This article originally appeared on VICE UK
There is an unnerving power to the images of Dutch photographer Dana Lixenberg’s new show American Images. Photos of American icons—everyone from Donald Trump and Noam Chomsky to Lil Kim and Toni Morrison—are hoisted on the white walls of Lower Manhattan’s Grimm gallery. The vast majority shot more than two decades ago, these photos stand apart from the preening and posturing images of celebrities we’re used to scrolling past in the Instagram era. Instead, Lixenberg brings us to the foot of an oversized bed in the gawdy Trump hotel where Jay-Z, draped in a royal robe, blithely clutches a remote controller and yawns in our face. In another photograph, we can see a very alive Leonard Cohen resting in repose on a striped mattress with his eyes shut. And then there’s Kate Moss standing on a wet sidewalk with her arms open, gazing back at us without hesitation or pretension. By and large, these familiar faces lack the facades we expect to encounter and instead reveal the idols of our nation in rare moments of disarmament.
This unique quality of Lixenberg’s photos might owe something to her process. She shoots with a large-format field camera that takes the time and patience of not just the photographer, but also the subject. It’s also likely an outgrowth of her desire to really “see” her subjects. Her ability to strip away the noise and capture the spirit of the people she photographs was first championed by George Pitts, the legendary photo editor of of Vibe magazine. In 1993, Pitts published Lixenberg’s Imperial Courts, a collection of earnest pictures she took in the titular community in Watts, Los Angeles in the wake of the Rodney King uprising. From there, she went on to shoot a number of cultural heavyweights.
Her most enduring images are undoubtedly of Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. Her widely recognized Tupac photo was shot in 1993 in black and white and features the charismatic rapper rocking a bandanna wrapped around his head and a glistening cross dangling from his neck. Though he’s the subject of the image, the power of this particular photo lies in the way he’s sizing us up, studying us as we study him. On the other hand, her legendary color photo of Notorious B.I.G. from 1996 has his eyes obscured. In cool black shades and a vibrant Coogie sweater, it’s Biggie’s attention to the cash he’s counting that has made this image an eternal embodiment of the ostentatious spirit of 90s hip-hop. Versions of both photos ran in print editions of Vibe magazine, but over the preceding decades they’ve found their way onto hoodies and posters, and inspired incalculable works of art, from murals and paintings to animation and cosplay costumes.
The great proliferation of these two photos was in many ways the starting point for Lixenberg to put together American Images, which ruminates on American celebrity. Fittingly, the Grimm gallery dedicates its entire basement space to the Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. pictures, supporting them with the original contact sheets, Vibe print magazines, and a creatively designed graph depicting the photos’ meme-ification.
i-D caught up with Lixenberg to talk about the American Images show, which will be open until February 29. We discussed the appropriation of her Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. images and she told us some of the stories behind her photos of celebrities like Donald Trump, Lil’ Kim, and A Tribe Called Quest.
When did you realize your photos of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. had a life beyond Vibe magazine?
When Tupac was killed, they used my portrait as a model for a mural done on Houston street. I would also see the Biggie images ironed on sweaters worn by kids on Canal Street. But in 2007, when Urban Outfitters did a shirt of the Biggie image, alarm bells started to ring. I said, Hey, this is my image. You need permission for that. In later years I started noticing the images more and more online in different constellations, like fan artwork, tattoos, murals, people posing like Biggie etc. A lot of fun stuff. Of course the surge in merchandize that started to be produced for big retailers was less funny but that ultimately got resolved amicably in a court case. That’s when I realized these images were starting to have a life of their own. A lot of the people referencing these images were not even born when Tupac and Biggie were still alive.
Why do you think of all the images out there of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. yours have persisted?
I can’t really attest to that. Frankly I’m quite amazed at what has happened with these photographs. Tupac had so much charisma. He had beautiful eyes, there is an air of melancholy in his expression. I made the portrait I wanted to make of him. Some of the other photos from that shoot were a bit more illustrative, where you get more of a sense of the environment and the styling. But those are less interesting. It was a cover story for Vibe, but for the cover they ended up using an image by another photographer of him in a straight jacket. It fitted the story at the time but today, you don’t see that picture circulating. The image of Biggie counting money was only in the table of contents of Vibe magazine, not even in the story. But these are the images people gravitate towards.
How did you curate the rest of the images in this show?
I started with the portraits of Tupac and Biggie and then I came to do the show around cultural icons from that time period. Most of the images were all taken in a time span of seven or eight years. Together, they are a portrait of an era.
What’s it like photographing so many legends?
For me, I don’t have a different approach for celebrities. With Steely Dan, I don’t know if they even had a publicist with them. They just showed up to my studio. At the time, I was living on Broadway. I used that space for Heath Ledger and Iggy Pop, too. I prefer shooting on location, but sometimes it’s hotel rooms, like with Isaac Hayes and Toni Morrison. With Biggie, we were supposed to shoot on location, but it started raining and we had to change the whole thing around. Generally, I like going where people are because I’m interested in context. I consider myself a documentary photographer, certainly not a celebrity photographer.
Does the fact that these subjects are celebrities change the way the viewer takes in the work?
You cannot engage with this work without being aware that you’re looking at a portrait of... Jay-Z, for example. The information you have about the person comes into how you experience the picture. I’m not a celebrity photographer but I have been given the opportunity to photograph all these people and it was interesting for me to bring all this work together so many years later. There is a link between these people while each individual photo tells its own story.
What’s your process of making a portrait?
I refer to it as a slow dance. It’s an exchange, quite an intimate one. It doesn’t matter if someone is difficult. I prefer photographing people who are never in front of a camera, who are never seen. If there is an entourage or something, I have to block all of that out. I cannot have people standing behind me because then the concentration is gone. I’m very quiet when I shoot. And sometimes this makes publicists uncomfortable and they start talking to the subject. So I’ll have to ask them to clear the space. Working with a large format camera is an interesting process because people cannot move too much, especially when I’m very close because there is not much depth of field. But I don’t want people to stiffen up and hold their breath. I’m looking for a stillness and introspection. And ultimately, I’m trying to make these photos worth the subject’s time, worth my time, and also stand the test of time.
Tell me about your experience photographing Donald Trump.
This shoot was at his house on 5th Avenue at Trump Tower in the lobby of his apartment. I knew I would have very little time. You might think it is very impractical to work with this camera. But with 4 x 5, even if you just shoot a few frames, you’ve got something, each frame counts, as opposed to snapping around and making a lot of fast images that you have to choose from. I was really attracted to the golden atmosphere around him. First I had to explain to him that the low position of the camera on the tripod didn’t mean I was shooting upwards, I almost always level the frame. When I take a picture, I’m not looking through the camera. This also made him anxious because he didn’t know when I was making a photo. So he made me count to three. I usually don’t like when people are holding their breath waiting for me to snap a picture, but it worked in this case. There’s almost something doll-like and fragile about him here.
Has this photo changed meaning for you?
It’s unbelievable. I would not have expected what has happened. I was hesitant to include it in the show. But for better or worse, he is a cultural icon. And when I’m photographing people, I leave judgement outside. Even if I was asked to photograph him now, I would find it important to be respectful to the subject and not make him look bad on purpose because images can reveal a lot by not trying too hard. I always feel when people are putting on a pose it’s less interesting. You see this when people smile to the camera, it’s often a mask blocking you from engaging with the picture.
Tell me about this Jay-Z photo.
I did the shoot on my birthday, September 15. It was at Trump International Hotel & Towers in Columbus Circle. I did a second part of this shoot with Jay-Z and all of his posse like Damon Dash sort of posturing and goofing at a dinner. But for this part, he came by himself and he was very mellow. I can’t remember how this photo exactly came about, but I did this set up on the bed of him watching TV and then this yawn just happened. If it would have looked gross or unflattering, I would not have used it. But there is something very interesting about it. It’s like a roar.
This photo of Tribe is pretty surreal.
Tribe was styled, but you don’t notice it too much. I like shooting on location, because spontaneous things happen. We spent a day in Staten Island, which was a rather random choice of location on my part. We went to the local White Castle and all these kids showed up. I told the guys to ignore the kids and not to engage, otherwise it would have become a goofy thing. When it’s a surreal situation like this and you accept it as normal, it becomes more interesting. A corporate collector in the Netherlands purchased this work, but he didn’t know who Tribe was. He just liked the image.
This Lil’ Kim photo has an interesting duality.
Yeah, she has this sort of 1950s blond bombshell look with the wig and contact lenses. Yet, her style is also very hip-hop. This was around the time that she broke through with her album Hardcore, which I thought was brilliant. She was a raw force. Today, her look has changed a lot. It would be harder for me to photograph her now. Because it’s tougher for me when people construct their image. That is like a filter.
The exhibition American Images is on view until February 29.
New York, NY 10012
Opening hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 11am-6pm