Barron Claiborne, Biggie Smalls, “King Of New York” Contact Sheet, USA, 1997
Barron Claiborne was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts. He is a self-taught photographer and began taking photographs at the age of ten after receiving a camera as a gift from his mother.
One of Claiborne’s most significant achievements in the urban music community is a series of portraits of The Notorious B.I.G wearing a plastic gold crown in front of a deep red backdrop. The pictures were made in Claiborne’s New York studio in March 1997, only three days before the rapper’s untimely death in Los Angeles, resulting from a drive-by shooting. The most known image from the series entitled “The King of New York,” is one photograph from a couple of dozen images of the rapper from the photo session. Most of these other photographs from the session had never been seen by the public before being included in the 2018 book Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop. In a 2019 exhibit based upon the book, (hosted by The Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles), an entire installation of this memorable photo session was constructed. In addition to a 100 cm x 150 cm print of the principal image, the museum exhibit installation of “The King Of New York” featured one of The Notorious B.I.G’s music videos playing on a small screen alongside of two enlarged contact prints as well as the original two-dollar plastic crown that Claiborne had purchased specifically for the shoot, displayed in a glass jewel case as if it was made of real gold.
In an interview given to undiscovermusic.com in 2019, Contact High’s’s creator and curator Vikki Tobak described the King Of New York image as, ‘the Mona Lisa of hip hop’.’ And added “It is a defining photo when you think of Biggie.”
On September 15, 2020, the plastic costume crown that Claiborne had purchased for six-dollars to use in the King Of New York photo series was auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York City as part of a hip hop auction collection. The crown was sold for $594,750. The photo shoot featuring the crown had been made for Rap Pages magazine. Having purchased two crowns prior to Small’s arrival at the studio, Claiborne discovered that both were too small for Biggie’s head, though he was able to use one by removing its foam padding. Sean “Diddy” Combs, then CEO of label Bad Boy Records, was also present at the 1997 photo session. Combs voiced concerns that the photographs would make the rapper look like an ad for Burger King, but both Mr. Claiborne and Biggie Smalls disregarded his comments and proceeded with the pictures.
Claiborne works primarily in large format. In 1990, he moved to New York City. For the past three years, he has worked on a project which involved 8 x 10 Polaroids of the body, women (Venus Aurea) saints and goddesses (sanctified). The inspiration for his work is both historical and mythological. The symbolic imagery represents dreams, stories, and the oral traditions of his Southern and African ancestry.
His work has appeared in numerous publications including Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, and Interview, among others. His photos are featured in museums and private collections throughout the world.
Materials: Museum archival color print
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