Sunday, June 23, 2024

Famed Photographer Recalls Story Behind His Lost 30-Year-Old Photo with Teenage JAY-Z

*Photographer Timothy White has been taking portraits of some of your favorite stars for decades, find the complete list (and see photos) on his website. But last year, one long-forgotten, 30-year-old image resurfaced of a then-unknown JAY-Z, who was still eight years away from releasing his debut album.

Decades later, White remembers being impressed by the confident teen. He spoke with Complex about how his 1988 session with Jay came to be. The image, a large 30” x 40” print, is being displayed as part of the HIP HOP Now show at the Morrison Hotel SoHo Gallery (116 Prince Street) in New York City.

Check out the unedited conversation below.

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Can you give me an idea of what you were doing, career-wise, when you took this photo of JAY-Z in 1988?

I’m shooting album covers and I’m doing all this stuff. I’ve got an agent in Los Angeles and all of these things are happening. ‘88 was a big year for me, picture-wise. I did Guns N’ Roses’ first Rolling Stone pictures and their first Rolling Stone cover. There were many, many others but that was a big deal to me.

I was doing a lot of hip-hop as well, and I got a phone call from a record company [EMI] to do the artist Jaz-O. I had this loft and we did some work in the studio. I rented a black panther, go figure.

Was the panther your idea?

I think it was my idea, but I don’t think my idea was to make a connection to the revolutionary group. I think it was more, “What do you have?”

Like, “You got a leopard?”

Yeah, and this guy had that. It really was a wild animal. Jaz was standing on a cyc [wall]. We built a platform and I drilled a hole through it and actually tied a chain down to the bottom so that the animal could lay down and be chained down. It was loose enough where it didn’t look like he was being pulled to the floor, but he was being held there—he couldn’t jump out and attack any of us. It was kind of weird.

So we did that, and then I went up to the roof and did some things on the roof with him and with the panther and other things. [Ed. note: a shot of Jaz-O on the roof with the panther would end up as the cover of his 1989 album ‘Word to the Jaz’] Then a friend of his shows up: “Oh, hey, this is my friend JAY-Z.” JAY-Z shows up looking like he looked [in the photo], with all of that gold around his neck and the whole thing. [Jaz] told me a little background on him, that he was producing JAY-Z or working with him, and that he had named him—he had given him his moniker.

I said, “Let me get some pictures of you guys together.” I did some pictures of them together and then said, “You know what, let me shoot some pictures of him alone.” I shot a lot. There are hundreds of frames of both of them. But, interestingly, the album was Jaz-O. My database and everything read Jaz-O. And I never put it together because my career took off and I never looked back. So I had forgotten that I had shot JAY-Z—didn’t even know.

So [now] this man’s a mogul. I spent this time with him and did these really cool pictures, but I didn’t realize it until last year when I was going through my archive that I had shot this picture of JAY-Z. I went into the file and said, “Oh my god. There are some really great pictures in here.” I pulled that one out, printed it up, and hung it at my gallery in Los Angeles at the Morrison Hotel Gallery. That was on a Friday afternoon.

On Sunday morning, I get a phone call from my gallery director who said, “JAY-Z just bought your photograph.” I was like, “What? How fucking cool is that?” And then I went out to brunch and my phone was blowing up. It was from everybody who works for JAY-Z at Roc Nation, saying, “Who? What? When? Where?” Everybody forgot about this picture, basically.

He was just finishing up and coming out with 4:44, so I did a little licensing thing with them so they could help promote that last album. But that’s the story. Now of course, I go into the file and there’s a ton more pictures, but that picture kind of says it all to me. And it certainly documents a period in his life and in my life, as well as the time in pop culture history and hip-hop history. He was a baby, but he didn’t come off as a baby. He was a really confident guy who had something going on and you could feel it. You could see it.

Read the rest of White’s account over at

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