BEHIND THE LENS OF CHI MODU: A PORTRAIT OF HIP HOP


The Notorious B.I.G. standing in front of the former World Trade Center buildings in Lower Manhattan from the Jersey City waterfront, early 1990s (Photo Chi Modu)

 Chi Modu’s interest in photography began during his college years while studying Economics at Rutgers University. With the help of Sophia, his then girlfriend and now his wife, he was able to scrounge together enough money to purchase his first camera, a Konica. After experimenting with taking self-portraits he turned the camera on documenting others; starting with the 1990 ticker tape parade in New York City for the recently freed Nelson Mandela. The experience convinced Modu to quit his office job in order to pursue a career as a freelance photographer at the Amsterdam News.

At the same time he enrolled himself in the photo journalism program at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan but found it not as helpful as expected. Modu said, “I find that photographers aren’t really made; they are kind of born. You can work and hone your skills and school is helpful to give you an environment where you can, but that’s not where you learn. All of my photography is learned out in the field.”

In 1990 Modu set his sights on photographing for a new Hip-Hop magazine called The Source. He explained, “I saw this thing bubbling, which was Hip-Hop. As a documentarian, I wanted to document this movement. And so I set out on this mission to record it. No one knew where it was going to go, but I knew it was important.” From 1990-1997 Modu worked as the Director of Photography for the magazine, shooting an impressive 34 cover photos as well as a number of feature articles. Modu recalls, “I had photo training so that I could take pictures. I would show up wherever I was called. Eventually all of the artists knew me as “the guy”. If they sat for my camera then they were on their way to fame.”The musicians and rappers Modu documented during his time at The Source would go on to become some of the biggest and most influential Hip-Hop artists of the era.

A photo of the late Notorious B.I.G. was taken by Modu at Liberty State Park in Jersey City. The now-iconic photo of the rapper (pictured above)has him posed in front of the former Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. In this and many of Modu’s photographs the subject appears relaxed and natural. Modu explains his style of photography as personal and said, “I want the guard to drop. My biggest camera skill is my personality because that is what allows people to get comfortable and allows them, even real tough people [be] able to be vulnerable. They let it go.”

Snoop Doggy Dog 1992

In 2013, Modu began a unique photo installation titled Uncategorized in which he had six of his most recognized photographs printed individually onto massive vinyl signs and hung on the exterior of buildings throughout New York City, including Soho and Brooklyn. Signs included photos of Snoop Dogg (pictured below), Method Man, Tupac Shakur, and a group of school kids he photographed in Eastern Nigeria in 1994. Displaying his images in this fashion allowed Modu to bypass museums and allowed his photos to be seen by the public in a large way. He said, “Following has never been successful for me. That’s why I have to make my own route. The billboards were a make-my-own-route for me.”

After the installation was over, the image of The Notorious B.I.G. was given permanence in the form of amural in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Modu said of the image, “It’s a place where people go to pay their respects. It would be nice to do something like that in Jersey City.” When asked if he would be interested in Jersey City creating a mural featuring one his iconic images Modu said, “I think it’s not really for me to reach out to the people in Jersey City meaning the people in power. They should actually be claiming one of their own who is world famous. They could take advantage of the fact that I have some really iconic pictures of American history.” Modu’s work takes him to places all around the world so in order to create a mural in Jersey City the powers that be would need to grab him while he is in town.

Uncategorized caught the attention of the Pori Art Museum in Finland who exhibited Modu’s large scale photos in their main hall during an exhibition in the Summer of 2014. The museum also recently published a book of Modu’s photos under the same title Uncategorized. The first half of the book is dedicated to his large selection of Hip-Hop photos while the other half includes photos of people he documented during his many travels to places like Yamin and Indonesia. Of these photos he explained, “I go into places where most people don’t go.”

Chi Modu exhibition Uncategorized at the Pori Art Museum in Finland, 2014 (Photo Chi Modu)

The artist talk on September 11 will be the first Modu has given in Jersey City. Grace Church Van Vorst is special to him because he has been a member of the congregation for the last twelve years and was at one time

also the warden. He said, “The talk really tells the stories. This is a gift to the city.”

Modu explains that many people he meets are already familiar with his photos. He said, “You probably already knew me. It happens all around the world. It shows the power of pictures and this movement, too. People who have no idea or clue about [Hip-Hop] music know my pictures because it’s in their heads. They have seen it somewhere. That’s pretty cool. It makes me happy in a couple of ways. What we did really impacted the world. You don’t know it when you are doing it. You just know it’s important.”

Although Modu travels around the world he still makes his main residence in Jersey City, where he is raising his two young children Ezekiel and Alexandria. Referring to a photo (pictured above) that was taken in downtown Jersey City in 1991 of children running through an open fire hydrant at the corner of Third and Erie Streets, he said, “A lot of my classic things did occur here. That’s why I owe a lot to Jersey City.”

CLICK AND VIEW SOME OF CHI MODU'S CLASSIC SHOTS