How a Nomadic Flower Child Became NYC’s Best Hip-Hop Photographer

San Fransisco, California -MARCH 27th, 2013: Meechy Darko of The Flatbush Zombies, rests on the crowd after stage diving during his set at Slim's on the BEASTCOASTAL tour, his groups first full US tour.  CREDIT: Jessica Lehrman for The New York Times

As a child, Brooklyn-based photographer Jessica Lehrman lived in a caravan, traveling across the states with her nomadic hippie parents, attending rainbow gatherings and nudist camps and listening mostly to classic rock (The Beatles, The Grateful Dead, Cream, The Rolling Stones). Now 26, Lehrman still tours around the country, but with New York’s hip-hop artists instead of hippies, shooting intimate photos of the Beast Coast collective, and touring with the likes of Joey Bada$$, World’s Fair, Zombies, and The Underachievers.

Lehrman is the subject of the first episode of InFrame, a new mini-documentary series by Greenpoint-based Dutch filmmaker Bas Berkhout (best know for his viral passion project Like Knows Like). The series follows the meandering paths to success of photographers, artists, designers, and illustrators around the world, delving into their upbringings and creative processes. It turns the camera on those usually behind the camera, and in Lehrman’s case, reveals how tons of formal education and fancy art degrees aren’t as necessary as a resume-obsessed work culture wants you to think (Lehrman was homeschooled, then dropped out of SUNY Purchase). 

“I didn’t grow up with hip-hop. I didn’t know anything about this culture,” Lehrman says in a phone interview. It was while shooting Occupy Wall Street after leaving school that a commission for a liquor company found her on tour with Jermaine Dupri attending hip-hop shows every night. With no flower garlands or hula-hoops or face-painting, the scene was a sharp departure from the hippie music festivals of her youth. “I got totally addicted. It was a new, exciting, revolutionary-seeming world,” Lehrman says. She started shooting more and more hip-hop shows, until major magazines (Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone) started commissioning her for work. “I don’t think of the people in my photos as my subjects. They’re my friends,” she says. Aesthetically, the contrast between photos of her family sitting in fairy houses in Birkenstocks and tie-dye and of the stage-diving and strip clubbing of the New York hip-hop scene is almost comically stark. But the photographer sees the similarities in the two communities more than the differences between them. “There’s so much stigma around rap and musicians,” she says. “I want to just show them as being vulnerable, humble, caring, and loving. What I try to show with my photos is that everyone is the same.”

Watch the first episode of InFrame here.

InFrame – Jessica Lehrman from InFrame on Vimeo.

See Lehrman’s photos of New York’s hip-hop scene and of her nomadic family in the slideshow below.

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