Capturing The Culture: Photo Rob Interview

“Photo Rob” is a fitting moniker. It’s broad and specific; easily identifiable. It captures the “who” and the “what” of the person and profession with undeniable Hip-Hop undertones like the prefixes “DJ” and “MC.” It perfectly brands the prolific-ness of the artist that owns it: Robert Adam Mayer.

For the past 11 years, Photo Rob has snapped The Culture in New York City, documenting everything from the progression of independent artists to the resurgence of the birthplace’s Golden Era cornerstones to everything in between. His work is rapidly approaching luminary status, carrying on the tradition of Joe Conzo, shaping the history of everything happening right now. spoke with Photo Rob about the documentary recently released on his career and images, his roots in street photography, how Large Professor’s Beatz Volume 2 album cover came about and more.

BB: So how’d you get started?

PR: I guess my first Hip-Hop shoot was in 2000. [It] was a Lil’ Dap Brooklyn Zone record cover.

BB: Lil’ Dap just might be the first “Lil’” [in Rap]. Between Lil’ Dap and possibly Lil’ Fame of M.O.P. But Group Home definitely left it’s mark.

PR: Lil’ Dap is Group Home fame. We were out on the Brooklyn Bridge and we did a picture of Lil’ Dap and actually a guy who has passed away standing on the Brooklyn Bridge with the World Trade Center in the background. I don’t remember when we shot it, but it was 2000 and pretty soon after that those towers were gone. That was my first album cover. But I think I fully accessed the scene in 2007. That’s when I really started grinding and going out to shows with real regularity and really making myself available for the shows and kind of starting that backstage project. That was really 2007 when things started to really grow and I connected with the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival and at that point I was really present at a lot of the shows so I was really connected to everybody.

BB: Do you do other types of photography?

PR: I do. I originally started in street photography. I’ve been shooting street photography since the 1990s. And street photography is kind of like the boom-bap Hip-Hop of photography. This is not a well thought out correlation but, you know, street photography is one of those art forms where it’s like the artist, the camera and the street and capturing these moments in time that sort of transcend us. It’s an art that’s been around forever but has been really attributed in growth to the likes of the Magnum Photographers and Cartier-Bresson

BB: So there was a gap between your first album cover in 2000 and when you really started attacking the scene in 2007. What were you doing during that time?

PR: Well, during that time I was working as a photo assistant. I was also working down on the Stock Exchange. I was photographing new listings on the Stock Exchange. I was one of several photographers down there that when a new listing would happen on the Stock Exchange, shaking hands with the company guys and it was sort of like news photography. I was also assisting tons of photographers for quite some time on commercial shoots -- commercial and magazines, everything. Billboards, covers of magazines, you name it. From big time shoots to small time shoots; from nice photographers to not so kind [photographers].

BB: So we get to 2007 and you hook up with the Knitting Factory and start building your base through that venue, is that right?

PR: I started to just go to shows and events that were interesting to me. I was going to B-Boy battles and Rob Swift had a movie released. This was in early 2007 in the winter. Then winter/spring 2007 I would just kind of show up at events and that’s when I connected with Brooklyn Bodega. They were doing mixers for the 2007 Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival. The first shoot that I brought some lighting back stage, like the studio lighting was the Fresh Daily show at Southpaw that had Pumpkin Head and Pharaoahe Monch. I don’t know where I met Torae, but Torae was the first dude that was like, “Yo, how would you like to photograph my Daily Conversation release at The Knitting Factory?” Torae brought me into The Knitting Factory. Then I did the first Lunchroom with Sucio [Smash] and between Torae and Sucio, then I connected with Peter at The Knitting Factory. I don’t know if this is kind of boring but the history is I met Sucio through Fresh Daily. It really started with Fresh because I ran into Fresh at a party and I was like, “This guys got cool style.” Then I looked at his Myspace page and I’m like, “He’s got some good rhymes, too.” So we started doing some shoots together.

BB: And it kind of snowballed from there?

PR: It must’ve been all connected to the BHF too, you know. It was all the same time so it’s real difficult for me to remember. But it was the BHF. The BHF really opened things up. And then also, it was just kind of showing up at shows and events. I was showing up at B-Boy battles a lot and the tablism competitions because they were really exciting. The DMC competitions and the Tablist competitions and the B-Boy battles. I was going up to The Bronx. Some of them were in lower Manhattan. I was just hanging out with the stuff that I loved: The Culture, you know?

BB: How did you feel when The Knitting Factory in Manhattan closed?

PR: I can tell you that I got a lot more sleep at that time. [Laughs] That was really really sad because you had a show promoter, Peter Agoston, who was really supporting good Hip-Hop, Hip-Hop how it should be. He was putting on shows with guys who were the founders and forefathers of Hip-Hop and then putting on shows that included guys who are today creating that great Hip-Hop rooted in soul music and good music and good lyrics that’s not getting a lot of popular radio play but it’s all the good stuff and these shows were very regular. We have other venues doing it today but he was putting on pretty great shows that were great showcases of everything that’s right with Hip-Hop. So that was sad. It was really sad to have that vanish because, you know, The Knitting Factory is out in Brooklyn, but there is nobody representing Hip-Hop there like Peter was doing.

BB: In the wake of The Knitting Factory, there have been other venues that have started supplementing that lack of Hip-Hop shows. Southpaw is one them. When you’re covering this culture and you see an almost constant flux of Golden Era or Old School or True School or Legends or whatever you want to call them and also a constant flux of new artists or independent artists or underground artists or whatever you want to call them. That paradigm itself leads to some pretty interesting show combinations but also the opportunity to indulge in the history of Hip-Hop and witness the future still taking shape. When you’re covering these events; when you go to these shows and see the bill, do you have an idea of the type of shot you want to grab beforehand -- based on the act and performers? Have you gotten to a point where you kind of plot out your strategy beforehand or is it really innate? Is it really a natural, visceral kind of process?

PR: This is a good question. I think the answer is to the question is that it’s totally natural and unplanned. I’ll go to a show because I want to hear a particular artist or have to photograph a particular artist or have to photograph a particular artist or I love who’s performing. But the truth of the matter of my Hip-Hop photography is that the genius and the excitement of the photograph is completely due to the celebrity and the moment of the performance of the artist. My Hip-Hop photography is good really because of the artist.

It’s funny that people attribute that to me. I’m just documenting really talented people known on a Hip-Hop sense. Some of these guys are known on a popular sense but to the Hip-Hop community, they’re very known and very respected. I’m really just documenting what I consider to be Hip-Hop talent and celebrities. This does not have much to do with me aside from counting out technical and artistic compositions with talent. I do not want to take credit for their work, their genius, their celebrity, their image that these guys have created; that these men and women have created. So I’m going to shows and am grateful that I have my ears in the building, you know? It doesn’t have much to do with me, but yes, I’ve studied photography. I’ve studied photography. I’ve studied fine art and photography and composition and the technical aspects of photographs going back to when we would develop photographs. Yes, I’m a technically trained person but the mastery is in the artists and in the performance. I’m documenting the times to make the best picture of the performance that’s going on and I’m trying to stay out of the way of the performers and the performance. I’m not part of the show. I should not be distracting the artist from doing their job. It is kind of tough because sometimes they’re flashy people and I do get carried away at times, but I am trying to stay out of the way and document something special.

BB: In the documentary piece on you, legends are literally speaking about the impact your labor, your photographs have had on them in capturing what they’re doing. When you have Buckshot describing your work; when you have DJ Eclipse describing your work; when you have 9th Wonder talking about you -- how does it feel to you? Is that the reward at the end of all this? Or is that just a bi-product of the reward which is really taking dope pictures?


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