Jay-Z by Armen Djerrahian

Star Photographer Captures Music, Fashion Worlds

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BROOKLYN, N.Y. — On an unusually sun soaked April afternoon in this shifting section of Brooklyn, where some flock into a millennial-friendly juice bar while others exit a legendary bodega, Armen Djerrahian checks the sun’s strength on his forearm.

The photographer’s ears perk up as he hears the approaching screeches of the above-ground J train in this pocket of the notoriously grim-turned-hipster Bushwick. He motions to his subject, who takes a stance underneath the rattling rails as Armen ducks down to catch a shot of the subway whirring past, culminating in an authentic New York moment.

A stone’s throw away from the Marcy Projects, the birthplace of rapper Jay-Z, whom Djerrahian has photographed, is another MC here in front of his lens. The subject, Los Angeles-based rapper R-Mean, who is in the midst of a photo shoot for his upcoming album, is a little more personal to the prolific photographer due to a shared cultural heritage. After a few clicks, Djerrahian gives into the sun and decides to take a break, heeding a self-taught lesson from his early days as a photographer in his birthplace of Paris, France.

Photographer Armen Djerrahian by David LS

Over pizza, Djerrahian speaks passionately about photography and his process behind capturing some of the most iconic shots in modern music history. He remains humble, allowing his photos to express his influential art and style, but also engaging in conversation and generous with the floor.

“Believe it or not, I’m really shy,” he says. “I would rather be behind the lens than in front of it, but over time I have learned to tell my story through my photos.”

Growing up in Paris’s urban culture, Djerrahian came of age in the golden era of hip hop, when Rakim and Big Daddy Cane reigned supreme, foreshadowing the timeless images of music legends he would soon snap – his shots splashing across the covers of major music publications, from Vibe magazine to L’Affiche, France’s leading hip hop monthly.

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Amid the street art, BMX and break dancing milieu, Djerrahian was equally entrenched in his Armenian culture, attending the Armenian Cathedral on Rue Jean Goujon with his family, and forging a special bond with his grandparents. He reminisces about the savory Armenian dishes of his grandmother, whose name, Berjouhie, lives on through his daughter.

“When I was born in 1969, no one knew who or what an Armenian was,” said Djerrahian. “It wasn’t until Charles Aznavour really became big and started talking about his background that people began to understand.”

A product of an artistic family — his Lebanese-born Armenian father was a well-known dancer and choreographer of the acclaimed National Armenian Ballet and Moiseyev Dance Company while his French mother, also a dancer, was a graduate of the prestigious École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs where she learned to design sets and costumes — he reflects on his childhood and how it molded him both personally and professionally. When his parents decided to stay home and raise their two children — ultimately leaving behind successful careers — his father taught him an important life lesson that still echoes in Djerrahian’s ears.

Actor Chris Pine for Armani, shot by Armen Djerrahian

“We are Armenian,” he recalls his father telling him. “And Armenians always get back up, even after they were massacred. You may have one knee to the ground, but remember there is another knee to get up with.”

It’s a philosophy Djerrahian adopted when he moved to New York City from Paris in 2006, where he had created a notable career for himself, photographing the biggest names in music, from his visually stunning and evocative portraits of Eminem to Stromae to Jay-Z. But he wanted to continue to push his own boundaries and explore new grounds with his strong work ethic and creative mind.

“I was stamped as the hip hop photographer in Paris,” said Djerrahian. “So I came to New York City.”

It wasn’t the first time he was starting from scratch. As a teenager in 1982, he had made a name for himself through break dancing, hip-hop, graffiti and BMX culture, but decided in 1991 he was ready to pursue photography. While his parents encouraged his goals, they also urged caution.

“My dad told me it would take 10 years to get recognized and asked if I could make it on my own while I built my portfolio.” As a 21-year-old, Djerrahian felt photography was something he naturally gravitated towards and notes his father was right; it took him exactly a decade to establish a name for himself.

“It’s an amalgam of my parents being dancers and me watching them on stage,” said Djerrahian, whose mother also pursued painting and photography. “There was something definitely artistic in me and photography ended up being where I felt the most comfortable.”

Model Rianna Ten Haken shot for The WILD magazine by Armen Djerrahian

He began his career by shooting his friends, who dominated the Parisian urban scene and by 1994 he was shooting album covers. As a freelance photographer for L’Affiche, where he shot the likes of Nas and Mobb Deep, he always found an imaginative way to style the shots with the use of lights, props and empathy with his subjects. He juxtaposed his work in France with assignments in the US, where he shot covers for Vibe magazine featuring Usher, Meek Mill and Mary J. Blige.

One of the turning points in his career was in 1997 when he photographed Jay-Z, who was at the beginning stages of his soon-to-be explosive career. In Paris to open for The Fugees, Jay Z’s record company gave Djerrahian only one minute to take a photograph as the rapper exited his hotel. The clever photographer made the most of it and snapped a shot of Jay-Z pointing at his camera as he walked into his awaiting car. The image appeared in L’Affiche, where Jay-Z saw it and bought the entire collection, later making it the cover photo of his chart-topping single, Wishing On A Star.

“It was a huge recognition of my work,” said Djerrahian, who worked closely with Jay-Z at the pinnacle of his fame in 2003. The images of the rapper playing pool in Brooklyn soon landed on the cover of Groove magazine.

Djerrahian’s humility comes through when he speaks of his decades-long career photographing artists who have broken musical barriers, set records, won awards and amassed fortunes.

This morning in Bushwick he is using a Canon 5D but says any camera will do as long as the photographer has a creative eye. Case in point, he shot the famous French rapper Seth Gueko on his iPhone at Central Booking in downtown Manhattan, a photo that gained thousands of “likes” on social media.

As a professional photographer, when the subject of Instagram is raised, he concurs that the app has changed the landscape.

“Everyone now is a photographer,” he says. But instead of critiquing the amateur photographers, he sees it as a positive development, particularly in terms of documenting his photos and portfolio in one space and making it accessible to the world, adding short stories or amusing anecdotes to his posts.

He concedes that there are different kinds of cameras that can enhance a photo, but what’s key is the photographer’s skill and interpretation.

“You can have a Lamborghini but if you don’t know how to drive it, you’ll go straight into a wall,” he said. “Same with a camera. You learn how to shoot and grasp concepts in time.”

Likening fashion to photography in terms of trends, he shoots in both color and black and white, but appreciates the latter because it “never ages” and produces striking, “rich photos.”

Jay-Z by Armen Djerrahian

Today he’s photographing in both black and white and color, but keeping an eye on the sun. He reflects on his beginnings in photography, learning about light and aperture while on the job. Now he shoots with a digital camera without relying on a flash or a reflector, noting it’s “the way I started shooting, except now I have the technique to control the light.”

When asked about another well-known photographer of Armenian origin, Yusuf Karsh, he finds a thread and posits a theory.

“Armenians have always had a special talent for visual arts and photography,” said Djerrahian. “I feel it’s a response to what was taken from us so we observed and interpreted the rest of the world when we didn’t have anything else.”

He remarks that Armenians brought color photography to Africa and that every portrait of the Ethiopian Royal Family has been shot by an Armenian.

“There are amazing directors and cinematographers who are Armenian,” he added. “So there must be a sensibility within us that makes us a little different.”

That same sensibility was inherent in him but took years of honing his skills to develop his own personal style.

“To me, a photographer becomes a photographer the day someone opens a magazine and can recognize who took that photo,” he explained. “That happens to me now, but it didn’t back then.”

The photos, however, serve a larger purpose beyond visual appeal.

“The wealthy can possess everything in the world,” said Armen. “But the only thing they can possess one of is a piece of art.” He encourages the public to delve into art and “understand the trends in different eras of painting.” To Djerrahian, photography is the new way of painting in the sense that it’s a reflection of life in a certain time period.

He cites fashion and fine art photographer Jamel Shabazz as an example of someone who documented the street hip hop culture in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“His photos witness the way people were dressed in that time period in New York City,” he said, drawing a parallel between painting and photography. “I’m old school when it comes to art and I love paintings that show beauty, lighting and technique that serve as a source of inspiration, especially for photographers.”

Though he has photographed many influential artists, there is one he was denied a chance at, simply through fate. En route from Paris to London to photograph a cover of L’Affiche with the Notorious B.I.G, he found out the celebrated rapper had been shot and killed.

“He was only doing a couple of photo shoots and I was one of them,” said Djerrahian. “I was devastated when I heard the news, not only because it would have been a huge achievement to photograph him, but also because he was one of my favorite MCs.”

His photos have had more influence than he initially thought when he first took them, including the famed photo of Jay-Z displaying the “Roc-A-Fella” symbol (denoting his record label, Roc-A-Fella Records) with his hands, reaching millions and causing a stir of its own.

“Because of that picture, Jay-Z was accused of being in the Illuminati but he was actually throwing the Roc-A-Fella sign, which is a diamond,” he explained.

Over time, Djerrahian learned to foster an environment to compel even the most camera-averse artist to get in front of the lens. At the apex of 50 Cent’s career, the rapper was with his G-Unit group for a concert in Paris and Djerrahian was scheduled to photograph Young Buck and Lloyd Banks, fellow G-Unit members. At the time, 50 Cent was embroiled in a feud with fellow rapper Ja Rule.

“50 was at the top of his career and didn’t want to do photo shoots,” he said. He rented prop guns and brought them with him to the shoot.

Rapper R-Mean by Armen Djerrahian

“I’m in the suite setting up my flash and Young Buck comes in and looks through the bag,” said Djerrahian, describing the rapper’s shock at the guns, causing him to run down the hallway to show 50 Cent, who entered the suite amused by the photographer’s boldness.

“We start talking and laughing and then he kicks Young Buck and Lloyd Banks out and I knew then we’d have the photo shoot,” said Djerrahian. “The funny thing is, I don’t know anything about guns and I refuse to take a gun in my hands, but I had to do it so we could start a conversation.”

He acquiesces that there is a certain level of creativity and psychology involved but at the end of the day, he said, “all I wanted was to shoot a photo of 50.”

The photos, which graced the cover of Rap US Magazine, depict 50 Cent looking out a window in Paris, shades drawn and gun in hand, and made its way across the Atlantic in more ways than one.

“I came to the Interscope label in Los Angeles to shoot The Game and my photos were all over the walls,” said Djerrahian. “It was a big accomplishment for me that my photographs were appreciated like that in the US market.”

We exit the pizzeria and like the Bushwick neighborhood he is shooting in, he too is evolving, changing and looking towards the future. After cultivating decades of experience, know-how and sharpening that sensibility behind the camera, Armen is transitioning into a creative director, shooting commercial videos for Van Cleef & Arpels and Giorgio Armani, featuring Hollywood star Chris Pine.

“I can bring the artist out of the box and remove them from the cliché the labels are showing to the mass media,” he said, once again extending his arm to check the light as the afternoon sun begins to settle. “I have no boundaries.”

He is reminiscent of French photographer Jean Baptiste Mondino, whom he considers a mentor. Mondino also left a successful career in Paris and headed to New York to shoot award-winning music videos in the 80s and 90s of Madonna and Prince, bringing the MTV concept to France.

“Mondino, to me, is one of the most influential photographers because he never wanted to be categorized as a music artist photographer but as a photographer,” said Djerrahian. “What’s important is how your heart translates into your photography.”

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