Features I by I 28.11.15

“Use your brain”: George Dubose on 30 years of iconic music photography

George Dubose was an unwitting witness to the birth of an icon.

In the early 1980s, Dubose was contacted by artist manager Camille Barbone to take photos of a young female singer named Madonna Louise Ciccone. The shoot took place at a small venue called Uncle Sam’s Blues, in Long Island. It was Madonna’s first show as a front woman, for a band called The Breakfast Club. Dubose’s photos captured the young singer—and her only, at the request of Barbone—in various outfits and poses, hinting at what would become her trademarks.

Halfway through the performance Dubose noticed Madonna seemed nervous. In between set changes he went into the dressing room to give her some words of encouragement but Barbone overheard the conversation and decided to kick the photographer out. The photos Dubose took that night were never paid for nor used by Barbone, and wouldn’t appear until decades later. This story is one of many Dubose has of a period when he happened to be in the right place at the right time, with a camera.

After 25 years in New York City, today Dubose resides in Cologne, Germany, where he lives off his extensive work archive—over 300 covers including 18 gold and platinum albums—and still shoots artists as diverse as heavy metal bands and r&b singers. I call him in October during a visit to the states, and shortly after a boat trip off the Florida coast—“I don’t take photos as a hobby, I go sailing, it annoys the shit out of my wife.” Dubose is parking his car in Manhattan when I reach him on Skype, his face framed by a green baseball cap and thin silver glasses. He settles into the driver’s seat and sparks a cigarette.

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“Shoot on the beat” George Dubose

“One of the biggest problems in my career has been that I don’t have a recognisable style,” the weathered photographer explains, “I definitely don’t have a formula for all this.” Dubose isn’t religious though he believes in some higher being as a source of his ideas, a guiding hand that allows him to realise an artist’s vision in ways they can’t foresee. He continues, “I never take it as an insult when people say they don’t like an idea. I take pictures for the artists and I don’t forget that.” It’s a poignant truth that has defined Dubose’s career and his success as one of music’s best known photographers, a man who captured new wave, punk, and hip-hop with an uncanny eye.

Born in Morocco, Dubose grew up all over the United States as the family followed his father, a U.S Marine. He discovered music thanks to a transistor radio. “I didn’t have earplugs so I’d tuck it under my pillow and listen at night,” he remembers. The diverse music Dubose discovered on radio led to guitar lessons but his calling lay elsewhere. “I didn’t have the talent to play,” Dubose tells me, “but I did learn something from my music studies: shoot on the beat. Especially live performances, if you know the structure of a song and you’re ready for it you can get some exciting shots.”

Following a revelatory LSD trip in college, Dubose began to study photography. When he first arrived in New York City in the 1970s, he had dreams of making it in the business but soon found the doors remained closed to him. Undeterred, he bargained a job as a cameraman for a printing company, a different kind of photographic work. “I told the boss I was clever and could learn,” Dubose tells me in quick fire re-enactments of conversations. He continues, “give me the job but pay me half what you’re offering for 30 days. If I can’t learn to do this successfully, I’ll leave. If I do, you have to pay me what you’re offering.” They kept the young hustler. While there Dubose observed the design department’s work—manual labor involving cutting, gluing, and typesetting. During those years Dubose also took apprenticeships with fashion photographers, learning the trade from dark rooms to lighting and studio work. “That’s my strong point,” Dubose says, “having a concept and building backgrounds.”

The first breakthrough came when Dubose sold a shot of the B–52’s to Island Records. Immersing himself in the New York cultural hive, Dubose would go to shows religiously, both to learn about new music and to get work. He captured the B-52’s during their first Manhattan show—against a white background, standing on reflective paper—and two years later that shot became the basis for the new wave band’s first album cover. By then Dubose had also become SPIN magazine’s first photo editor. Tony Wright, an English art director with Island, contacted Dubose to ask for help with menial design work. The offer launched a parallel career for the young photographer. “My [design] skills got to a next level working with Tony,” Dubose recalls today, “I learnt the finesse of packaging from him.”

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“I first heard hip-hop at The Mudd Club, I thought it was a different kind of new wave”

It was through this budding relationship with Island that Dubose first encountered The Ramones, the iconic punk band from Forest Hills, Queens. In 1982, Dubose shot the band inside a subway car, the members looking at the camera through windows and open doors. The shot was the basis for the cover of their seventh studio album, Subterranean Jungle. As art director on the project, Wright cleaned up the graffiti on the car’s exterior and airbrushed his own in its place. A year later, Johnny Ramone, guitarist and founding member of the band, called Dubose for a new photoshoot but requested another art director. When Dubose asked why, Johnny confessed that the graffiti on the last cover looked fake. Dubose convinced The Ramones to let him and Wright handle one more cover, 1984’s Too Tough To Die, in which the band is bathed in blue lighting inside a tunnel. Another year, another call from The Ramones. This time Dubose took the job alone. “From then on I worked on most of The Ramones covers for the rest of their career,” says Dubose. He had got his foot in the door of the business, and kicked it wide open.

Where some designers and art directors choose to create artwork by detaching themselves from the music it adorns, Dubose remains a staunch believer in letting the music dictate the art. He recounts stories of fellow directors never listening to the music before designing. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean!?” he exclaims, irate. “Who do you design the cover for then?” More swearing ensues. While some choose to insert “their painting on a cover,” Dubose has always worked to efface himself from the final result. “I don’t think that’s fair to the artist, they’re the ones who have to live with the record for the rest of their lives,” he affirms. Dubose enables artists visions and tries to “make the cover look like the music sounds.”

Of all the bands and genres Dubose covered in his time, the one he remains most associated with is hip-hop. The music emerged from the Bronx just as his career was taking shape, and once again it proved to be a case of right place, right time.

“I first heard hip-hop at the Mudd Club,” he recalls of the notorious TriBeCa venue where the likes of punk and new wave bloomed. “I thought it was a different kind of new wave or part of it, I had no idea of the scene in the Bronx.” Sometime in 1982, while walking to his studio on 34th Street, Dubose heard what sounded like Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans Europe Express’ coming out of a car stuck in gridlock. Only the beat was different and there were lyrics. The song Dubose heard was ‘Planet Rock’ by Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force, a booming catalyst for hip-hop’s expansion from the ruins of the Bronx to the ears of the world. “A month later these four black gentlemen come into my studio,” Dubose remembers. It was the Soul Sonic Force and though Dubose knew of them, he had no idea what they looked like. He continues, “they came into the studio with garbage bags full of costumes. They dressed up like vikings, Roman soldiers and Indian chiefs. Almost like the Village People. That’s how hip-hop guys were at the start, there was no unifying clothing. They made it up.”

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“Rap artists always had a fantasy idea”

Dubose’s next hip-hop job was for Prism records, the cover of Alfonso Ribeiro’s debut album, 1984’s Dance Baby. Ribeiro had got a record deal following his appearance in the Broadway musical The Tap Dance Kid in 1983, though he now remains most famous for his role as Will Smith’s cousin in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Two years later, Prism called on Dubose once more, this time for the cover of Biz Markie’s debut single, ‘Make The Music With Your Mouth Biz’. The single is memorable for its title’s font, an emulation of a gothic type that Dubose first saw on Biz’s cap during the shoot. Dubose purchased enough letters from a street vendor to create the title. To this day the origins of the font remain a mystery despite its ubiquity in hip-hop’s early years.

When Prism became Cold Chillin’ in the late 1980s, Dubose became their go-to photographer and designer, responsible for many of the label’s most famous albums. “The artists always had a fantasy idea,” Dubose recalls of his work with the likes of Biz Markie, Kool G. Rap, and Big Daddy Kane. For Kane’s 1988 debut, Long Live The Kane, Dubose followed his belief in enabling the artist’s vision. From an original idea involving more than 20 characters, Dubose convinced the young MC to simplify it down to a throne and three models, with a white, purple, and gold colour scheme that invoked images of royalty. “I took his idea and refined it,” Dubose tells me, “and he liked it. It was what he wanted but not what he saw.”

In 1990, Dubose worked on the cover for the debut album by The Genius, an early incarnation of the Wu Tang’s GZA. The artwork for Words From The Genius shows the young MC sat at a table covered in large books inside a golden metal box. A feather in hand, Genius is writing into a volume. His hair is a forest of small, spiky dreads and he’s sporting a gold bathrobe adorned with African hunting motifs—bought in Damascus, Syria, by Dubose’s father circa 1949. “He wanted to out-gold all the other rappers,” Dubose recalls laughing. Genius wanted “tons of gold chains around his neck” but Dubose thought that image was played out. Once again he finessed the rapper’s idea into something feasible, and new. He continues, “Genius thought it was dope and I think it’s a really great cover. But the label thought it was too soft!” Three years later, Warner Brothers re-issued the album, in the wake of Wu-Tang’s explosion, with a black and red portrait cover.

By the late 1990s, Dubose began to feel that the winds of the music industry were shifting. Despite the CD having replaced vinyl, providing an infusion of cash into an already bloated manufacturing monster, the writing was on the wall. Still an art director at Island, Dubose noticed a move to computers and Photoshop, even though the software wasn’t yet capable of handling the required sharpness for small fonts. “Warner Brothers used to spend $15,000 for the photography and design of a band’s first album,” he recalls, “and that was a low budget!” Soon enough art direction, photography, and design took a backseat to maximising profits and an era of visual creativity in music ended.

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“I want to make my work available to everybody”

Today, the man who was once nearly shot by the Notorious B.I.G while on a job isn’t bitter. He seems rather content in fact. As the rise of the mp3 and digital technology reshaped Dubose’s craft, he moved to Europe and refocused. In recent years he’s revisited his extensive hip-hop work through a book, the ironically titled The Big Book Of Hip-Hop Photography (it is 8.5 x 8.5 inches), sells prints of his best known photos (“I want to make my work available to everybody”), and is at work on a new book about Madonna’s first show and a long overdue tome on his rock & roll work.

I ask Dubose how he feels about the ubiquity of photography today, and how it seems to reinforce his aversion to photographers placing themselves in the work. It turns out Dubose could care less, he barely pays attention to what’s going on in the world of photography and doesn’t own a smartphone. What he bemoans, however, is a perceived lack of imagination and concept in artist photography. “There’s no story in photos,” he tells me. On a recent shoot in London, Dubose captured a singer in an unusual light just by using paper and some lateral thinking. “It was the dopest shot, and…” he pauses, breathing out exasperation, “I did something without a lot of money. Transform the space you’re in. It’s possible. It’s just using your brain!”

Prints of George Dubose’s work (including those shown in this feature) are available to purchase from House of Roulx.

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