Framing New Atlanta: Photographer Cam Kirk Captures the City's Rap Scene Before It Happens
The eye of Atlanta has captured Young Thug, Migos, Rich Homie Quan, iLoveMakonnen, and pretty much every other single rapper you love turning up to.
2014 was, like every year over the past decade or so, another step forward in Atlanta hip-hop's perpetual evolution. Thanks to the full-stop ascendance of Young Thug, Migos, and Rich Homie Quan, the arrival of the soft-spoken iLoveMakonnen, and helium-voiced boy band for the turn-up generation Rae Sremmurd, we witnessed the well-branded "new ATL," which has been scheming for a few years now, slowly but surely emerge out from under the shadow of Gucci Mane, Young Jeezy, and other monolithic trap stars. This scene appears to be figuring itself out in real time, stripping the past for parts, paying homage without bowing down to predecessors, and considering the Internet and as a result, you get the sense that every buzzing artist announces a new aesthetic turn.
Atlanta-based photographer and videographer Cam Kirk documents ATL with a similar, off-the-cuff, improvisational energy. "A lot of what gets created in Atlanta is on the fly and on the go," Kirk says over email. "So it leaves very little time to plan sometimes which is why I have had to learn how to take nothing and turn it into something with my work."
Last month, Kirk released Yesterday's Tomorrow, a digital coffee table e-book collecting his on the go photographs for all of 2014. Across the 100-plus pages of candid, naturalistic photos, which tell the story of Atlanta's particularly big year intimately and from the inside, you'll spot a couple of 2014's most iconic hip-hop images: Rae Sremmurd, peering off into the distance, as if they're anticipating the rap-pop world coming to them (the photo appeared in The New York Times); Young Thug sporting a knit cap, a spiffy captain's jacket, pearls, and what we might as well just call a Seinfeld-like "puffy shirt"—a photo that got passed around as a testament to Thug's sartorial swagger and also shared by those who cluelessly clowned Thug's brashness.
Young Thug by Cam Kirk
Scrolling through Yesterday's Tomorrow recalls Motion Family's greasy naturalism and the ecstatic truth of a whole generation of post-Juvenile's "Ha" video directors, but Kirk's work acts as if it has less to prove. There just isn't the same compulsion to shout-out realness here. Instead, you get a lackadaisical photo of Future, mid-gulp, stridently sipping from a double-cup, wood paneling and a Miller Lite sign in the background; a new rap superstar in the kind of quotidian environment he's supposed to be shown transcending, luxuriating in its regular ass-ness. It's a photo that doesn't seem compelled to be bigger than hip-hop or call back to the necessary-at-the-time though now decadent imagery of the late 90s or the trap house grittiness that revitalized Atlanta in the wake of Jeezy and Gucci.
Future by Cam Kirk
And Kirk's music videos have even less do with the Southern rap music video tradition than his photos. Videos like Metro Thuggin's "The Blanguage," Migos' "Ounces," and Young Thug's "Some More" are minimalist vehicles for charisma and charisma only. The camera eggs these near-heroes on by not doing all that much, just observing them, and they turn up like nobody's watching as a result. Kirk's most winning video is the slightly more ambitious Migos' "Freak No More." Set in Magic City, it is enamored with Migos' look and equally fascinated with the behind-the-scenes details of the iconic strip club. When the camera trails a dancer onto the stage, it simultaneously leers at her and follows her with admiration, like how a sports documentary might chase a linebacker onto the field.
See, Kirk's Atlanta is ascendant, on the way to somewhere else. The locations are sleek recording studios (the light shining from above onto Migos like they’re sculptures in an art installation) or recently acquired expensive homes, the kind of mid-sized, nice, almost-mansions a 2014 record deal will buy you, as seen in the background of a delightful photo of Young Thug guffawing as downs a bowl of Corn Pops. And there's non-ATLiens like Washington, D.C.'s Shy Glizzy fiercely but casually gripping his chain on the set of the "Catch a Body" video, or Miami's Ace Hood in a modest gym (because he's sort of a rap star now and rap stars also need to look like athletes), tellingly in between reps, in a moment of pause, hands on his hips, taking a breather.
This is how Kirk prefers his subjects: unaffected and unaware. "[With the] majority of my work, the artist did not even know I was taking photographs or filming," Kirk says.
A similarly minded piece from Kirk from 2015 is "Gucci Balboa," a terse, video clip of the oft-troubled, usually embattled Atlanta rapper god Gucci Mane boxing. Sympathetically shot in a plain and simple style, the footage of Gucci with gloves on, constructively punching away his problems feels restorative. "The 'Gucci Balboa' video was something I have had sitting on my hard drive for a minute," Kirk explains. The footage was actually shot back in 2012 and only posted now at the request of Gucci himself, who called Kirk from jail and asked him to put it out to "keep his name alive" while he's incarcerated. Released now though, it is the ideal visual to kick-off 2015: A flawed, fascinating eccentric and major influence on all that has come after him ATL-wise, seemingly working his shit out in the ring. Therein lies the power of plain and simple, yet sensitive documentation.
The best of Kirk's photos, like "Gucci Balboa" capture the moments that seem off-the-cuff and real. Those aforementioned Future sipping, Young Thug breakfasting, Glizzy gripping, and Ace Hood mid-rep photos, but also: Lil Boosie scowling at his iPhone in a recording session; Young Thug shooting hoops; iLoveMakonnen slumped in a chair hesitantly petting a dog, a bottle of apple juice near his feet.
iLoveMakonnen by Cam Kirk
You get a sense that small personal details shine through because the subjects pretty much forgot a camera was there, which is the ideal way to capture a scene that currently has so many eyes staring at it, trying to slap a preconceived narrative on it, contort it to fit their expectations of hip-hop success from another era or from another part of the country or just trying get something, anything, everything out of it.
More of plainspoken statement of fact than a boast, Kirk explains his method like this: "I like to capture the true personality of my subjects rather than their famous persona." Kirk's photos afford outsiders a glimpse of Atlanta as it is, without the frustrating, demanding gaze of the mainstream.
Brandon Soderberg is the music editor of the Baltimore City Paper. Follow him on Twitter.