Fifty years ago, in New York City, a Jamaican-American teenager named Cindy Campbell asked her older brother to DJ at the block party she was hosting to raise money for a new back-to-school wardrobe. She made and distributed flyers inviting people to the recreation room of their West Bronx apartment building, promoting her brother by his new stage name: DJ Kool Herc. It was August of 1973, New York City was bankrupt and the Bronx was burning as landlords torched their own buildings for insurance money, and there, at that party at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, many say that hip-hop was born. In the decades since, the Black and Latinx youth culture movement that blossomed during a period of immense economic and political distress in the city—when unemployment hit a record high and thousands were displaced from their homes—has transformed into one of the biggest global phenomenons of the last century.
On January 26, the exhibition “Hip-Hop: Conscious, Unconscious” opens at Fotografiska on Park Avenue, a 45-minute subway ride south of the Campbells’ former home. The 200 images on display, which span two floors, trace hip-hop’s bewildering evolution from neighborhood jam sessions into a multi-billion dollar industry—and chart the role that photography has played in the genre’s world domination. “Photographers were the midwives, so to speak, who helped both those in the culture and those outside of it understand its value,” says Sacha Jenkins, a co-curator of the exhibition with Sally Berman.
The show comprises landmark documentary photography from the Bronx in the 1970s and 1980s, including era-defining highlights like Jamel Shabazz’s Flying High (1982), depicting a young boy doing gymnastics on a pile of discarded mattresses. (In 2011, the image served as album art for The Roots’ Undun.) Portraits of the genre’s superstars—Biggie, Tupac, Public Enemy, De La Soul—are balanced by photographs of people whose names we don’t know, acknowledging the communal quality of the “four elements” of hip-hop: MCing, DJing, b-boying, and graffiti-writing.