On the eve of his Q&A with hip-hop legend Afrika Bambaataa in Liverpool’s FACT, Getintothis‘ Laura Davis catches up with Brookyln photographer Ernie Pianiccioli.
The Dalai Lama, Will Smith and hip hop stars Queen Latifah, Lil’ Kim and Notorious B.I.G. have all posed in front of his lens, yet Ernie Paniccioli used to sneer at photographers.
He joined their club ‘by accident’ 35 years ago and has since become internationally renowned for his work.
An exhibition featuring 35 of his images opens at FACT next week.
‘I couldn’t stand photographers at all, for me they were just guys with cameras who were trying to get girls. I did not see any intelligence in it‘, says Paniccioli, who began as a painter.
Then he became interested in graffiti and used a camera to record it before it was painted over.
‘I was fascinated by seeing these young people who apparently had no formal training being able to create what I considered to be murals all over the city‘, he says.
Graffiti artists introduced him to the pioneers of hip hop and he has spent the past 35 years charting its rise. He is not impressed by its commercialisation.
‘Hip hop was able to articulate a lot of inequalities towards women and ethnic minorities‘, he says. ‘But that day is over and now it’s being used to sell oatmeal. It’s no longer a viable force for cultural change‘.
Photography has also changed over the 35 years he has been taking pictures professionally.
‘When I started taking pictures I didn’t have a lot of money so instead of taking 50 pictures of a subject I’d look at a subject 50 ways and take one picture,’ says Paniccioli, a Cree Native American who grew up in Brooklyn.
‘Unfortunately now, with digital, people shoot like birds. They see something and they take 50 pictures of it. I’m still very frugal when I shoot.’
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What makes his work stand out, he says, is that he looks beyond his subjects’ physical appearance.
‘I’m a Buddhist and I believe everything has a spirit – just like your voice is unique and you’re fingerprints are unique – and when I take a picture I’m looking for that essence‘, explains Paniciolli, who now believes photography is art after ‘widening my horizons‘.
Photographing famous stars is actually easier than ordinary members of the public, he adds – because of the trust he builds in them.
‘They’re in the public eye and they’re unfortunately being photographed by many people who don’t have respect for them.
‘I make them aware of what my work is and get them to understand what I’m about.’
TO LAUNCH his exhibition, Ernie Pianiccioli is holding an in conversation event with the godfather of hip hop, Afrika Bambaataa, at FACT on May 18. Details at www.liverpoolsoundcity.co.uk