There’s truth to the classic saying, “A picture is worth 1,000 words,” because photographers can provide the context unseen. Photographers have always played an important role in documenting history, and for Black Music Month we’re shining the spotlight on T. Eric Monroe.
Monroe, a veteran photographer since the early 90s, got his start as a freelance writer and photographer for Thrasher magazine where he covered skateboarding and the punk scene, and then went on to capture iconic moments in hip-hop as a photo editor for The Source magazine. Growing up in Somerset, NJ gave him an appreciation for skating culture and diversity.
“I got into skateboarding mainly because my friends were doing it in high school. That was also at a time where it wasn’t normal for a Black kid in 1987 to be on a skateboard,” says Monroe. “There was a small handful of Black skaters, not only just here in Jersey, but as I got more into skateboarding competitions, going to New York, seeing more Black and Latino skaters. A group of us are still really good friends now, from 1988, because we saw how few people of color were on a board period. But now, when you go to an event, it’s flooded full of Black folks.”
Monroe’s passion for skateboarding wasn’t without scrutiny. He recalls that at times he got called “every name in the book by all races,” but he continued skating because it felt right. It also opened him up to appreciating cultures that he wasn’t initially into.
“In terms of music and culture, I was never a big music head, or a hip-hop head. I appreciated hip-hop [because] for me hip-hop was more about the youth movement, youth lifestyle” says Monroe. “Coming from my environment, I related more to De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, and obviously Public Enemy. But then also at the same time, because of my friends’ influences around me, you’d hear classic rock, you’d hear punk rock. You’d just hear music. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, this is Black music or white music.’”
Monroe’s experiences growing up shaped how he viewed his subjects throughout his photography career. To date, he owns an archive of hundreds, if not thousands, of photos featuring icons such as 2pac, Lauryn Hill, WuTang, Nas, The Roots and more. He has also released the collector’s edition of his photography book titled Rare & Unseen Moments of 90’s Hip-Ho (Vol. 1-3), which highlights his distinct style and captures intimate moments of hip-hop royalty through rare and previously unpublished photos over 192 pages.
“This is where I placed stuff like [photos of] Ol’ Dirty Bastard that’s not published in any of my books yet. So it’s 192 pages, hard cover, handmade. I only made 100 of them,” says Monroe. “Each one’s given a number. So it’s a true labor of love for the ’90s, giving it a classic art book to just talk about the time of the ’90s. I’m not saying this is the definitive book, it’s just a book of what I experienced as a suburban kid in the ’90s.”
Some of Monroe’s prints have also been curated for a collection titled Broadened Exposure, which can be seen at galleries around the world and also digitally. After years of documenting iconic experiences in music history, two of the most important lessons that Monroe has learned are not to take his experiences for granted, but also there’s power in ownership. As photography has gone digital, Monroe finds himself in the right place at the right time, once again, as his photos continue to be immortalized and with social media giving him a wide reach.
“I own everything. I have artists that are reaching out now because they’re working on newer projects, but the label owns everything. So I’m like, ‘Let’s find the right opportunity, because I’m not trying to drain even modern artists who use their bodies and their own money to make their product. Let’s find the right opportunity where it’s the right number that makes sense for me to help you, just like you can help me on the back end with a percentage,’” says Monroe. “Let’s just work together and we can find all kinds of creative ways to build and grow because we have content to work from that’s not owned by all of the industry.”