One of my favourite photographers, Shawn Mortensen died in April 2009. He was only 43 years old. I’m saddened by the thought that I might never again have the privilege of seeing one of his striking photographs for the first time.
Though you may not necessarily be familiar with his name, any fan of Hip Hop and its imagery will have come across Mortensen’s work. His iconic pictures of Tupac, the Notorious B.I.G, Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg, Wu-Tang and Boo Ya Tribe have dominated many magazines. His Tupac pictures were extremely provocative and became some of the most recognisable photographs of the rapper. At the tender age of twelve I had a poster of Tupac looking down from my bedroom wall – middle finger up, blunt in hand, and Glock down trousers. Though it meant little to me at that age, this was my first introduction to Mortensen’s work. Many of his photos appeared in The Source Magazine, of which I was an avid reader. Throughout my teenage years I discovered more of his pictures, still unaware of the man behind them.
Another iconic Tupac image shot by Mortensen is the one that appeared on the cover of Vibe in 1994 asking ‘Is Tupac crazy?’ The rapper was shown in a straightjacket looking back at the camera with a calm but dismayed expression. When the picture was taken, over a year before, Tupac was not quite the star he was to become, known more for his appearance on Same Song by Digital Underground than his solo work. Mortensen spotted him in an alley in LA and ran up to him clutching a straightjacket he had found in a flea market a week before. The two had met previously when Mortensen was shooting for The Source and he easily persuaded Tupac to pose in the jacket. Mortensen offered the image to The Source as a cover shot, but they found it too controversial. The picture was then offered to Vibe who placed it on the cover and sold a record number of issues.
As well as music photography, Mortensen has had a lengthy career in fashion photography. His book, Out Of Mind features many beautiful catwalk shots of Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell. Meanwhile his editorial work has been featured in iD and Vogue. To balance the superficialities of fashion, Mortensen would often disappear to some corner of the world and record social events. One of his largest projects involved the Zapatista revolution in Mexico, which is apparently due to become a book. The documentary photos he has taken are just as memorable as his portraiture. But most admirable was his free spirit, which caused him to flee the catwalks of Paris and instead photograph violent gangs in the slums of Kingston, JA; a man after my own heart.
As sad a loss as this is, it’s good to know that Mortensen lived life to the fullest. In an interview with Dazed & Confused a few years before he died he said, “whenever I try to make art, I make it as if it’s my last, because you just never know in this life, you could be hit by a bus or something”. Following, his sudden death, I’m sure he appreciates the fact he made the most out of every opportunity he was given, something we should all learn from.
Out Of Mind by Shawn Mortensen is available from all good bookshops.
Published by WAH Magazine.com