Hip-Hop Photographer Zach Wolfe Is Still Hungry
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.