Photo: Bonnie Baxter & Dreamcrusher @ Trans Pecos, Queens NYC. Feb 2020 – Richard R Ross.
This month, as our digital theme is ‘Music and Sound’, New Jersey based photographer Richard R Ross is Image-Maker in Residence on our Instagram. Our Instagram residency is a place to consider the relationship between images and the study and passage of social life. Here, Geng—who runs collective-plus-label PTP (Purple Tape Pedigree), featuring many of the artists Ross photographs—introduces the place of Ross’ images in the scene they document.
Imagine a future like today, sitting at a computer to seek out new music. You find yourself online at a list of four recent purchases by Bandcamp user “auniqueting” (a unique ting) and something pulls you to open a browser tab for each release. Upon clicking the “play” button on the first tab, you are immediately hit by a winding wall of searing noise. The following click introduces you to a chorus of human and robot voices which gently bathe your insides. Then a sun-warped, autotuned, black hope-song. Finally, a bitcrushed, speed circus fitting to be the soundtrack to the most stressful video game ever made. Dreamcrusher, YATTA, Slauson Malone, and Bonnie Baxter. On paper, and at cursory listen, you would not think that any two of these expressive sound languages would sit comfortably at the same table, let alone all four of them, but these are indeed the sounds pouring out of New York City’s current underground—a DIY-centered community woven together with threads of non-definition. Some may refer to it as “mutant,” some may refer to it as “church,” or “catharsis,” or “cleansing,” or “family.”
At any one of these intersections, a notably tall figure, floats around the other bodies present, mainly unnoticed. This entity moves with regard to the one holding space in the moment, casually raising and lowering a single arm to emit a light flash. In observation, it feels like a constant dance, patternwalking with a second-nature ease around the chosen subject. If you stay for long enough, you will find out that the tall figure is Richard R Ross, the one whose role is vital as the eyes into this disparate assembly. It’s the same individual who buys so much music on cassette under the username, auniqueting.
When engaging with Ross’ images, I see a connection to the great photo documentarians of New York City’s “street culture” in the late-1970’s and 1980’s, to those in the 1990’s, who provided a broadened visual scope of what is now known as Hip Hop. Every one of the grandmasters behind the viewfinder, including Ross, made a commitment to the act of bottling up electricity and chaos and smoke and ghosts and the material, in a point-and-shoot instant. It was each of their roles to document and give light to the undefined – these underground revolutions even before they were considered to be deserving of a lifespan, the title of “music,” or any other banal nods toward so-called legitimacy.
There’s a tone of preservation within Ross’ photographic narrative, no doubt stemming from his own journey on the planet as a Trinidadian man in America of 40+ years. For as long as I have known Richard, he has remained steadfast on his knowledge seeking in regard to ancestry and Trinidad’s various cultural technologies, as well as the languages of the two lands which share the meaning of “home” to him. He brings that to his photo work: the framing, the images he selects out of a roll sequence. Ross is careful, gentle in handling. Everyone who knows him swears that he has hundreds of amazing shots hidden away, but there lies his consideration of narrative and context amidst the plentitudes of frames. Ross is building a traceable history through image. “Adding on,” as he says often. He also tells me, “I can’t do that fashion stuff,” in a weary voice pregnant with warnings of vampiric practices waged against the artist by industry and institution, alike. The direct result of these body snatchings is erasure, whether that means the loss of authorship, lineage, or self, therefore, archiving remains a revolutionary act.
As I see it, he is a student, by principle and practice, of Jamel Shabazz. Shabazz’s lens has always communicated at the speed of preservation, showing the world the b-boy/b-girl stances, the look-backs, the peace signs, the gold-tooth grins, the Cazal frames, the Lee jeans with a crease down the middle, the years in Brooklyn before and after crack hit the black and brown community. Without Shabazz, so much would have been left to oral tradition. Ross’ camera travels to the basements, the studios, the alleys, the gardens, the places where many now stay to find their own joy and forms of liberation. The spaces where the “other” is the one imposing properties, genre, and laws, the one who headlines as gatekeeper – and through those upholdings, the one who steals, revises, and erases. Ross commits to the visual representation of those often threatened by eviction – both spatially and of narrative. In his Silent Weapons book, amidst all of the Rammell’ian zig zag hieroglyphics from cable flurries, appendages, flashing electronics turned tracer bullet cascades, metal edges, table legs, and light blasts, there lies a commentary around gentrification of land and spirit. A war against the body harvest that is industry. You will never see a false reality in which white men take center stage and control the floor, or stand as the majority, within his – our – world. The Gaze is made absent from the perspective by choice. While Ross is the author of these unique images, he too relinquishes his position as host to that of the subject. He steps back in an honoring of the subject and the arising of self-actualization within the moment. His camera acts as a tool of reflection, not a giver nor granter of power. When I look at Ross’ images, I feel like the subject has all of the space to explode outward.
Geng, a New York City resident since birth, is a sonic explorer, vocalist/poet, archivist, writer, and scholar. In 2009, he founded PTP (Purple Tape Pedigree), a collective-plus-label, existing as “purveyors of weaponized media.” Currently, Geng writes/produces/shares physical space as King Vision Ultra—alongside a handful of associated collaborative projects.