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Janette Beckman on Helping N.W.A. "Fuck Tha Police": "They Were Just So Sweet and Nice"

NWA in Los Angeles.
NWA in Los Angeles.
Photo by Janette Beckman

Janette Beckman had already immortalized the Clash and the Sex Pistols on film when she first met the members of N.W.A. She was putting together a book of photographs of the hip-hop community.

"I try not to have any preconceived notions when I go into a situation," she told Crossfade while watching the graffiti murals go up in Wynwood during Art Basel Miami Beach week.

"People had told me they were these Black Power people and they didn't like white people, but it wasn't like that. They were just so sweet and nice and helpful."

MC Lyte in Brooklyn.
MC Lyte in Brooklyn.
Photo by Janette Beckman

N.W.A.'s song, "Fuck Tha Poilce" had just come out when Beckman visited their Los Angeles studio.

"I asked them if they'd come outside to take a shot," Beckman remembered. "So we go outside and I see this police car coming down the street. I jumped out into the street and the police car stops right in front of me.

"The officer looks at me and then looks at N.W.A. I don't think he knew who they were, but he asked, 'Are you okay?' I said, 'Sure. Can I take a picture in front of your car?

"So I got my shot of N.W.A. standing by the car, my three frames, and then he drove off," Beckman said.

Eazy-E died not long after and the photograph remains one of the iconic images of the group. But Beckman's place in gangsta rap lore almost took on a whole new dimension.

After the photo session, she said, "N.W.A. asked if I would come do a voiceover in the studio for one of their tracks. I looked at what they wanted me to read and it was about how to give the perfect blowjob.

"I said, 'Ah, no. I don't think so.' But now I think I should have. I could have been famous!"

Twins in Islington, London.
Twins in Islington, London.
Photo by Janette Beckman

Despite Beckman's humility, she did become quite famous as one of the great portrait photographers of our time. In the coverage of a show she had this year in Paris, Beckman was called "the Anti-Leibovitz," a label she doesn't dispute.

"I make images of people as they are, not as something else," she said. "I don't have them standing on top of a car, holding up a dead rat. Unless that's their thing."

She often works without an assistant and keeps the budgets of her shoots as low as possible.

"I kind of treat it like a studio portrait painter from the 16th century," she said. "Warts and all. I'm not a big one for Photoshop; I'm preserving a moment. Take Shane MacGowan, who looks like a happy drunk. If he were coming up today, someone might have retouched his teeth."

Salt-n-Pepa.
Salt-n-Pepa.
Photo by Janette Beckman

Beckman was in Miami to show some of her work as part of the Morrison Hotel Gallery's popup space at the Dream South Beach. Though the New York gallery is best known for its music photography, Beckman's portraiture has encompassed all types of people.

"As far as my pictures go," she said, "I'm basically a portrait photographer. Any people. It could be celebrities or not. Joe Strummer or a fan or Salt-N-Pepa or whatever. To me, it's all the same. I just want to take portraits of people as they are."

Beckman paused to photograph one of the graffiti artists, a skinny young man wearing one red sneaker and one black sneaker.

She brings the same curiosity about people to her music photography that led her to the portrait of the "Mod Twins" that kicked off her career. Beckman made that image in 1976, after spotting a pair of nattily dressed brothers in the Islington schoolyard where she was teaching.

Brandon Boyd.
Brandon Boyd.
Photo by Janette Beckman

"I photographed Brandon from Incubus," she said. "We just went around the corner and took the picture on the street. It was the same way I would have done with Run-D.M.C. or anyone I shoot on the street.

"I did a whole series in the mid-1990s where I took my Hasselblad camera and just got on the subways. I'd have lots of pictures of Guardian Angels and people on the streets. I love them."

And though some of her favorite images are ones she didn't seek out, Beckman prefers to not live her life through the filter of a camera lens.

"One time, I was on the subway, and I saw this young kid getting arrested. These two big cops putting him in handcuffs. I wish my eye were a camera; it would have been a perfect shot. But I don't want to walk around with the camera in front of my face all the time."

Beckman never knows where her next collector piece will come from. It could be a musician or one of the Wynwood muralists or the tattoo artist she just shot in Los Angeles.

"I've been shooting some people in your lovely city," she said. "I'll look at them when I get home."

Jose James in New York.
Jose James in New York.
Photo by Janette Beckman

For more of Janette Beckman's work and her blog, visit janettebeckman.com. She is represented by the Morrison Hotel Gallery, which can be found at morrisonhotelgallery.com.

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