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Creative Voices

Hip-Hop Photographer Zach Wolfe Is Still Hungry

By Summer Wilson

In 1996, Zach Wolfe, then 18 years old, heard the debut album of Atlanta-based hip-hop duo OutKast, and his life would never be the same. Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was a distinctly Southern hip-hop album, and it put Atlanta hip-hop on the map. The first time Wolfe listened to it, he thought, “I don’t know what’s going on in Atlanta, but I have to go there.” 

This man loves hip-hop, and he loves the city of Atlanta. “Atlanta is hip-hop. It’s the hip-hop mecca of the world, and I moved here because I’m a huge fan of hip-hop music. I wanted to be in the mix. I wanted to see what that looked like, what that felt like. And Atlanta continues to inspire me and push me to do things that I probably wouldn’t do if I didn’t live here.”

Photographs of musician and actor Andre 3000, of OutKast (for Esquire magazine), 2014. With zero connections, Zach moved to Atlanta with a dream of photographing OutKast. One year later, that dream became a reality when he photographed Big Boi and Andre 3000 together. Then, in 2014, Zach got the call to shoot these promo images of Andre 3000. They went to Atlanta record store Wax n’ Facts, and magic happened. “I got my favorite photo I've ever taken in my life, no question,” Wolfe says. 

A BIG BREAK

When he first got to Atlanta, soon after graduating from the Colorado Institute of Art, Wolfe had zero connections. He was a busboy and a valet; he served food and mowed lawns. His goal was to meet and photograph hip-hop artists, but he had no access to the scene, until one day when he met a neighbor who happened to be Lil Jon’s secretary. At the time, Lil Jon was not widely known, but he soon would be—and that chance encounter set Wolfe on his path. 

On the set of Unk’s “Walk it Out” music video, 2014.

It was the early 2000s, and the city’s young hip-hop artists were making a name for themselves locally—and even though the world may not have been paying attention yet, Wolfe was. He was eventually able to quit his day job, and he started photographing the hip-hop community full-time. He took a lot of photographs, documenting everything he saw, and the hip-hop community welcomed him. He says, “That’s part of what made me fall in love with Atlanta. It’s like, ‘Hey, you're an outsider and you're invited in.’ And I was invited in, with love.”

CREATING MODERN CLASSICS

Atlanta became his playground. The city’s rawness and edginess inspired Wolfe, and he used the entire city as a backdrop for his iconic images. Not a huge fan of the studio, Wolfe says the street is where his photographs come alive, because on the street there’s room for magic and the unexpected. Wolfe is not a conceptual photographer; he’s not interested in changing reality with props and big sets. He wants to interpret the reality in front of him, to freeze time, and to create classic authentic images that will never go out of style.

Wolfe was profoundly changed by Southern hip-hop. The music got into his soul, and the people he met got into his soul, too. “To be on the ground and see someone go from having no chance at life to signing a three-million-dollar record deal in a matter of six months was mind-blowing to me,” Wolfe says. “This music is bigger than just music. This music changes lives.” And it certainly changed Wolfe’s.

At home with rapper and entrepreneur Rick Ross (for XXL magazine), 2016.

“I was young and hungry, just like these guys. My passion to make it as a hip-hop photographer matched the passion of these guys wanting to be nationally known as rappers. There was this common bond. I adopted a similar intensity as some of the artists that I shot.” The respect and accolades he’s getting for his work now feel that much sweeter because of all the hard work. “I would not change a thing,” he says.

Members of the hip-hop group Three 6 Mafia, 2005. When Three 6 Mafia won an Academy Award for Best Original Song (for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” from the movie Hustle & Flow), it was a big deal for Southern hip-hop. Wolfe was hired to photograph them with their Oscar, but the two group members who showed up were too hungover from the night before to go through with the original plan. Wolfe suggested that they stop at a local café for some food. The images that resulted are some of Wolfe’s most well-known work.

STILL HUNGRY

Wolfe is as hungry as ever and still chasing the excitement he felt when he first moved to Atlanta. “I’m not motivated by fame, but by that tingly feeling I get when I get the shot. That’s why I do this,” he says.

And he has recently moved into new endeavors outside of hip-hop—photographing athletes, as well as directing and shooting commercials and documentaries. Currently, Wolfe is working on a documentary about a subject close to his heart: father-son cowboys in Northern Georgia…and he’s still chasing that tingly feeling.   

We recently spent a few days with Wolfe, digging into his photography archive, going on a photoshoot with Atlanta Hawks basketball player Taurean Prince, and exploring the streets of Atlanta. Click on the image above to watch our video. (Please note that the video includes graphic images, blurred nudity, and some salty language.)