Filed under: Features,Interviews,Non-Rapper Dudes,Not Your Average
Written by: Robbie Ettelson
The best thing about getting an interview or feature published in print is having my words paired-up with original photography. Google image search is fine for your everyday blog post type of thing, but nothing beats having a crisp shot of the artist that nobody has. Enter Alexander Richter, who has provided shots for a number of my print pieces, including Uncle Murda, Roc Marciano, Killa Sha and Kyron. He also took those great shots of the some of faces of the internets, which you might have seen used in my previous Non-Rapper Dude pieces on eskay and Dallas Penn. I got him on the phone a while back to discuss some of the ups-and-downs of the photo game.
Robbie: How did get your start?
Alexander Richter: I got into the whole photo game here a bit late, so I was blessed to be able to connect with publications like Hip Hop Connection and XXL and other magazines. A lot of books that I used to do work for now no longer exist. I think for those established photographers who had their name and niche carved-out are still getting work here and there because they’ve established enough of a clientele and a brand for themselves, but for someone like myself who only started making photos in 2004…
The first few pictures I submitted to HHC or these other books were small, little thumbnail photos that I was trying to trial-and-error. Trying to figure out how to make the photos that I could visualize but technically didn’t always know what to do, ‘cos I hadn’t ever gone to school for photography. I was – how you say? ‘Under the gun’, learning on the shoots. There are shoots that I can laugh at in retrospect and think, ‘Jesus, I didn’t even know what I was doing when I was photographing some of these people!’ I wish I had the chance to go back and have those shoots again. When I made photos of Method Man and other people I was pretty green in the whole game of it. I was able to make some good photos, but if I was able to go back and know what I know now…
So what had you studied before you got into photography?
I’d studied documentary film [at college] and had decided to move to Oakland – Berkley, California – instead of Los Angeles. I had wanted to move to the west coast with the idea that I would be able to do film and video there, but the shock was that there was no really industry there. So I started working at Rasputin’s Records, which is one of the bigger independent music chains on the west coast, and coming with that east coast attitude I was always trying to think of a hustle to try and get going. At that point there wasn’t the YouTube, there was no Vimeo – there was none of that. Electronic Press Kits were becoming the rage, so I was just working there and trying to build with local Bay Area hip-hop guys who were trying to bring out what they were calling ‘the New Bay Movement’, before hyphy and all this other stuff. I was there doing video work and producing small, low-budget videos – filming live shows and inter-cutting that with interview footage. It was a video hustle initially, but there were no outlets for me to get this out to a broader audience.
Then my mother told me she was ill, so at that point I decided to move back to the east coast to be closer. I’m the only one from my whole family born here in the United States – my pops passed away when I was fifteen months old. I felt obligated to move closer to home, but I could never envision moving back to Maine – which is a lovely place to grow-up but as far as what I wanted to do with myself was not the place that I needed to be. So I went to New York city. I became a little bit frustrated with the video process, because you end-up relying on so many people. Trying to get somebody to do the lighting, trying to get somebody to do the audio. My father had been a photographer in his hobby pursuits, and I found these old camera’s that he had – an old Leica and an old Hosselblad – and I put them together and tried applying that film vision to the still photography.
What was the first picture that you sold?
I think they were for Cool ‘Eh magazine. It was a small publication out of New York and some friends of mine were running it, so they gave me the green light for whatever small fraction of amount of money that I was making to go and shoot some pictures. But what really set it off was Hip Hop Connection, they gave me my first major look. Little by little, they gained the confidence in me to go from a small thumbnail to a quarter page to a half page to a whole page. Eventually I shot a couple of covers for them.
My first cover was Pharoahe Monch – him with a silver revolver – after that I did a cover of Ill Bill and after that a cover of Dizzee Rascal and El-P.
I assume you had to switch to digital cameras at some point?
Because of budgets getting slashed in magazines, I started to look at things like, ‘If I buy ten rolls of film and then process those ten rolls of film I’ve almost eaten up my whole budget just on shooting and processing’. I eventually bought a digital SLR and started to work with that because it financially made more sense. Unfortunately, people don’t realize that the photos don’t stop upon taking the last frame – you’ve gotta bring the photos home, you’ve gotta work on the photos, you have to adjust the photos – and that applies to the darkroom and the digital darkroom.
What have been some of your most memorable shoots?
Working with Sean Price is always a memorable experience. I shot the Jesus Price album cover and I did the D.I.R.T. album cover for Heltah Skeltah. Sean P is one of my favorite rappers out there, and working with that guy is always a pleasure. Most of these guys – unless they’re super narcissistic – it’s not like they enjoy getting their photos taken, you know? So working with them is a fine blend of personality on my part and communicating my vision, but also hopefully creating enough of a good vibe with the artist that they think, ‘Hey, this guy’s kinda cool to work with’ – even if it’s only for a few minutes or a few hours. Not to be misconstrued that I’m all ‘buddy buddy’ with all these guys that I photograph – a lot of it is just work. The Pharoahe Monch photo shoot – even though he was a bit of a wild dude – he was great to work with, because he was interested in what was happening since I think he had studied photography in high school. The Clipse – surprisingly – were very nice guys to work with. At that point I was still pretty green and I was expecting them to be a bit problematic. It was a great shoot, but their publicist was a bit of a problem to work with. Telling me that I would only get a few minutes and that they were going to be difficult, but they were really nice guys.
The Clipse was funny because I arrived at the same time as another photographer was shooting them, so there was a little bit of a static-y moment where I wanted to shoot somewhere and the other photographer told me, ‘Look – I paid for this location. I’m shooting here – you can’t shoot here’. Of course, I didn’t know any of this. Nobody had notified us that there was a double booking of a photo shoot. Because I always worked by myself for the most part, you had to arrive at the scene and make photos and make do with what you did. There was no budget from publications to be like, ‘OK, we have a set designer and we have a studio’. Those days maybe still exist for the big photographers, but I think that’s what made me a better photographer – just arriving on places and having to quickly scout about.
You captured a great photo for my Killa Sha piece. How did that shoot go?
Sha Lumi lived with his grandma. I remember I had to call his house and I was talking to his grandmother, and his grandmother was telling me about, ‘Oh, I don’t know if he’ll be able to do the photographs at that time. He’s coming in from outta state and he’s working too hard and he’s out late at night…’ I was like, ‘This is hilarious!’ It was like you were literally talking to your grandmother about doing work and grandma was throwing in her two cents about, ‘Oh, I don’t know about this business! Late nights and he sleeps in…’ and all this stuff. I was like, ‘I’m sorry that this is how you feel about the music but is it possible to speak to Sha so that I can try to set-up a photo shoot please?’
I also hear that you had an interesting experience on the Immortal Technique and Joell Ortiz shoot, right?
When we were looking for locations for the shoot we were looking for iconic images, and Phillip [Mlynar] (former HHC magazine editor and Unkut contributor) wanted to shoot at the Wall Street Exchange on a Saturday. I suggested that there would be a lot of tourists and there’s gonna be problems, and as I envisioned it was pure hell. We couldn’t find places to park the car and we couldn’t find a space to make the photos without having thousands of tourists around, so we decided we would shoot in Brooklyn. Phillip and I drove in one car to Brooklyn and then Joell and Tech drove in another car with one of Joell’s boys to the location. We made the photos and then at the end of the shoot Immortal Technique was like, ‘So, you guys are gonna drive me back to Harlem now, right?’ I was like, ‘No. That wasn’t part of the deal at all’. I had somewhere to be after the photo shoot, and I was like, ‘I’m not driving all the way back to Harlem’. He was like, ‘OK, well at least drive me somewhere where I can get a train or a car or whatever’. So much to my chargrin – because Joell took off like burning rubber, like ‘See ya!’ – after making three stops we made it to a place where someone would drive Tech back to Harlem. I didn’t have any money so Phillip gave him the money, so Tech took the cash and just rode off on HHC’s dollar…
What about your trip to Cypress Hill Houses?
Shooting Uncle Murda was pretty funny, out in the Cypress Hill projects in East New York. I remember getting out of the car service on Linden Blvd. in front of some bodega, and some guy immediately approaches me and starts asking me for money. Has a beanie on his head and pulled-off off the beanie and shows me some melon-sized bump on his head that he had just got as he had got out of jail, and gave me the ice-grill for a moment like, ‘Hey, I need some money or there might be problems here!’ So I remember just dipping off into the bodega for a minute to buy some fruit juice and hopefully avoiding getting all of my camera equipment taken in East New York and just left without my shoes on!
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