At first glance, two recent photography books from powerHouse Books, It’s All Good and Lo-Life: An American Classic, look related. The former, newly reprinted ten years after its initial publication, chronicles drug dealers and addicts in the early aughts in Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Long Island City. The latter is a portrait of the Lo-Life gang, a group of teenagers from Brownsville and Crown Heights who, in the 1980s and 90s, hustled and stole to acquire the Ralph Lauren apparel that signified their belonging. Separated by about a decade and just a few miles, the young people in both books move through similar worlds of violence, uncertain money, and poverty. Skim through them and you’ll see in both images of men and women mugging for the camera, sometimes brandishing weapons or wads of cash. But these are two very different books. The primary factor distinguishing them is their authorship. It’s All Good is a documentary work by the Serbian photographer Boogie, while Lo-Life is an oral history by a Lo-Life member, George “Rack-Lo” Billips, illustrated with vernacular photographs—mostly Polaroids— taken by friends. Considering them together is a useful study in the power and peril of visual representation.
Boogie was born Vladimir Milivojevich in Belgrade, Serbia and moved to New York City in 1998. He started going to Bushwick in 2003, he writes, because he found his own Brooklyn neighborhood “boring,” with “nothing to shoot there except hipsters.” In Bushwick and beyond, he writes, he was “in search of excitement.” Clearly, he wasn’t disappointed.
“I had to go to Bushwick or Bed-Stuy every day. If I didn’t go, I felt like I was missing something. It’s totally an addiction—an addiction to drug addicts and gangsters,” he writes.
For Boogie, the destitute and desperate lives of his subjects are an exotic adventure. If his grainy, black-and-white photos aren’t enough evidence, check his captions. Describing a photo of a man wielding a shotgun in the hallway of a Bed-Stuy housing project, Boogie writes, “I like these guys. Hanging out with them is like being in a movie. There’s always some sense of danger and there’s the possibility that something bad will happen. That feeling is really addictive.” Beneath a photo of three young men, one of whom is pointing his handgun at the camera, he writes, “This was the first time they invited me to take photos of them with guns. It was insane. We were running around the hallways with guns … loaded guns pointed at my face. I couldn’t sleep that night but the next day I went back for more.”
Boogie is not uninterested in his subjects’ hardships. Testimonials from a handful of the men and women pictured in the book are interspersed throughout, recounting complicated lives. In his own words, Boogie tells us that the life of a junkie “isn’t easy at all. You have to hustle constantly to get drugs, and then when you do them you don’t even feel good. You’re pretty much in hell all the time.”
But Boogie is not a crusading reformer in the tradition of Lewis Hine or Jacob Riis. His work in Brooklyn, first and foremost, serves to satisfy his own morbid curiosity and showcase his bleak, cinematic aesthetic. Asked about the potential his photos have to exploit in a 2015 interview with Vice, Boogie was cavalier: “I don’t really think about it. Photographers who say ‘I’m trying to make a difference, or trying to change this or that…’ We are just photographers. I think the reasons are pretty much selfish, we do it because we like to do it, it’s not about changing the world. I think that’s just bullshit. People try to make it sound so romantic and I’m like, you’re not curing AIDS or fighting a war or saving anyone. You’re just taking pictures.”
Boogie may have little investment in the fate of his subjects but he is, nonetheless, eager to show how simpatico he is with them. “This guy is like a brother to me,” he writes of one young man he photographed in Bed-Stuy. “After the first edition of It’s All Good came out, I took it to the gangsters and they loved it,” he claims.
That may very well be the case, but throughout the book, Boogie’s shockingly tone deaf comments give cause for doubt. Captioning a photo of a woman doing drugs, Boogie writes, “She didn’t want me to shoot this.” Alongside another photo of a teenage dealer in Bed-Stuy looking through the trigger of his gun, he writes, “You look in his eyes and you can see he is a killer.” Really? Boogie may genuinely care for the young men and women in this book, but his photos and captions demonstrate that, as far as he’s concerned, their lives are not to be understood—only feared, pitied, or romanticized.
For Billips and the rest of the Lo-Life gang, the stakes in Lo-Life are entirely different. It is their story to tell, and, consequently, they want to do so holistically and realistically.
The book begins with a description of the epidemics of AIDS, homelessness, and drugs that shaped the childhoods of Billips and his friends and set the stage for their sartorial fantasies. “Coming from the ghetto without many things to turn to, dressing in the finest of garments gave us a temporary escape from the cruel world as we knew it. It allowed us to dream. We wore the same things millionaires were wearing. It gave us a sense of pride, a sense of value,” Billips writes.
In subsequent pages, those coveted garments—or “I.T.s,” as Lo-Lifes called them— are photographed and assessed individually, like museum pieces. Elsewhere, gang members are given their own introductory pages in which they recount their personal histories and their journey to Lo-Life membership. Thirstin Howl the 3rd, for one, describes growing up in Brownsville’s Marcus Garvey Village housing, where his father died of a drug overdose and his mother struggled with addiction. “I’ve always been poor, so I always stole,” he writes.
The rest of the book doesn’t gloss over the means the group used to get what they wanted. In a section entitled “Crime Pays,” Billips describes a range of criminal activities, including burglaries, petty thefts, and pick-pocketing that afforded him and his friends their grand wardrobes. “Lo-Lifes practically turned Midtown Manhattan into a crime zone. Going to Manhattan, everyone’s mission was to return with as much stuff as they could carry,” Billips writes.
But look into the eyes of these young men, as Boogie might suggest, and you won’t see killers. Here, their snapshots are expressions of their creativity and identity, documents of their idealized selves. They’re not “just pictures;” they’re important and consequential, like any image of human beings.
A few Lo-Lifes didn’t live to see the new millennium. Others experienced it behind bars. But some celebrated it having crafted, as Billips puts it, “positive, prosperous lives” with the help of GED programs, job training, and peer counseling. Today, Lo-Life is a fashion brand inspired by Polo, and Billips and his wife host an annual barbecue reunion in Brooklyn’s Highland Park for original gang members and their families. Notice the smiling faces of a young woman and child, the girl decked out in Polo, in one photo from the event. In this image—blurry but genuine, taken simply to record a happy moment —things really do seem “all good.”
From Lo-Life: An American Classic by George “Rack-Lo” Billips and Jackson Blount, published by powerHouse Books.
From It’s All Good by Boogie, published by powerHouse Books.