today were just young kids back then, was there anyone you felt nervous to meet or work with at that time?
It’s funny because my favourite rapper who I loved the most was Rakim, and I never got to photograph him during that period. I saw him once when I was deathly ill walking down the street and I had a hoodie on, I was so sick. He lived across the street from my boyfriend at that time. So when I came face to face with him, I was like ‘I look like a crackhead’ and I just (sighs) had to keep on walking, I couldn’t say hello. Eventually I worked with him later on. I was older and I had developed a script I thought he would be perfect for the lead, so we spent a day in rehearsals seeing if it would work out – that was amazing.
You’ve had many producers, directors, and overall artist around you, who had the greatest influence on you – personally and professionally?
Stanley Kubrick. I was very fortunate because we became very close. He was from the same neighbourhood as my family was from the Bronx. So there was a short hand making it really easy because it felt like he was an uncle. It was interesting because we spoke a few times everyday over the phone for a year. It is something different when you’re not sitting face to face because you are just like on the phone talking, so we got to build this relationship where we were really easy with each other. I was doing all the preproduction because he didn’t go to New York for thirty years. The movie was ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ and I was the only New Yorker, so I spent a year doing research photos. “So that is why when we met, we were really close until the day he died.” Finally he just said, ”Why don’t you just come to London and work on the film.” So I did the second unit, I did set decorating, I did all this work and [on the phone] he would ask me, “What is this like?; Is this like this anymore?” I went back to his old apartments to photograph and measure, so it got really intimate and we talked a lot on the phone. So that is why when we met, we were really close until the day he died. I was in New York still shooting second unit when he passed. It was a big loss. He was always very open about teaching composition and lighting, because he lights everything with practicals meaning, just lamps for sets. So it would just be me, him, and a camera assistant, we would test until 2 o’clock in the morning moving lamps to see how we like the lighting. Personally he did leave me with something, that ‘it is okay not to know’.
Besides the sporadic gunfight during Snoop Dogg’s “What’s My Name” video shoot, what was another heart-racing moment you can share?
I remember one time which just popped into my head is – I don’t have any of the photos here – but I was shooting a music video for Craig Mack. A video that never came out because when Biggie hit, Puffy basically just dropped Craig Mack. “All of a sudden I look back and see some of the guys on the floor fighting.” We were still cutting the video and we didn’t even know. Puffy’s girlfriend at the time, Misa, told Craig (the director), “Hey by the way I don’t know if someone told you but he [Puffy] shelved the Craig Mack video, so don’t waste your time.” But on the video set I remember I was sitting right behind the camera, you know for whatever I was doing, looking at the shot and all of a sudden I look back and see some of the guys on the floor (laughs) fighting. Like ‘duking’ it out and I was like ‘Oh my god, whats happening’. Now it’s hilarious because they were like really on the floor, it was ridiculous.
Can you tell us more about the story behind the photo of Grandmaster Flash looking so serious?
This one I love because there is a little secret story behind it. I think nobody would know unless they were there. So that is (points at photo) Grandmaster Flash obviously, that was at Rock Steady Park. What’s great about this, I didn’t even know when I shot it, only when I went back to the image 20 years later when I scanned it and noticed what was really going on. “Who knows what she was doing, but this is fucking priceless.” So this woman (points at girl on the right), her name was Margaret and she was a manager for Rhythm Technicians, who were Fabel, Wiggles and couple of other guys that were dancers. So when the whole phenomenon started and the guys were going on the road, she was one of the first people to jump on the band wagon to be the manager. It turned out that she was not cool, everybody ended up hating her. She tried to make me take photos and then not pay me, she just didn’t come correct. So when I stumbled about this I was like ‘Holy Crap’ because it is a really personal photo. I don’t know if Flash had any kind of thing with her or wether she might have just said something at that moment. She didn’t manage Flash, she wasn’t at that level back then. Who knows what she was doing, but this (looks at photo) is fucking priceless.
What about the photo with Wyclef and the rooster?
That was in Spanish Harlem. There were chickens running around, people had coops because in latin neighbourhoods they eat a lot of chicken or used chickens in ceremonies. So there were random roosters and chickens running around. This day they were shooting a music video, but not this part [in the photo]. The video was on a rooftop, this was below and he was just sitting there as everybody was getting ready.
HVW8 Gallery Berlin
Thursday Oct. 6th, 7pm–10pm