Rare & Unseen: The Iconic Moments of 1990's Hip-Hop Through the Lens of T. Eric Monroe
T.Eric Monroe is a master of being at the right place at the right time, and even more importantly, was prepared to do whatever it took to make the most of those opportunities. As a photographer, he captured some of the most iconic hip-hop moments of the 1990s, only to later realize the magnitude of that place in time. T.Eric has been digitizing his catalog recently and just published a new book, Rare & Unseen Moments of 90s HipHop, showcasing images from publications like Thrasher Magazine, The Source, XXL, and a host of other publications. We sat down with Eric a few months back to understand the career he found himself in, the icons he met and the future of photography.
Mike Stalter: We met in person a few years back at a photo show you were doing in Long Beach and it’s funny how things come back around. Now we’re here in NY catching up again and you have a book on the way among other things. Let’s start at the beginning though, before all of the iconic photos and definitive placeholders in cultural history. How did you end up in the position to be there in the first place? Where did this all start?
T. Eric Monroe: Photography, or always having a camera around, was something that was a part of me since I was a teen. Initially it was just to capture moments. Chronicling moments continued when I started skateboarding. I wasn’t experienced with skateboard photography, but the excitement and energy around it made me try to shoot skating. Initially, I ended up just capturing peripheral moments of friends and events. As I got more involved in skateboarding, going to demos or competing in contests, I continued to take pictures of moments, which eventually opened the doors to the world of professional photography around the New York Metro area, shooting music and entertainment.
Back in high school, I would go to skateboard demonstrations and take photos of my skate heroes that were on tour. The first demo I went to was the Bones Brigade Summer Tour of 1987. It was Kevin Harris, Mike McGill, Tommy Guerrero, Jim Theibaud, and Jersey local, Mike Valley (in Jersey everyone said his last name as Valley vs Vallely). I took a few action shots but the ones that really told a story was a shot of Mike V and Tommy Guerrero and our local skate shop. That same fall, I went to another demo at a mall in Jersey, Per Welinder was doing a demo for Swatch watches. I went to the demo with my camera, got a few shots of Per skating, then a shot of him and I. We stayed in touch after the demo and remain good friends today. Between skate demos and amateur contests I started submitting photos to Transworld Skateboarding Magazine and Thrasher. The magazines would every so often publish a photo of a skater from the contest to go along with the listings of the contest results.
By my Senior year in highschool I traveled to a number of skate events in Jersey, the city, and PA. Also during that time I became the official photographer of the Eastern Skateboarding Association I even traveled to the ESA Championship at Kona Skate Park in Jacksonville, FL. Prior to the trip, I reached out to former Thrasher Publisher, Kevin Thatcher, to see if they were sending anyone to cover the championship. He said no, so I asked, “Can I send you my photos from the event to run?” He said, “Sure.” I went to the event, had an amazing time, but my action shot sucked! I didn’t know much about lighting at night and wasn’t able to properly capture skate shots. The lighting in the parking lot was just the basic lighting that you would see in any parking lot, not bright enough to capture a good photo. The real photographers had good flashes (strobes) and fill lighting that was synced to their cameras. After I got back home from the championship and checked out what I shot, I was crap. I let Kevin Thatcher know and never bothered him again... at least, for two years.
I continued to skate and take photos at events for the next few years mainly to have keepsakes of moments and to network with the crowd. I began to realize that having a camera at events would get me closer to the action, and created a connection with people around me. In the summer of 1992 I went to a skate/music event in Belmar, NJ, “ MTV Beach Bash.” A few of my friends were skating the ramp, so I went to hangout with them. Dave Dunkin was MCing, and he helped me get photo credentials to shoot the concert. Kriss Kross and Das Efx we’re performing. After shooting the concert, a photographer came up to me and asked who I was shooting for? I told him I was just shooting to watch the concert, and to not have to deal with the crowd. He then asked, “Why don’t you sell your photos?” I responded, “Who would want to buy my photos?
This question opened up a world I never knew existed. A few weeks after the MTV event I connected with a music and entertainment photo stock agency. They recommended getting involved with a magazine this way I could get more consistent access to shooting entertainers. The only magazine that I had ever had a relationship with was Thrasher, and they had a music section. So I reached out to Kevin Thatcher and told him what I was up to, and he connected me with Brian Brannon, the Music Editor. Brian told me that the easiest way to get photos published was to also submit an article to go along with it.
That became my starting point. First, I had to pound the pavement and learn how the music industry worked, and from there I could create opportunities to not only shoot concerts, but also get one-on-one time with the artists to shoot and interview them.
What was your process for getting noticed and eventually getting your work into the magazines?
After I got my foot in the music industry door, I wanted to get my photos published in more magazines, specifically in music magazines. I still continued to submit work to Thrasher, but my writing skills weren’t the greatest. I remember telling Chris Nieratko, who also grew up in Central Jersey and worked at our local skate shop, how it was easy to get published, that he should write the articles to go along with my photos in Thrasher because I sucked at writing stories. Soon thereafter, we worked together on a few things for Thrasher’s music section, until he went off on his own as a published writer in a lot of magazines.
My process initially for trying to get into more magazines was that I would set up meetings with photo editors and art directors to show my portfolio of work. The majority of magazines wouldn’t hire me to shoot editorial spreads, but I found ways to still get my photos in magazines. I would submit concert shots and behind the scenes moments of different musicians together hanging at events. Wherever a “moment” was happening, I made a point to be there to get a few shots, then off to the next opportunity to shoot more moments. These moments began to add up, and soon enough I would have a few shots of moments in various magazines every month.
Having my name in print validated me as a working photographer to music executives. Now, they began to return my calls, offer opportunities for me to come shoot their new artists, and even buy my images for publicity purposes. Throughout this time, I was continually networking to get hired, or to get the opportunity to shoot on spec.
So a lot of this started with skateboarding. How did that influence what you do?
The core of my late teen’s culture was heavily influenced by skateboarding. This was the late 80’s early 90’s, and we had no internet, no cellphones. My sources of information and visual influence came from skate magazines, skate video (vhs tapes), and being around a mix of people and cultures all the time. In skating, hip-hop and punk rock were the core soundtracks.
Skaters are a motley bunch, especially in Jersey. Everyone just wanted to skate and, when off the skateboard, people seemed to blend without boundaries, whether it was at a punk rock show, a hip-hop show, a night club or just being out in nature. Some dudes were talented fine art painters, some dudes were back up dancers for pop singers, while others were in bands, farmers, construction workers, computer programmers, etc.
Coming up in this blended environment and being a skater, your perspective is shaped differently (looking back). With skating, you consistently challenged yourself to learn new tricks and skate new locations. Learning new tricks was never easy, but you didn’t give up. In your mind, you’re constantly deducing what you’re doing wrong on each attempt, trying to correct it and land the trick. There’s a quiet focus that drives you in the moment, and a sense that failure is not an option. It’s about observing, seeing, being in the moment and executing. Skating is about you, the board, and the surroundings of the trick.
When I got into professional photography, that focus helped me learn the ropes of the music and magazine industry in New York City by myself, an exciting challenge that I took on daily, for 6 years. The landscape was already built. I just had to figure out step-by-step how to open up the next opportunity.
Did you have any background or professional training for photography or writing?
I dabbled in photography for years as a teen, in highschool I took a photography course because they supplied free film and had a darkroom, where I learned to develop black and white photographs. After graduating high school, I went to Raritan Valley Community College to “do something” with my life. I wasn’t focused on photography; in my mind I just took pictures every now and then. A year or so later, after getting my foot in the door with Thrasher and the New York music industry, I knew I wanted to really learn photography. I switched to Middlesex College, which had a Photography major. They too, had free film for the photography students, and I took advantage of it. The college offered basic courses, but there were a lot of talented students, some of whom taught me a lot outside of school. When I wasn’t in school, I was commuting to the city to shoot and network.
My biggest photography education came from a technician at a photo lab at which I used to develop a lot of my film, in the city. The guy would always show me the work of really good photographers and explain what made it good, and how they took the image. My other education came from the photo stock agency. The director would explain to me why a lot of what I was submitting was not good, and what to be mindful of when shooting. This education outside the classroom sped up my career throughout my first year. By my second year at the community college, I had to take a portfolio class. The professors’ mentally around professional photography was: graduate college, become a photographer’s assistant, and eventually you could be a professional photographer, shooting weddings or doing local commercial work.
Their concept of what made a good portfolio acceptable was in contrast to that of the New York City industry. Towards the end of the semester, we had to present our portfolios to the class and the teacher would grade it. When my turn came, I showed the portfolio I was using to get work in the city. The professor stopped me midway through and said my portfolio was all wrong. I said, “What do you mean?” He said the portfolios were designed so that you can get a job as someone’s assistant, then move up. I looked at him and said, “Well, I am using this portfolio with shots of entertainers and musicians and it’s getting me work in magazines.” I then took out another portfolio that was just magazine clippings of work that had been published. “This portfolio is getting my work into these magazines!” He was dumbfounded and said, “it’s not the way your portfolio should be set up. D.” I remember I looked at him, turned to the class, looked back at him and said, “Your ideas of a portfolio are not the real world,” I took my portfolios, walked out of class and never went back to school.
Monday through Friday, I would commute an hour each way on the bus to NYC. Every day was different, but it always rotated around pushing my work to get hired, selling photos to magazine, getting access to shoot artists and events, and creating opportunities. This was all in an era without the internet or social media. Beepers were the main communication tools until 1994, when I got my first cellphone.
What then caused things to slow down?
In the fall of 1995 I got the opportunity to be on staff as the Photo Editor of the Source Magazine. For me, it was a chance to network the industry from within, and provide other photographers the opportunity to get published. Going into the job, I knew I didn’t want to stay on staff too long, but working from within would open more doors for me.
While on staff, we went through two editors-in-chief. The second one was on an ego trip, to build a name for himself. Little by little he wanted to be the expert for each department of the magazine. A lot of his ideas and decisions did not benefit the magazine, or the hiphop community as a whole. Initially I enjoyed working on staff. There was a daily routine, and it created more work outside of the magazine. One thing that became a part of daily routine was leaving the office (Broadway and Prince St, New York), walking around the corner to Supreme skate shop, hanging out for a bit. Justin Pierce and I would walk to the alley behind Supreme and The Source, have a smoke, talk about skating, then I’d go back to work. Looking back, this daily routine of being around skaters talking skate helped ground me, and I missed the communal space that skateboarding provided.
As time at the Source moved forward and the editor became more intolerable, things finally came to a head for me after a final draft of the Tupac article that was to run in ‘96 Tupac cover issue. In the article I remember reading something about Tupac slept with Faith, Biggie’s wife. I said to the editor, you’re not going to run this, are you? He said, “Yeah, B, people gotta hear this!” I responded, “You can’t put out energy like this, it will cause too many issues.” He said,”Nah, people gotta know.” At that point, I knew I was done working there on staff. A few months later, Tupac was killed. Not by Biggie’s people, but the negative energy allowed to build (in my mind).
Why is now the right time to go back through the archives and start to release them to the world?
By 1997, I started developing what would eventually become the United Skateboard Association (Beast of The East Contest Series). At the same time I continued to shoot, until 1998. When I started the skateboard contest series, I never looked back at my era of photography, in my mind it was my last job, I just moved forward.
Around 2011, I began noticing online people were scanning and posting old magazines pictures I had shot. Prior to that time I never thought about my old work, so much so that back in 1997 I was in a flood and lost a lot of my work. I didn’t think much of what was lost because in that flood because, mentally, I was transitioning into the skate / business world and what I had shot and used during the 90’s, was already used. I didn’t consider it could have future use, so I had no emotional connection to the work.
For years the work that wasn’t damaged in the flood stayed in boxes in my parent’s attic until I finally forced myself to organize it after seeing my old work online. The organizational process took a while. Then I did an initial round of digitizing some of my work, to share on Facebook with my friends. Over the next few years, I would digitize more work and little by little I was shocked with what I found I had. A lot of my work I had never really looked at in depth; a lot was skimmed over at the time to quick sell to publications, what wasn’t used just got filed away without a second thought of future use.
One example of this was my image of Tupac and Biggie together. I’d shot the image in 1993. At that time, neither of them were stars and, when I shot them, I did not know who they were. The other reason I never gave that image a second look for years was because the photo critic in my head just saw some guy giving me the middle finger with a shadow particularly on his face. During the process of organizing my images I remember looking at the slide of Biggie and ‘Pac and then realizing it was an image of Biggie and Tupac and they are wearing “I’m a Bad Boy” t-shirts (referencing the label Biggie was on), showing they were good friends just hanging backstage at a concert. I was in shock and pissed I didn’t realize I had this gem.
A good portion of my work that I have been sharing has been a big reveal to me. During the era of shooting it was a rush to shoot, sell to magazines, then move on, there were no other outlets and no internet or social media to share. Now with the web, social media and countless outlets it’s easier to share your work.
Are you getting interest from media outlets about telling the stories from some of those old photos now that they're out there in the world?
Some outlets have licensed my work for print, and TV documentaries. Other opportunities have presented themselves as a result of discovering my work. A lot of people are so in shock that they’ve never seen this work, how did it get past them? I still have a lot of work that still needs to be scanned and touched up, and have scanned work that still need to be touched up before release.
I'm sure you have some really intimate photos from along the way. How do you decide which ones you release versus which ones should stay private?
Initially when I started going back through my images, I looked for key images that could create commercial interest, moments that may have been in magazines, shots I liked but had no outlets at the time. All these moments were pulled briefly skimming through through slides, negatives or prints. After getting these initial images digitally scanned and touching them up, it allowed me to begin looking at even more moments between the key shots shared. I found a lot of even more personal moments that may not have been magazine feature usage shots but they spoke more.
As for real personal moments withheld from sharing. These are shots that in getting to know the artists you, you look at and they express something that you know is not something the public needs to see. Either because it’s something that doesn’t put the artists in the best light, it’s too personal like a family moment, or it’s showing the artist not in their iconic nature. I was fortunate to be let into this very personal space because I wasn’t on assignment shooting some of the artists, so on that same level you have to respect the trust, space and time granted to you be the artists. Remember, I was a no-name photographer. I was able to form comfortable bonds people, the artists.
Who is doing work right now that inspires you?
The People who are pushing to keep the space I captured in a pristine light. Chi Modu is one person who keeps getting overlooked. He pushed the boundaries to capture the 90’s in a way it had not been documented before on magazine covers and maintains to share his work on Tupac and others. He hands down got me to start digging out my archives and sharing on the level that people are now accustomed to seeing my work online. For so long I was concerned with bootlegging, uncredited usage, etc. He told me, you just have to share it, people are hungry for these images.
What advice would you give to aspiring photographers?
Look into the moment you are capturing. Let the moment reveal itself to you.