Photosynthesis: UI art exhibit casts light on early days of hip-hop

Harry Allen, who captured the early days of hip-hop culture in New York City, photographed La Rock backstage at Benjamin
Harry Allen, who captured the early days of hip-hop culture in New York City, photographed La Rock backstage at Benjamin Franklin High School in 1984. The University of Iowa Museum of Art is displaying Allen's from March 27 to June 27 in the Black Box Theatre in the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City.

By Diana Nollen

When a hip new music scene was emerging in New York City, Harry Allen was there, camera in hand.

He captured the early images as his band of buddies at Adelphi College on Long Island set about changing the face of modern music.

They had plenty to say, and found their voice as seminal hip-hop group Public Enemy. Their words have been recorded on tapes, albums and CDs. Their faces have been recorded on 35mm film.

Forty black-and-white photos from the early days of hip-hop are at the heart of “Two Turntables and a Microphone: Hip-Hop Contexts featuring Harry Allen’s ‘Part of the Permanent Record: Photos from the Previous Century.’” They will be on view Saturday through June 27 in the Black Box Theatre at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City. Adding to the experience are a collection of album covers, audio clips, event fliers and a large-screen video display of works by graffiti artist Lady Pink.

This marks the first new exhibition for the UI Museum of Art since the floods of 2008 wiped out its building, forcing officials to find alternate spaces to display permanent pieces and changing exhibits.

“It’s a selection from pictures I took in the early 1980s when we were in college,” Allen, 46, says by phone from his office in Harlem. “It documents the people I was hanging around and the things I was seeing at that time. It documents a lot of my early exploration into hip-hop culture at that time.”

Allen, a communications major, met Carlton Douglas Ridenhour, a design major, in an animation class. Allen was interested in photography and media and Ridenhour was a DJ at the college radio station, WBAU. Even though Public Enemy’s roots reach back to 1982, the group released its first album, “Yo! Bum Rush the Show,” in 1987, with Ridenhour as rapper Chuck D, joined by Flavor Flav and the rest of their crew.

“These gentlemen were the first people I’d ever met who, like me, did not believe the (hip-hop) culture was a fad. We matched each other’s intensity as a culture,” Allen says. “That’s what drew me to them.”

More albums followed, garnering critical acclaim and controversy over the rappers’ political and social stances. That’s when Allen’s writing skills came to the fore.

“I very soon became aware that much of the way black people were spoken about in the media was offensive,” he says.

Striking a defensive stance was not the route he wanted to go.

“I felt the best way to counter an offensive action was with an offensive response,” he says. “My first role (with Public Enemy) was as an associate of Chuck. Once the troupe was formed, I referred to myself as an aide-de-camp. I supported what they were doing. I took an official role in 1990 as ‘Director of Enemy Relations.’ My work was getting information about the band to the press.”

Where the mainstream media saw controversy, Allen just saw a reflection of everyday life.

“As black males from New York, what you grow up with and what you see, what you experience, is going to be different from everybody else,” he says.

“Black males from New York are pretty much what everybody else isn’t. You’re often going to be opposed, so the act of ‘this is what my day was like’ is going to be controversial,” he explains. “Public Enemy spoke about ‘this is what happened and this is how we feel about it.’ We found out a lot of other people feel the same way.”

Recording images, as he did, creates a lasting impression, not just of the past, but as a touchstone for the future.

“The way things look is the most evanescent aspect of it,” he says. “And especially in the case of hip-hop culture, sound often is recorded and kept, but the look of it changes and disappears and is hard to recapture. This is an area where the adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ really comes to bear in doing this.

“Hip-hop is something black people created for the most part, overwhelmingly, and our lives are widely underdocumented. For the most part, black history — the discovery and rediscovery of what we know — has not been given correct interpretation or attention.

“I see these images and the importance of them as primarily futuristic. Correctly handled, they should outlast us. For Jam Master Jay, they have outlasted him,” Allen says of the late Run-D.M.C. DJ, who was fatally shot at a recording studio in October 2002.

“This is part of the way we tell the story of who we were, and thus who we are.”


What: University of Iowa Museum of Art exhibition: “Two Turntables and a Microphone: Hip-Hop Contexts featuring Harry Allen’s ‘Part of the Permanent Record: Photos from the Previous Century’”

When: March 27 through June 27, 2010; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday; noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Where: Black Box Theater, Iowa Memorial Union, 125 N. Madison St., Iowa City

Admission: Free and open to the public

Information: or (319) 335-1727

Related free events:

April 1, 7 p.m., Englert Theatre, downtown Iowa City: University Lecture Committee program with artist talk by Harry Allen and a panel discussion moderated by Kembrew McLeod with Public Enemy frontman Chuck D and co-founders Hank and Keith Shocklee, members of the group’s original production unit, the Bomb Squad

April 21, 7:30 p.m., Van Allen Hall, Lecture Room 2: Talk by graffiti artist Sandra Fabara, aka Lady PinkApril 29, 7:30 p.m., IMU Black Box Theater: Gallery talk by “Two Turntables” exhibition co-curators Deborah Whaley and Kembrew McLeod


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