Ekow Eshun

Why Dana Lixenberg’s portraits of Tupac and Biggie live on

On the Dutch photographer whose stripped-down approach to celebrity immortalised hip hop’s biggest stars

Not long after the rapper Tupac Shakur was murdered in 1996, a spray-painted mural appeared in tribute to the star on a wall in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The memorial featured a portrait of Shakur, who had been gunned down in a drive-by shooting, looking wearied but noble, a victim of gun violence but still unbroken — still a hero to the anonymous artist behind the painting.

The mural was based on an image of Shakur by the Dutch photographer Dana Lixenberg, who says she felt “very proud” when she first came across the painting. “I was glad they’d used it and that the image resonated with his fans.” Lixenberg had photographed the rapper in 1993 at a pivotal point in his life.

Aged 22, Shakur was one of America’s most high-profile young stars. He’d scored a platinum album and made a hit movie with Janet Jackson already that year. But he’d also racked up a number of arrests centred on disturbingly violent incidents, including taking a swing at another rapper with a baseball bat, beating up a film director and allegedly shooting two off-duty police officers during a traffic dispute (they survived and the charges were later dropped). In 1994, he was convicted of sexual assault.

Despite all this, Shakur was adored by his fans as an artist of rare sensitivity. His music was angry and pugnacious. But it also reflected the pain and uncertainty of life for those born black and poor in America. Lixenberg’s portrait captures him solitary and pensive. A jewelled cross hangs from his neck and with his sharp cheekbones and thick eyelashes, he has a captivating, almost feminine beauty and a vulnerability that feels all the more poignant in light of his untimely death. That the image should become the inspiration for the mural in Manhattan after his killing struck Lixenberg as fitting. “There’s a kind of mood in it that’s especially moving because he’s no longer alive,” she says. Still, the photographer assumed its use would be a one-off, as the grief of his fans faded with time.

For a long period, that’s how it stayed. But about three years ago, Lixenberg began to notice an increasing number of drawings, paintings and screen prints of Shakur by fans circulating online that used the photo as their source material. There were murals in Madrid, Melbourne, Cardiff and Kunming, China. There were even devotees who showed off biceps emblazoned with tattoos based on her picture. Shakur hadn’t vanished from memory after his death. Quite the opposite.

More than two decades on, the rapper remains highly visible in pop culture. In large part, that’s to do with the deluge of posthumous recordings released by his estate, not to mention a recent Hollywood biopic and a Broadway musical about his life. But it’s also intriguing to wonder whether the way he is remembered — as a doomed, romantic poet — has been shaped by Lixenberg’s portrait. The photographer says she has watched with “fascination at the different ways so many people have embraced the image”. She is less sanguine, however, about attempts to exploit the picture for profit.

In 2015, Lixenberg began legal proceedings for copyright infringement against some of America’s biggest retailers, including Macy’s, Urban Outfitters, Target and Forever 21, after she discovered they were selling T-shirts and other goods bearing the portrait, produced by a merchandising company called Bioworld. When challenged, they questioned her ownership of the image. And then argued that even if the picture was hers, it was not a defining feature in the overall design of their clothes, but only an incidental element.

The case continued back and forth for a gruelling two years before the companies finally reached an amicable resolution with Lixenberg. Next week, a new exhibition of the photographer’s work goes on show in Amsterdam. The Shakur image will be displayed for the first time in a gallery. Its presence offers Lixenberg a chance to reassert the photo’s value as an artwork rather than a piece of fan iconography. The exhibition itself is also a reminder of Lixenberg’s abilities as a portraitist.

Born in 1964 in Amsterdam, Lixenberg trained as a photographer in the Netherlands and London and moved to New York in 1990. The works in the show are mainly drawn from editorial commissions for US magazines in the 1990s and 2000s. Her subjects are contemporary greats such as Brian Wilson, Al Green, Iggy Pop, Puff Daddy, Leonard Cohen, Mary J Blige and Elmore Leonard. Such figures, with years of maintaining their public personas, make tricky subject matter for a photographer searching for depth instead of surface. Lixenberg shoots them in studiedly neutral settings, such as bland hotel rooms, where there is no escaping the candid scrutiny of her lens.

Shorn of the trappings of fame, her portraits acquire a thrilling intimacy. Here’s Allen Ginsberg in the tiny, beat-up kitchen of his East Village apartment, a portrait of Walt Whitman staring down over his shoulder; Jay-Z wearing a royal blue bathrobe, clutching a TV remote control and delivering a mighty yawn; Bobby Brown passed out asleep on a couch. It’s as if she has tiptoed in on her subjects and caught them involved in nothing more than the private business of being. “I’m less interested in the image people like to present of themselves than finding what’s going on with someone that’s not so tangible,” says Lixenberg.

The only star in her firmament that looks ill at ease is Donald Trump, who is photographed in 1998, in the rococo lobby of Trump Tower, coiffured, suited and standing stiffly to attention, as if warding off the peril of revealing a glimpse of his off-duty self. Lixenberg first developed her aesthetic approach, which she describes as “stripped down and de-sensationalised”, in 1992. A Dutch magazine had sent her to Los Angeles to photograph the city after the Rodney King riots. She returned with a series of portraits taken in Imperial Courts, a housing project in Watts, whose low-income African-American residents were the kind of people often stereotyped in the press as criminals or as welfare-dependent.

Lixenberg spent weeks getting to know them. Rather than render the residents as ciphers of a social problem, she sought “to expose the charismatic power” of the people she met, in the process crafting photos of extraordinary nuance and empathy. “I was very aware of how the media was representing this community. I felt compelled to look behind that and to make images that captured a kind of beauty I saw there.”

Lixenberg has returned to Imperial Courts many times since then to continue taking pictures of the residents. Last year, she won the prestigious Deutsche Börse Photography Prize for a project that now spans almost a quarter of a century. Her new show is dedicated to the late George Pitts, founding photo editor of Vibe, a music and lifestyle magazine created in the early 1990s by Quincy Jones, the legendary music producer.

Vibe was a stylish, sophisticated title — a Vanity Fair for the hip-hop generation — that helped establish stars such as Puff Daddy, Snoop Dogg, Dr Dre, Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott and Will Smith as dominant cultural forces in a modern, demographically diverse America. Pitts was an astute and talented editor. Catching sight of the early Imperial Courts photos, he ran a portfolio from the series in one of the first issues of the magazine. Commissions followed for her to shoot on-the-rise artists such as Jay-Z, Lil’ Kim and Aaliyah. Pitts wanted her approach to inform the whole of Vibe. Her work, he noted, “helped the magazine develop its visual tone, and influenced the way countless magazines visually approached urban experience”.

It was Pitts who sent Lixenberg to photograph Shakur for a Vibe feature. He also commissioned what became another indelible hip-hop image that is featured in the exhibition — a portrait that Lixenberg took of the rapper Notorious BIG, also known as Biggie Smalls. Biggie conjured richly imagistic, mordantly funny rhymes about his rise from corpulent teenage drug dealer on the streets of Brooklyn to wealth, fame and unlikely status as a sex symbol.

In Lixenberg’s portrait, we see him in Versace shades and a luridly patterned jumper thumbing through a thick wad of $50 bills. The photo is simultaneously a celebration and satire of the rapper’s image as a money-hungry hustler with an appetite for designer labels. As with her photo of Shakur, the picture has acquired a vigorous afterlife. Its unauthorised appearance on T-shirts formed part of Lixenberg’s copyright infringement case.

And there are scores of often comic fan artworks and memes putting famous figures in the sweater and shades, from Papa Smurf and Bart Simpson to Marilyn Monroe and Donald Trump. Biggie was shot dead less than a year after Shakur, at the height of a toxic rivalry between their respective East and West Coast hip-hop camps.

For Lixenberg, their photos form the heart of her exhibition, reuniting two figures whose loss is still keenly felt by fans. And offering a reminder too that for an image to become ubiquitous, it first has to be unique. “In all the copies you see on the T-shirts, you don’t get the detail of the photo,” says Lixenberg. “But when you get close to the print, it’s quite spectacular. There’s a level of depth and detail and richness that you see. It’s not like anything else.”

Why Dana Lixenberg’s portraits of Tupac and Biggie live on