You wouldn’t blame him if he griped about the over-saturation of digital photography these days. After all, Mel D. Cole has been documenting hip-hop culture, concerts, and nightlife — along with other subjects — in visceral, intensely-angled photos for over two decades now.
But even if the Instagram-ification of pictures is all around us — ad nauseam — Cole opts for a more thoughtful analysis: “Instagram for photography is an amazing tool if used correctly,” he said. “I used to be a grump about iPhone photographers making a living out of not being real photographers, but not anymore.”
Why the change? “A tool is a tool,” he continued, “and phones are great cameras. I have to remind myself to take my camera out when I go for walks nowadays because of how easy it is and how well iPhones capture life.”
So maybe it’s not just about the hands-on technical skills. Those matter, too, but having a penetrating eye and just being there— inserting yourself into those indelible moments — are sometimes just as important.
Boosting the scene
Let’s step back — to the early aughts, when hip-hop culture began to emerge to a greater mainstream. Raised in Syracuse, New York, Cole jumped into hip-hop as a self-taught lensman boosting the live-music scene in New York City. Soon enough, he became known for capturing both the inflamed energy of live shows and off-stage portraits that always impart a sense of trust from his subjects — immortalizing everyone from Erykah Badu, The Roots, and Talib Kweli to Drake and Kendrick Lamar.
Cole began shooting in color — with disposable cameras, to boot. But his trademark aesthetic is black-and-white, which he initially chose in order to set himself apart from other photographers in his arena at the time.
“It soon became my calling card,” he said. “I feel like everyone looks great in black-and-white! There’s something about it still that invokes a certain mode, that takes me back to a time when I had a black-and-white TV and old images I used to look at as a kid — and still do.”
While Cole has told the story of hip-hop’s evolution — most notably in his book, “GREAT: Photographs of Hip-Hop,” released in February of 2020 — he was also there when digital photography was in its infancy. As he put it, “I started right when digital photography was just learning how to crawl.”
Just after Cole’s first book was published, the COVID pandemic hit. Concerts, live shows, and entertainment in general came to a standstill. He had to switch gears if he wanted to keep photographing aspects of society. So, he did. That switch naturally veered toward the paradigm shift in New York, documenting how the pandemic affected the city itself.
“I felt it was my duty,” Cold said, “but I was scared, for sure. I photographed from my car. I didn’t want to be around anyone else because I didn’t want to get my family sick.”
But when the death of George Floyd ignited protests across the country that same year, Cole knew he had to get into the thick of it, unflinching, and use his talents to record history. Many of those images are fervid — some within a mêlée, others zoomed in on one person in the heat of a moment — but you can see all of them gathered in his latest volume, “American Protest: Photographs 2020-2021.” He’s also published equally noteworthy photos of the January 6 Capitol riot. For those, Cole was named Editorial/Press Photographer of the Year by the prestigious International Photography Awards in 2021.
Following those experiences and seeing where we are today, does Cole think there has been real progress made toward eliminating racism? His response is terse: “No.”
But Cole prefers to focus on the positive. For example, he’s now focused on Charcoal Pitch F.C., his first-of-its-kind Black-owned, soccer-specific photo and video agency dedicated to telling multicultural stories.
If you ask him why he decided to turn his lens to soccer, he’ll offer a matter-of-fact observation: “Soccer is the biggest sport in the world, but in America it isn’t looked at as such.”
“I’ve been saying for years that if some of our greatest black athletes played the sport, we could have a legit chance at winning the World Cup,” Cole said, “but for us to even remotely get there, we have to show the kids that the sport is amazing — and that is what I aim to do by highlighting U.S. citizens playing the beautiful game!”
Of course, Cole has many more projects in the works, but what about some advice for young creative aspirants?
“I have started to live by this quote: ‘day one or one day,’” he said. “Once you figure out how simple that is, it will change your life.”