When He Was A Slave

by Lyle Rexer

Walker Evans, Near Tupelo, Mississippi. Negro Farming, 1936 March.

Pictures beget other pictures, often in ways that defy prediction or obvious logic. Could there be a less likely affiliation than one linking the austere images of Walker Evans from the 1930s and those of David LaChapelle, the master of Pop baroque?  Between forgotten subjects of total anonymity and the celebrities of a fashion and media industry familiar to nearly everyone on the planet?  The story of a single picture, LaChapelle’s 1996 portrait of rapper Tupac Shakur, When I Was a Slave, is a story of artistic inspiration, but it’s also a story of how pictures talk to each other through time, and how the present recreates – and reanimates – the past.

LaChapelle told it during a Dear Dave, magazine conversation in March, and a reprise requires some preamble.  LaChapelle came to New York in the early 1980s with passionate artistic ambitions, but after a few gallery shows, little recognition and fewer sales, he made the not unreasonable decision to concentrate on what he was getting paid for – portraits for magazines like Interview and i-D.  But he had a hidden agenda—to communicate about life, death, and society’s future in the guise of celebrity images—and by the time he came to shoot Shakur, his images were already shaking up the fashion world.  Shakur had no idea who LaChapelle was and probably couldn’t have cared  if he had.  He was literally just out of a New York prison after a year for sexual assault, and this was a shoot with some white kid, part of the media maw Shakur figured he needed to feed.

But there was a difference, as LaChapelle later found out:  the rapper had been to art school, and that was probably why the photographer’s idea for the session actually happened:  Shakur knew how images carry symbolic freight – just as LaChapelle knew that making art is all about borrowing from past sources.  Rapper and photographer came together on a bridge made by Evans’ photographs:  “It’s early in the morning and I’m in bed with my boyfriend and in comes Tupac with his entire crew, two hours early.  No rapper ever comes to a shoot early.  He’d been up all night and he wanders into my bedroom, sits on the bed and wants to know what we’re doing.  I scramble to get my notebooks and reference pictures together because I’m not ready to tell him, and I start showing him all these images from Walker Evans of people working in the fields down south.  Finally he stops me and says, ‘Let me get this straight: you want to shoot me as a slave?’  I explained that I’d read that rap evolved from the call and response hollers that people used to shout to keep from going insane while working in the fields. ‘I’m down with that,’ he said, and we did it.”

No one knew Shakur would become a victim of hip hop’s violent milieu, a product of ingrained racial inequality.  But the image stands out in LaChapelle’s body of work stark for its directness and weirdly prophetic intuition.  It doesn’t comment on Shakur’s celebrity but does an end run around it to get at another issue.  Referencing Evans’ portraits of prisoners and sharecroppers inserts an emerging Pop icon into history, anchors the gangsta myth in the American narrative of race.   At the same time, the LaChapelle image sends us back to Evans’ 1930s photographs with a sharpened awareness of the questions they implicitly posed:  Is stoicism the only answer to oppression?  Is martyrdom the price of dignity? Is this America?