‘Contact High’ Photography Exhibit in LA to Showcase Intimate Visual History of Hip-Hop


“To look back on certain photographers and iconography and see this vast archive of imagery tells an important, powerful story,” says curator Vikki Tobak.

A new photography exhibition opening next month at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles will celebrate the work of some of hip-hop's most renowned photographers — and their subjects — presenting a visual journey through the culture's history. 

Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop is set to open April 26 and promises fans an inside look at the creation of some of the genre's most iconic images through a photographer’s most intimate tool: the unedited contact sheets.

Featuring creative direction by hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy, the Contact High exhibit was curated by Vikki Tobak, author of the best-selling coffee table book by the same name. It will showcase nearly 140 works by 60 photographers, including more than 75 original contact sheets of hip-hop luminaries from The Notorious B.I.G. and Salt-N-Pepa to early portraits of Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West. Rare memorabilia, including Biggie’s iconic crown and Eric B. & Rakim’s custom Dapper Dan jackets, will be on display to complement the photographs.

Billboard has an exclusive first look at the Hamish Robertson-directed trailer for the event below.

“When I set out to do this project, I wanted to celebrate hip-hop’s visual legacy,” Tobak tells Billboard. “Hip-hop is now a global force and I wanted to trace the visual identity back to the roots. People always knew what hip-hop sounded like but what did it look like? And who was documenting the culture’s rise from the start? To look back on certain photographers and iconography and see this vast archive of imagery tells an important, powerful story.”

Adds Fab 5 Freddy: "Having played a part with a backstage view of hip-hop developing over over the years and recently becoming the world’s most dominant form of music, I’m pleased to be a part of what will be the first comprehensive exhibit of iconic hip hop photography spanning this New York born cultures evolving history."

In curating the show, Tobak felt it was important to shine a light on how technology, culture and photography have morphed from the early days of hip-hop — particularly in an age saturated with Instagram filters and celebrity-driven influencer culture.

“These images are more important than ever,” she says. “I wanted to show different moments and different aspects to the music as seen through the photographers lens. The culture has morphed and changed as things do over time, but these pictures speak to the grassroots nature of it. In the beginning, it wasn’t celebrity driven, the rappers were on equal footing with the dancers, graffiti artists and DJs. The neighborhoods where pioneers like Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa grew up informed who they were… Meanwhile, the shift to digital photography has made the contact sheet almost obsolete. Now, in this age of Instagram, Lightroom and digital technology, the 'decisive moment' is determined through an entirely different process.”

Tobak says she hopes fans will walk away from the exhibition with a deeper understanding of hip-hop’s cultural legacy and the deep-rooted history captured in the images on display.

“I hope people delve into the full story of the music – how the photographs show everyday people creating something new that will come to dominate mainstream and pop culture,” she adds. “The exhibition takes you from the early days up to current moment of hip-hop saying 'This is America.' That beautiful, raw spirit of street photography took you into everyday life and showed community which is really at the heart of hip-hop’s early days… That's the aesthetic of hip-hop — the aesthetic of life."

Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop will run from April 26 through Aug. 18 at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles. Admission is free to the public.