Barron Claiborne started taking pictures at the age of 10. It was a fascination with photography that would go on to become a career that has featured in New York Magazine, Rolling Stone, Interview and many more. However, his icon status is assured thanks to one image he took on March 6, 1997.
The rapper Biggie Smalls arrived at Claiborne’s studio at 100 Greenwich Street that day for a photo shoot. Three days later Smalls would be dead, catapulting Claiborne’s image into pop culture history in the process.
Ahead of Claiborne’s appearance with Reebok at Sole DXB, GQ Middle East spoke to him about the impact of his photography and that legendary image.
Over 20 years later, why do you think your photograph of The Notorious B.I.G. as the King of New York has managed to stand the test of time?
"Biggie dies, it’s very symbolic. This is a king. When people die early, people tend to mythologise them more because you never see them decay… you remember them the way they were. And if it’s a good memory, it remains a good memory because nothing can really change it."
You don’t need to be a hip-hop fan to recognise this image – why do you think it has translated so well?
"I think sometimes certain images transcend certain lines. Images are symbols – or they contain symbols. Vision is on the surface, it just goes deeper sometimes."
Where the final images from the shoot are concerned, how much of what made the cut was due to intense planning and how much of it was as a result of spontaneity?
"Originally, just one image was planned. I used large format so I never took a lot of pictures. I kind of know exactly what I want before I do it most of the time and just getting it is the thing. So, it’s all formed by the time I take a picture of it."
What do you remember about Biggie from that day of that shoot?
"I had shot Biggie previous times, I had been on the video [sets], stuff like that, because I also do cinematography. I like Biggie. I mean, he didn’t talk a lot but he was this playful, big dude. I liked him. I didn’t know him that well, but I still think that he was one of the best rappers ever. Just the delivery, flow, s**t like that. And he was very charismatic, which counts more than anything, really."
Did you ever find out why Biggie’s mom doesn’t like the photo of him with the crown?
"I don’t know why Biggie’s mom doesn’t like it [laughs]. She won’t tell me. Maybe it’s tied to his death. He was her only son so it’s not like I’m going to question her about it too much. But you know, I heard she feels a little differently now, so that’s good."
You’ve said, ‘The fact that [Biggie] died made the symbolism stronger. He had to die for this image to have that symbolism. The king is sacrificed.’ How do you think this image would have impacted culture if he hadn’t died so young?
"I don’t think if Biggie was still alive… I’m not sure it would have impacted as much as it has now. If he’d lived there would be hundreds and hundreds of other images after that one. I’m pretty sure dying young has a lot to do with certain images in our culture. And it’s the easiest way to remember people. They are likenesses, exact likenesses of the person."
Why do you think it’s important that stories like those in Vikki Tobak’s book Contact High: A Visual History of Hip Hop (in which your work features) continue to be part of our present narrative?
"I think Vikki’s book is important because it’s history – it’s just a capsule of a certain history. I think all things are important. People want to capture them. If it’s important enough for someone to make a book or a film or a play about something, then it captivated them and they felt strongly enough about it to bring it to the attention of others, many of who know it exists and others who may not have. You’re just inspiring people and it’s best to do it any way you can."
What do you think of photography today – especially the work done by photographers said to be inspired by your work?
"Well, I think it’s great that people are inspired by my work. I think photography’s odd because everyone’s a photographer… everybody has a [camera] phone at this point, but I still think the best of the images will always rise to the top. I also think that we live in a culture just inundated by so many images, so much imagery that it does sort of take away from their uniqueness and specialness. I think sometimes you have too much of something, you don’t appreciate it as much and you do a lot less with it because you have too much. Having too much is just as bad as having too little."