Jenny Risher’s work has been a fixture in the pages of Hour Detroit for nearly two decades. The 1997 College for Creative Studies grad’s photographic talents have led her around the world and back to Detroit. In 2013, Hour Media’s Momentum book division helped Risher publish her first book: Heart Soul Detroit: Conversations on the Motor City. In it, she captured portraits of some 50 local luminaries, from Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper to Lee Iacocca and Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Eminem appeared on the cover of that book, as well. But it got Risher thinking about Detroit hip-hop. In 2015, she started a project that became a book called D-Cyphered as well as an exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts that will open Aug. 4 and run through February 2018. We caught up with Risher after she finished shooting our “Best of Detroit” magic show feature (June 2017) to hear more about the project.
Hour Detroit: How’d the new project get started?
Jenny Risher: In 2015 I was invited by [co-chief curator of photography] Nancy Barr at the DIA to exhibit in a show called Detroit After Dark, a concept to show night pictures of Detroit. I wanted to create new bodies of work for this. I pitched her to document the Detroit hip-hop community. I had met Eminem for Heart Soul Detroit … and I noticed that there wasn’t a profound hip-hop collection anywhere. So, after the Detroit After Dark show, I decided to continue the series. Plus, how incredible is it to have this body of work in the DIA and their archives forever?
Now that you’re in the DIA, will you still remember us little people?
[Laughs.] Of course.
So you basically expanded Detroit After Dark into an exhibit and book?
Yes, a complete exhibit. I think 81 photographs. Pretty much all the key players of Detroit hip-hop that I could get. I had a lot of advisers, but I definitely became a student of hip-hop over three years. I made a list and vetted out the significant names and specific highlights and times [and] then tackled the list. And [hip-hop producer] Nick Speed is making a custom playlist to go with the exhibit.
Who was your unicorn? Eminem was hard to land for Heart Soul Detroit. And you finally got Kid Rock!
Eminem was like over the course of three years [before he said yes]. Thankfully because of that [Heart Soul Detroit], I had built a relationship with him and I sometimes shoot for him. Actually, he was the first portrait [for this project]. They know me, so it’s much easier. … The person I had a tough time and couldn’t get … was The Electrifying Mojo. … He’s never been photographed. One day I’ll get him. I couldn’t get DeJ Loaf [either]. Honestly [most] everyone was super willing and excited … It was much easier than Heart Soul Detroit. I don’t know why.
Maybe because you had a book like Heart Soul Detroit to show them?
Maybe … You know what? I was well vetted, because I had these high-level advisers: Trick Trick, K-Deezy, Denaun Porter, Super MC, Nick Speed, DJ Los … so they [subjects] trusted me. Their contacts are very coveted in the hip-hop community; phone numbers change constantly.
Hip-hop didn’t originate here, though?
Detroit’s different. Hip-hop started in New York. Came to Detroit later. Don Was actually had the first hip-hop hit [from Detroit] — Felix & Jarvis basically rapping over a J. Geils song. And Luis Resto also contributed to that song.
I recently found the Was (Not Was) Born to Laugh at Tornadoes vinyl at an estate sale! “Needless to say, the party broke up …”
[Laughs] He’s the sweetest guy. I photographed [Was] behind the Fox Theatre for this series. And he’s just so normal. [I shot him] for Heart Soul Detroit so that was an easy call. And I was like: “Isn’t it weird you can do hip-hop easily, then country easily, then a John Mayer album?” And he says: “You know what? It’s all music.”
It’s the same with your field. You do portraits of Don Was then “magical fashion” or a woman in a mermaid suit for us.
[Laughs] That’s true. But usually you put music in a box [and] it’s not like that. Especially in Detroit. It has its own kind of feel. … A mix of Motown, techno, house. Which makes it unique. J Dilla is kind of a perfect summary.
Any misconceptions about Detroit hip-hop that you discovered?
When people do signs, sometimes it is gang signs [but] sometimes it’s just a nod to the East Side or West Side or Five Mile or Seven Mile. It’s acknowledging your roots. [Also] I was surprised how far Detroit’s reach was in the world. Maybe we take it for granted. Like J Dilla is one of the greatest producers of all time. And it came from humble beginnings. Slum Village started at Pershing High School — they’d make beats and rap over the lunch table. Wajid, one of the people I photographed … he was pivotal in Slum Village’s existence. The crazy thing is, I went to CCS with Wajid! I distinctly remember his designing album art for Slum Village. That was like in ’94, ’95? We did projects together. Once one person vouches for you, you get the OK. “She’s cool. She doesn’t have any weird motives.”
Speaking of humble beginnings, you grew up in Clinton Township then moved to New York after CCS. And now you’re back home. But some of your first shots were for Hour Detroit.
In 1998, [former Hour Detroit art director] Celeste [Cueter] gave me my first job. I thought: “Oh, my God, I hit the jackpot!” Then she gave me the cover the next time! I then went to New York on a student exchange program … and went to Parsons [School of Design]. New York was the greatest thing coming from Clinton Township!
What do you hope people will take away from this exhibit and book?
Although it’s 35 years old, hip-hop is kind of a new genre, compared to rock ’n’ roll and Motown. I want people to value hip-hop as a musical art form. I see the artistic process. The writing of the lyrics, the rhyming, and flow. It’s not like they’re [just] spitting some words. There’s an extensive thought process. Maybe it comes off as looking easy. But it’s more than just sampling. I would love for Detroit to embrace the hip-hop community more. I hope it sheds another light on a community that’s never been documented before. And I hope fans from around the world come see the exhibit.
After Heart Soul Detroit, you wanted Berry Gordy to adopt you. Who in this book is your new BFF?
I love Super MC. He’s part of the Almighty Dreadnaughtz, but he just embodies the Detroit [attitude] … the whole concept of “drive until the wheels drop off … just go.”
After Heart Soul Detroit, you also said you never wanted to do a book again.
[Laughs] This kind of fell in my lap. Heart Soul was so difficult. With this, pretty much everybody was local and it’s in my backyard. I didn’t get any funding. I spent my own money for assistantsor retouching or to rent a location or studio time. I was so far in I just had to finish it. Thankfully Curt Catallo at Union AdWorks generously volunteered to design the book. It’s gorgeous. He didn’t have to do that. He believed in the project. … And Nancy Barr at the DIA, if it wasn’t for her, honestly, hip-hop wouldn’t be in the museum. She saw it and pushed for it. Sometimes you just need someone to push “play.”
For more information about D-Cyphered: Portraits by Jenny Risher, visit dia.org.