When art students begin their venture into art college, they tend to have a very clear idea of what they want to do or at least what area they would like to work in. Generally, you wouldn’t expect someone with a degree in Fine Art from NCAD to become one of the most well-known hip-hop photographers in history but that’s exactly what happened to Brian Cross, better known as “B+”, from Limerick, Ireland. Within a few years of graduating and moving to Los Angeles, Brian Cross already had a project called ‘Its Not about a Salary: Rap Race and Resistance in Los Angeles’ released by an international publishing house and shot an album cover for none other than rapper, Eazy E.
Since then, Cross has shot approximately one hundred more album covers for the likes of Cappadonna, Jurrassic 5, Q-Tip, RZA and Damian Marley and has also directed music videos for artists around the world such as DJ Shadow in the US, Nitro Microphone Underground in Japan and Control Machete in Mexico putting him at the forefront of music photography. So how did Limerick-native Brian Cross go from studying painting in Dublin to becoming a world-renowned photographer?
“Well, I grew up in Limerick. I went to Clements [Secondary School]. While I was there I played a lot of rugby, but I decided to do something a little bit different with my life so I applied to the National College of Art and Design to study Industrial Design, originally. Partially because no one in my family had gone to college and so, you know, even the notion of me going to art school was nearly too far out. I dropped out of Industrial Design after about a year to transfer over to Fine Art, which really was a wild card.”
In his early life, it seemed for a while that becoming a photographer was never really an option for Cross, “I was never a great photographer to be honest with you but [photography] really interested me, or at least the notion of image making did.” After a few years of being an art-graduate working in a used-car dealership, he finally decided to apply to post-graduate courses, one of them being photography at the California Institute of the Arts. That’s when there seemed to be a sign that he was destined to live his life as a photographer in the US.
“I applied and was accepted and that was around the same time I got a letter from the American Embassy and I thought it was something to do with the fact that I had applied to grad school and I was thinking, “God man these people are really on top of it” but it was me getting offered a Donnelly Visa that my mom had applied for when I was sixteen. I think everyone in Ireland applied for it, you know those ads in the paper on a Sunday that say, “send a stamped, addressed envelope to this address in [Washington] DC with a cheque for sixty bucks” and it would be like a lottery. I guess it went through the first few rounds and she applied when I was sixteen so I say that would’ve been maybe eight years in the difference. It was pretty crazy, like some kind of a sign.”
Although his interest in hip hop began in Ireland, California Institute of Arts seemed to be the place where his interest in photographing hip hop artists really began. “While I was at CalArts a professor of mine challenged me to make work around hip hop or to photograph that community out in LA. I was kind of hesitant about doing it because at that time I hadn’t even photographed people. A lot of the work I did at the end of NCAD was a photo series of the canal bank basically. That’s what I was basing my work around that time because that’s what I was comfortable doing. I just went for it, and within a year I had a book out and a contract with Verso and maybe a year after that I had shot my first album cover, which was for Eazy-E.”
Everyone has their own career defining moments no matter what industry they’re in, whether it’s getting a promotion, winning an award in your field or getting published for the first time. Brian Cross has had more career defining moments than will fit in my word count but according to Cross, it all started with working with Eazy E. “I remember getting a bootleg cassette with the first NWA record on one side and the first Eazy-E record on the other side and to think that in a space of a few years I’d be photographing those guys and getting paid to do it. It was bananas.”
Of course that’s not his only career highlight, as he explains, “There’s been a few holy shit moments. The first photoshoot I ever got paid for, properly, was shooting House of Pain. I remember getting $400 and thinking “wow that’s… crazy”. It would’ve taken me a week to earn that with my job at the camera store and that was cool. I thought if I could do that once a week I’d be alright.”
“There were also a couple of moments where I realised that if I was going to live off of this that the real money wasn’t in doing publicity stills whether it be like head shots, video stills for video shoots, whatever I did at that time. That was the easy stuff, the real work came from doing the more conceptual stuff like figuring out what an album cover should look like, getting an artist interested in your idea and making it happen. It gave me creative freedom too. I remember the DJ Shadow record, and how spectacular it was working on a record with someone who was a friend first and then actually helping them figure out the vision for what it should look like, and then watching it blow up. Feeling engaged with the success of the record as well, being able to walk into a room of people and say “yeah, I f*cking did that photo” and everyone knew what it was and see everyone’s reactions, that was really something else.”
For many people, especially those who work in the arts, one of the biggest career highlights is realising that you can do something that you love every day and be happy with the outcome of what you’ve created. Brian Cross can definitely agree with that. “I’d say creatively, for me, the big thing was realising somewhere around ’96 that it was much better to be doing something that I was happy about myself and finding a way to have an audience for that rather than doing traditionally what commercial photographers do which is to do what you think people want.”
“As cliché as it sounds; to pull off something yourself, even if you’re not making as much as you were, it’s important to just protect your sanity. It really is a balancing act, to find that balance and just work on it. I’m not saying that as some kind of a boast, but that really is a measure of success to me. I can live, and do what I want and you earn that. I’m very lucky to have earned that.”
A lot of what goes into being happy with your work is the personal style that is put into it and of course every successful photographer has their own unique style. From the outset, it is clear that his photography has a very raw and personal style to it but much more goes into creating the perfect photograph than many may think. For Cross, there are two essential elements for him to get the image that he wants, “There’s a couple of things that [as visual artists] we always talk about, the light that’s there is the best light. Always. I’m not like a f*cking fascist about these things but generally I always start with what’s there, and I feel it’s really important to look at what’s there before everything else”.
“The second thing is my stuff is all about mood, more than it is about homage. Those kind of honorific, hero worship photos aren’t really my thing. I’m much more about somebody’s vibe. A lot of people feel revealed when they see my photos of them, and sometimes that doesn’t work. Some people don’t want to feel revealed, that they feel “oh, that’s really me. I don’t like that.”
As for what not to do, Brian says, “A real amateur mistake for me is thinking too much beforehand, that you don’t even see what’s there. A lot of DJ’s do that, y’know? If you show up to a gig with a set of 20 songs and are intent on playing them, you might find that those songs aren’t what people want to hear right now. What they’re looking for is more important and you should give yourself room to improvise.”
After his first book was nominated for Rolling Stone Book of The Year and was featured in the NME Critics Best Music Books of the Year and photographing almost every major hip hop artist all in the early years of his career, he continues to receive popular acclaim for his recent work as well. Having recently shot Kendrick Lamar’s Complex cover, B+ shows no sign of slowing down any time soon. He currently still resides in LA as co-founder of the production company ‘Mochilla’ with fellow music photographer Eric Coleman which has seen them work with brands like Adidas and Vans.
Whether it’s his solo photography or his continued work as part of Mochilla, Brian “B+” Cross is destined to receive continued success for the rest of his career.
Interview – Kevin Bolger
Words – Sophie Butler
Images – B+