Towards the tail-end of last year, a phenomenal exhibition came through Berlin at the HVW8 Gallery titled How You Like Me Now? that, for any music-lover, was breath-taking. It was a collection of work from photographer Lisa Leone, an artist who has been fortunate enough to witness true cultural phenomena firsthand with camera in tow.
Born and raised in New York, the early stages of Leone’s career inevitably documented the birth and rise of hip-hop as we know it. One of her first gigs was being on-set for Snoop Dogg’s first-ever music video “What’s My Name?”, and she went on to capture everyone from Notorious B.I.G. to Nas to Slick Rick to TLC. Browse a few selections in the gallery above.
Nor is her oeuvre strictly limited to hip-hop. Lisa Leone worked closely with the one and only Stanley Kubrick during the production of his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, and her work has been featured in gallery exhibitions around the world. We were fortunate enough to speak to Leone about her latest show in addition to her thoughts on her illustrious, truly one-of-a-kind career.
What makes a good photograph? Is there something specific you look for when snapping a shot?
I tend to look for the feeling, what’s the mood/feeling of the atmosphere.
Is there a particular one of your photographs that means a lot to you?
I guess the photos that mean the most are the ones of people I have close relationships with, so the memories are vivid and fond. It’s not a matter of it being a “good” photograph.
What is it about hip-hop/rap that appeals to you as a subject?
I grew up in NYC in the ’80s, so it was the voice and expression of the people, of my friends. It was home.
How do you feel about the progression of hip-hop culture? Is there something about it now that you would like to see changed?
I’m not really connected anymore. It’s become a huge industry and with that comes a lot of watering down. Although there are still people I dig. But I’d love to see more politics and issues addressed.
Were you surprised that hip-hop grew to become the dominant form of music in our culture?
When I was young I never imagined it. So yes, quite surprised.
Which of your subjects featured in “How You Like Me Now?” was the easiest to photograph? the most difficult?
Again, the easiest are the people I’m closest to: Fab 5 Freddy, Mare 139, Rosie Perez and Fabel. The most difficult from this series was Big Daddy Kane, he gave me a lot of shit about my camera being cheap and slow, which was a Leica M6 by the way. Ha!
What qualities in your mind make a true icon?
I honestly can’t answer that. I’ve been surprised a lot by the people who become “icons”, you can never really tell.
Was there anyone you met in your career that you could feel was destined for greatness?
Nas, Mary J. Blige and Maxwell. All three of them you just knew immediately.
What is one of the most memorable things to happen to you in your career?
I’d say working with Stanley Kubrick. That and the shoot out in Long Beach with Snoop Dogg and Fab 5 Freddy. It was for the making of Snoop’s first video “What’s My Name?” and Fab 5 Freddy was the director.
Do you recall your first memory involving photography? What inspired you to pick up the camera?
My uncle was a huge influence. He turned me onto printing when I was just nine years old. Seeing my first print appear in the developer was magical. Sadly we’ve lost that with digital technology.
How did you get involved in working with Stanley Kubrick? Was he as imposing as many stories about him now suggest?
Stanley was great to work with. He expected you to work hard and care about what you were doing. If you did, all was well. He pushed you to go further; to go beyond what you thought you were capable of. And if you’re an artist, that’s a wonderful gift.
What do you think has been one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career?
I think the most challenging part of my career was when I was coming up in the ’90s. I was going back and forth from photographer, cinematographer and director. Back then people wanted to pigeon hole you. You had to be either one or the other, but I spent my career going toward projects that were interesting to me… which are not necessarily “career moves”. Now it’s not as much of an issue; you can be doing ten different things and it’s not a problem.
For more of our music features, take a look at our guide to some of the most important people in the industry that you’ve never heard of right here.