Still Love This Jawn… Circa 2008
Still slightly hung over from a Friday night of strip club debauchery with his agent, photographer and filmmaker, Kareem Black opens the door to the East Village apartment he calls home. Dressed in a severely wrinkled L-R-G t-shirt, crisp denim and dusty tube socks—the Philadelphia born skater kid looks every bit the prototype of the downtown, slacker/genius character his neighborhood is known to produce.
But this isn’t just another arrogant, shumagg wearing LES kid. At 30 years old, Black—with two short films already under his belt and the client list and tear sheets of an industry veteran— is a celebrity. Rare is it that the man behind the lens becomes as famous as the one in front of it, but in a city where artists are demigods, Kareem Black has become a supernatural force.
Black says “To be honest, I don’t really get the phenomenon. Because I do what I do, I guess there is this sort of image about me. I went out the other day and was having drinks and this guy is like, ‘man I can’t believe I’m having drinks with Kareem Black!’ I’m like, dude is your drink gonna taste better now? I don’t know what he thought was about to happen. Maybe we will have a good time, maybe we won’t. I can’t understand it.”
Despite his disapproval, it’s easy to be awed by Black. He is a chief documentarian of a generation of pop culture, self made, non-assimilating success story in his prime, Black has managed to market his brand of cool to a corporate audience and still maintain his legitimacy as an artist. For most admirers, it’s simpler than that—Kareem Black is a really cool guy who knows a ton of famous people.
Awkward, yet confident, handsome but unthreatening, Black is a downtown bon vivant, who—for the record—is no longer a self described asshole. “I’ve been quoted as saying that [I’m an asshole] but I’m not. I’m…..ughh,” Black seems at a lost for words.
“About your business.” I offer.
“Yeah, I guess that works,” he concludes.
His business is to photograph the world’s most entertaining people. John Mayer, Kimora Lee Simmons, Lily Allen, Moby and Venus Williams have all stepped in front of Black’s lens. Spreads and cover shoots for GQ, People, Fader, Giant and Elle Magazine litter his resume. His party/photo shoots for L-R-G Clothing—which are open to hundreds of industry tastemakers—have featured drop-in appearances from A-listers like Kanye West.
With guest spots on America’s Next Top Model and a commercial made about him for Verizon—Black is as much a photographer as he is a marketing whiz kid. Black explains another of his marketing ideas—the KareemBlack.com sticker campaign. “One of my best friends—Matt Salacuse and I—we are just two idiots telling ourselves jokes. [We] came up with this ridiculous stuff about me marrying Lindsay Lohan and posted stickers all over the city. No photographer has ever promoted themselves in that way. Photographers [usually] have websites, portfolios and comp cards. I used to write graffiti and guys like ESPO are great. They can promote themselves in this creative way. I wanted to do the same thing. Shit, if I could have a billboard that says KareemBlack.com I would have it. That campaign was my billboard.”
While one might expect the ritzy, obnoxious New York apartment of a young artist with too much disposable income—complete with wall length fish tank and light up flooring—Black refuses to be predictable. “I’m a minimalist. This is probably the most furniture I’ve had in my entire adult life.” he says as he pours a small glass of Midleton Whiskey.
While Jay-z’s Reasonable Doubt plays softly from the cosmos and as Angelina Jolie’s turn as Olympias flickers silently on the plasma—it becomes clear—I’ve entered the home of a New York artist, a traveling man whose work and life is much deeper than what appears on the surface.
Where I had imagined the fish tank, hung a large sepia toned portrait of fellow LES resident and star of Black’s latest film Twinja (a humorous look into a day in the life of twin accountant ninjas), Jules Kim. More photos sat on the floor in the narrow hallway—huge framed photographs of jazz beauties dressed in red; awaiting their turns to be hung. Pretty, delicate and uncharacteristic of the overly lit, plastic like, Black style—he explains very matter of fact, “I was feeling different that day. I liked the way the natural light just came in and gave the room this sort of green glow. It was what I wanted to do and it just worked.”
Most thought provoking perhaps, was the mammoth 10 ft. photograph hung on the wall at the foot of his bed—only visible with a stolen glance through the cracked bedroom door. I was reminded of a recent episode of the crime drama CSI that featured a vigilante who kept evidence from her sin as a trophy in a place she could see the moment she woke. For Kareem Black, his crime propagates the glamorous excess of American culture and his trophy is his work.
“As Americans we define ourselves by celebrity culture. We are all a part of it. [As much as I don’t get it.] I know that I’m apart of it. It’s all very voyeuristic. I mean we’re vain societies like ours always have been. Take for example the Roman Empire; they had the Coliseums, where the great battles of Carthage were reenacted. In America we have 500 channels. We don’t even have to leave our homes to witness a spectacle,” Black notes.
Although Black seems to regard himself mostly as a commercial photographer; he has that clear, desperate longing to create, the proverbial cross to bear, which marks an artist. First a painter, then photographer and now filmmaker, he says, “I can’t imagine myself doing anything but making art. I’m afraid to. I have all these ideas of things I want to do and I think [to myself] ‘you just keep them until you can make it.’”
In 2004, after the tsunami, Black traveled to Sri Lanka with his friend and fellow photographer Wyatt Gallery. “While I did take some photos, I realized while in Sri Lanka that I was not that photographer. I take happy pictures. I can’t separate myself like that. There are amazing photographers who can do that, and remain pure, but I can’t. If I tried I would feel like I was exploiting this horrible situation. I mean, these people are f**king dead! I don’t want any kind of fame for that.”
Black plans to travel more in the coming months and although he bucks the idea that he is ‘that’ type of photographer he admits he would love to just travel and take pictures. With Dubai, Israel and various other locales in the Middle East on the itinerary, Black muses, “Part of me just believes in the process of taking pictures and trying to make art for arts sake.”
Perhaps the most charming element of Kareem Black—undoubtedly reflected in even his most commercial work—can be seen in his candid honesty. Although critics are always in search for an heir apparent, Kareem Black remains both ambitious and surprisingly humble. Black says, “When it’s all said and done, of course I want to be the best at what I do. It’s only natural. But I’m not there yet. People have always compared me to my mentor Kwaku Alston, and it’s an insult to him really. I haven’t done one fourth of what he’s accomplished. Leibovitz, David LaChappelle, Irving Penn, Guy Bordin—these are masters. Avedon and I shouldn’t be in the same sentence”
Cool factor aside, it’s that type of reason and myriad self-awareness that really makes a young artist like Kareem Black so appealing.
As Black continues to skate on the banks of his early success, he plans for what he sees as a natural progression to being a “real” filmmaker. After the release of Twinja early last year, Black has been hard at work on projects that will help him do just that. A personal photo project Brooke is Dead, commercials for New York clothing company KISER, a Jamel Shabazz inspired campaign for Kool-Aid and art direction for the re-launch of iconic 80’s clothing line Camp Beverly Hills are all on his immediate agenda.
“I’m watching movies and TV differently now. I saw a 50 Cent video the other day that looked like it was made in somebody’s basement. I’m not really able to be a critic yet, but I’m beginning to see differently. I’m beginning to see how this moving picture thing is done,” Black says.
Perhaps it was the giddy high of premium whiskey—or that I too am affected by the “spectacle” of it all—but as we shook hands to say goodnight and I walked back through that short, cluttered hallway and out on to the streets of New York’s LES, I couldn’t help but say to myself, “Wow, I can’t believe I just had a drink with Kareem Black!”
- Kitty Hawk Brooklyn, New York City