September 5, 2020

My Images in Sotheby's Auction Celebrating The History & Cultural Impact of Hip Hop


Boston Globe article about the auction and my photographs: Boston, ’80s hip-hop, and the previously unseen photos that documented the scene

 Press Release: Sotheby’s is honored to announce an auction celebrating the history and cultural impact of Hip Hop on 15 September in New York. The first-ever dedicated Hip Hop auction to be presented at a major international auction house, the sale reflects on the impact Hip Hop has had on art and culture from the late 1970s through the “Golden Age” of the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, and up to the present. 

Full auction details. I have two lots in the auction. You are invited to view here and here.

Media inquiries:

This body of work is a labor of love. These photographs represent the hundreds I shot from 1985 to 1989, documenting hip-hop culture in Boston. I believe that the power of the images lies in their focused look at a single community: an exuberant microcosm of a growing worldwide cultural revolution. Many of my subjects never gained much prominence, but they remain prominent and important as early, localized representatives of a seismic shift. Just look at the way rappers today in South Korea gesticulate, move on stage and enunciate rhymes.

A few shoots were on assignment for Boston Rock Magazine (15 dollars for photos and an article), but it was my interest in the energy and beats of the scene that kept me snapping. As only a handful of the images have been published or exhibited, the work is a fresh and unique trove of recently discovered treasure.

In 1986, I documented one of the Hollywood Talent Nights produced by Maurice Starr, creator of New Edition and New Kids on the Block. Youngsters got dressed up and sang, rapped and danced. Employing a medium format camera along with portable studio lighting allowed me to catch the outfits and attitudes in crisp detail. Along with many unknowns at the talent show, I snapped portraits of pre-fame NKOTB. 

I also captured a performance by Rusty the Toe Jammer in 1985, who scratches with his foot, in the community room at a housing project in Boston.

During this period, as hip-hop began to transcend national boundaries, my photographic career went global as well. Nonetheless, returning from South Korea in 1987 after documenting riots wearing a gas mask and helmet on assignment for Time Magazine and US New and World Report, I continued the project.

I obtained photo passes, sometime from Boston Rock, sometimes from the Boston Phoenix, to document performances by major touring acts such as Whodini, The Beastie Boys, Grandmaster Flash, LL Cool Jay, Run-D.M.C., The Fat Boys and so on.

However, the young mostly unknowns in these images, brimming with pride and fight, are my champions.

John Nordell teaches courses in the Visual and Digital Arts Program at American International College in Springfield, Mass. He blogs about the creative process at   Instagram: @john.nordell