Cheryl, you describe yourself as a Jersey girl with Cali-swag. Break that down for me regarding your creative process. Do you work differently on the east coast versus the west?
The best creatives hail from Jersey! It’s where I grew up. When you’re raising kids, you live in Jersey and work in NY. The east coast gets me going like the energizer bunny. The creative process is fast, aggressive, direct, and always in motion. That pace will always be part of my DNA, no matter where I live.
Coming from the suburbs of Jersey, I gravitated to the Valley in California. Again a great place to raise kids. The west coast environment brings a sense of freedom to the creative process and exercises your imagination. Here, I’m relaxed and have the space to create bodies of work like my coffee-table books and the first of many NFT Collections to come. The swag…now that’s just me!
When you take pictures, do you see yourself as a participant or an observer?
I’m definitely a participant. With nature, animals, and children, there’s a moment when you take that Ahh hum breath of delight, beauty, and joy. That’s when I click…in that breath. It’s akin to namaste — my spirit greets your spirit. The divine light in me bows to the divine light in you.
The music industry remains a male-dominated space, particularly on the engineering and business sides. Is there any advantage to being a female photographer in documenting the sector?
Sure, by being very unassuming. My natural approach to capturing someone is more gentle and fun, and it’s never aggressive or intrusive. I’m likely in my signature jean shorts and boots!
I love how surprised people are when they see the images because people underestimate your abilities as a happy-hearted female who smiles all the time! They repeatedly ask, “Did you take that picture?” Some go as far as to credit the equipment and say, “I need that camera.” As if the camera itself is creating the images they love. Trust me, I once gave Puff a camera, and he gave it back.
While reviewing your extensive archives, themes emerged — one being ‘celebration’ and its connection to smoking weed and cigars. Can you elaborate?
Coming up together as a community of creatives in entertainment—music, film, television, sports, and fashion—there always seemed to be a reason to celebrate. We were creating a culture of Black excellence without even knowing it, and we lived it every day in every way. Even as a woman, smoking a fine cigar was not just an act of celebration; it was powerful. Rolling up a sweet blunt or a joint would totally bring people together. Liquor was always present, but the good, gifted smoke made lasting connections.
When we speak, you often bring up your son’s name and how he’s been so supportive of your career. It suggests that these photographs are both personal and political. Images in the media are often presenting the black male body in distress, and your work is the opposite, loud and proud.
Life is perspective. The media’s point of view and mine will always be extremely different. The media doesn’t care to look beyond the surface and into the soul. My work reflects the beauty I see in the world and all the wonderful characteristics of spirit, including love, grace, strength, gratitude, confidence, excellence, royalty…must I go on…the God-like qualities in human beings. As a black woman, these traits are effortless to see in black men and capture. Especially as I am a creator of life itself.
I’m grateful for the humor you bring into your work. Can you share some stories around your debut Collection, Smoke? How did you capture 2Chainz inhaling a “Cali-size” bag of weed?
Notwithstanding the large marijuana sacks in the back rooms of dispensaries, this was by far one of the biggest bags of weed I’ve ever encountered. It was a cute girlie girl (power to the females!) hanging with us who brought it. We were all like “damn!” It was only right for 2Chainz to inhale deeply and hold for eight counts, or at least until I snapped the photo.
In your image Rock N Roll of HIP HOP (PUFF & SNOOP), what was the occasion that brought Snoop and Puff together?
Puff is like a brother to me. He hosted the 2005 VMA MTV Awards in Miami. We arrived directly from his Miami home to the show on a yacht.
I captured that sweet shot in the dressing room. There’s a series of images from this very moment. He wanted me with him every minute, both backstage and at the show. When he was on stage, I walked through the audience and shot as I wished…it was beyond cool. Only friends I knew, like Pharrell and Jay-Z, entertained the camera. Looking back, that was the first and only time I ever shadowed anyone.
You mentioned in one of your captions that smoke and tattoos go together. Why are tattoos so prevalent in the hip-hop community?
Much like photography and music, tattoos are an artistic and personal form of expression for the artist and the subject. I’ve come to understand that there’s always a message when it comes to tattoos, as both my children have them. I almost had a breakdown with my son’s first tat when he was seventeen; what he shared actually changed my perspective. His tattoo read “I am me because of you” in Latin. His second tattoo is my signature on the wrist of his basketball shooting arm. My daughter’s tattoos have a Zoe Kravitz vibe — little ones everywhere. They are all very specific to her life experiences, down to a stack of pancakes!
Walk me through the arc of the photographic tools you’ve moved through since you started taking images—film, digital to iPhone? What is your favorite medium, and why?
I started with film, and it will always be my favorite medium, especially black and white. I used to have a darkroom in my Jersey home, and hope to have one someday just for kicks and giggles. After I put the kids to bed, I would retreat to my darkroom and bring beautiful images to life, and then the next morning rush out to get them to school! I also love developing film, and the smell of the chemicals will always be nostalgic for me.
After my divorce, I realized that if I didn’t go digital, times were about to get tough! Film photography is expensive, and I didn’t appreciate digital at all because it feels flat and boring. Digital does not hold a candle to the beauty of contrast and composition in black and white film.
Then I learned that digital comes with post-production (i.e., PhotoShop, etc.). You have to bring the images to life after the fact. Digital became even more exciting when I started animating the work for NFTs. It takes the digital to a new dimension, and the movement of the once still work brings the image to life.
I’m still learning the iPhone—it’s a new medium for me like digital once was. It’s hard for me to connect to the spirit looking at a big screen instead of through the eye of the camera where the rest of the world falls out of the frame.
How do photographers compete with the glut of content on Instagram and Tik Tok where everyone is “documenting” their lives and, by definition, a photographer/filmmaker?
There’s no competition. Someone could be standing right next to me, and we’re not going to get the same shot. When I hold a camera, it becomes my third arm and third eye. My goal is to bring spirit to the surface and capture the subject’s authentic self.
I’m not taking a picture for the sake of it. Even most professional photographers click-click-click-click thinking they’re going to miss the moment. I wait for the moment.
Why are you attracted to the NFT space?
The majority of my archives and fine artwork come from my walk in life and not commissioned work. As a creator who captures iconic moments, my work has always been incredibly personal. While I’ve gifted a few pieces outside the galleries representing my work, most of it has never been seen.
There are multiple reasons I’m attracted to The NFT space. It allows artists like myself to take their creativity to new heights. It immortalizes the work and documents a side of our history that the world has never seen. Unlike the physical galleries that represent my work, it’s kind of like a “worldwide gallery” where you’re able to get to know your patrons. And finally—the proper lion’s share rewards the value of your work as an artist. It’s a dream come true.
I can’t wait for your second collection. Will you tease it out for me?
With the Grammys just around the corner, I imagine a PERFORMANCE collection could be a thing. I’ve been fortunate to have a lifestyle that has yielded me some special guest passes over the years, to say the least.