Photographer B+ on the spaces in between

SNOOP DOGG, PALMS, CALIFORNIA, US. FEBRUARY 1993. “It's nice to have a kind of walk where it’s just you and the person…it’s an opportunity to fill them out a bit and see how they look on the street or how they look in a bush.” - B+

Music photographers are often associated with a particular scene and era that they documented. For example, William Gottlieb with 1940’s jazz, Pennie Smith with late ‘70s Punk and Ewen Spencer with early noughties UKG.

It’s easy then to categorise Brian Cross aka B+ as a photographer of early Hip-Hop; someone that captured artists like Snoop Dogg before they became legends and made a point of portraying the streets, homes and record shops at their roots.

But that’s a linear, chronological way of looking at things; a perspective that B veers away from as it’s too restrictive for his ways of seeing.

Instead, he perceives people, places, situations and sound as belonging to an infinite, time-spanning web, which like himself is restless and all-encompassing, constantly growing & morphing in multiple directions.

  • CONANT GARDENS, DETROIT, MICHIGAN US. FEBRUARY 2009. The house where J Dilla made Fantastic with Slum Village.

  • SOUNDSYSTEM REPAIR, JAMAICA. As seen on the cover of Ghostnotes: Music of the Unplayed MAY 2004.

  • L-R: BENI B, CHIEF XCEL AND LYRICS BORN AT RECORDS, SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA, US. MAY 1995. “The cover of Endtroducing is a complete flub. I had a camera you had to measure [the focal distance] with a measuring tape... there was a mixup between me and my assistant where she was talking in metres and I was doing feet or she was giving me feet and the lens was in metres...we just totally messed it up. Took the photos and then when we get it backward, I go “of course, that's how it should be!” - B+

“There’s a rhizomatic aspect to the way culture spreads;” he says, drawing me into the writings of Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari. “It’s like a wildfire or a flaming arrow shot by indigenous folks that lands and starts a fire somewhere else.”

He travels this rhizome both physically and intellectually; following its stems to Colombia and Ethiopia and consuming books, records and DVDs with dedication. “You have to feed yourself,” he says “Go and explore and shoot things and look at books for no reason…live and breathe it.”

His current study is A Reader in African-Jamaican Music Dance and Religion, which speaks of the influence of occult writer L.W de Laurence on both Sun-Ra and Leonard Howell,  known by many as The First Rasta. “That’s enough to make my day” he exclaims, “it’s not that you couldn’t feel there’s a relationship between Rasta and Sun-Ra but to actually find evidence of it is a whole other thing.”

Dumont Dunes, outside of Baker California, US, 1998. Used in the album art of Blazing Arrow by Blackalicious, by B+.

“I don't know what it means particularly but it seemed to work really well as an image in a kind of non language based way. Like that image has a vibe. It's actually blown up really big in our office here in LA. Still to this day, I'm like, How the fuck did we do that shit?” - B+

  • THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G, BEVERLEY HILLS, CALIFORNIA, US. APRIL 1995. "Biggie was murdered outside this building three weeks later and there's still no plaque or monument to commemorate his death." - spread and caption from Ghostnotes: Music of the Unplayed, by B+.

  • L: FRENCH QUARTER, NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA, US. AUGUST. R: GRAND WIZARD THEODORE, MANHATTAN, NEW YORK, US.1996. "Theodore is the first person to ever scratch a record. His hands started a revolution in music." - B+ from Ghostnotes.

  • L: RAS LASS, LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA, US. JUNE 1996. R: A CUNUNO DRUM, COLOMBIA. 2009. A spread from Ghostnotes.

  • L: MISS LAURYN HILL, PREGNANT WITH ZION. ORANGE, NEW JERSEY, US. 1997. R: PAUL HUMPHREY, LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA, US. 1999. “He’s just gonna light up the room. Another one of those cats that everybody's like, ‘Oh, I want to play with him.’ - B+

And so it is that B+ is not really a music photographer, but a pilgrim operating in the spaces between connections and sometimes creating new ones. He just happens to do so with a camera in hand, ready to capture what he describes as “those weird in-between ephemeral moments that come to stand in for larger stories.”

“As a way of understanding history, those moments are often neglected and are the places where the most interesting stuff happens.”

It comes as no surprise that the sequencing of his 2018 photography book “Ghostnotes: Music of The Unplayed,” doesn’t follow a chronology, despite arriving 30 years into his career.

If it had, it might have started with B’s leap from the landscapes of his native Ireland to images from his recent film work with Damien Marley, via portraits of Biggie, Erykah and The Fugees. They’re all in there of course, but they sit amongst images of pyramids, drums, Egypt, vinyl and hands. Signs and symbols connecting them and us to a much larger collective experience.

Kendrick Lamar, inside The Flying Fox, Los Angeles, California, US. 2014.

‘I was never happy with the way Ghostnotes ended. And then ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ came out by Kendrick. And just because so many people that were already in the book were on that record, and because that record somehow traced a path back to the early days of me shooting in L.A., and then ended up with the Kamazi’s and the Thundercat’s. Somehow Kendrick gave me a way to finish the book. I was just super inspired. I mean, that’s my favourite hip-hop record of the last 10 years.’

The mini documentary made by B+ of the direct to disc recording session with Quantic, Alice Russell & the Combo Bárbaro which took place at the old Carvery Studios in Hackney during the 2011 London Riots.

Hailing from Limerick, Ireland, B+ is a long time resident of Los Angeles, U.S.A where he operates as a photographer, film-maker and insatiable collector of records. Alongside collaborator Eric Coleman, he established Mochilla in 1997, producing music videos, documentaries, mix CDs, album covers and campaigns for brands like Adidas, Levis and Vans. With two books up his sleeve – It’s Not About a Salary: Rap Race and Resistance in Los Angeles and Ghostnotes: Music Of The Unplayed. B+ is also a photo editor for Wax Poetics Magazine and a tenured professor at UC San Diego. Photo of B+ by IŞIK KAYA

This article was written by photojournalist and educator Georgina Cook. Georgina has a new podcast series out where she fosters conversations with creatives whose art is driven and inspired by music. Check out Vision of Sound.