Described by some as a ‘cultural anthropologist’, California-based photojournalist Lyle Owerko documents everything from African tribal culture to overlooked everyday objects, following his curiosity to bring viewers a fresh perspective.
If you’ve been watching the Netflix series The Defiant Ones recently, you’ll have an appreciation for the innovators and artists who were intrinsic to the rise of hip-hop. You’ll also be far more aware of the various mediums used to share and market this particular musical and cultural dialogue, including the speakers and headphones that were developed to hear the beats and bass as intended by producers such as Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine.
But Dre, Beats and Apple are far from the only individuals and brands interested in the hardware and tech associated with the music industry. Artists in other arenas are too. Step up Lyle Owerko – the New York-based photographer and filmmaker who is known for his on-the-ground coverage of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center – his image The Second Plane later graced the cover of TIME magazine – as well as editorial and fine art photographic projects created during his global travels. But that’s not all.
Owerko also has a real passion for music, saying ‘I can’t create art – sometimes I can’t even think – unless I have music on.’ For him, a device to play music in his studio or wherever he is working is crucial. And that is where the photographer’s interest in the boombox began. ‘It isn’t just an audio device, it’s an icon of many types of movements,’ he says in the trailer that accompanies his book, The Boombox Project: The Machines, The Music And The Urban Underground. For Owerko, the boombox, aka the ghetto blaster or jam box, is an object of empowerment; it offered a way to open up the dialogue of a generation and brought that quite literally to the streets, not only via hip-hop and rap, but also punk, thrash metal, pop and guitar anthems.
This view of the boombox – as an object of rebellion and empowerment – led to Owerko seeking out and documenting a whole host of models from their peak period of use, the 1980s, to form a photographic documentary. And, as we welcome Lyle Owerko into our family of artrepublic artists, we are delighted to be able to share some of these prints with you in the gallery.
As the photographer points out, each of these boomboxes has a personality. There is a story attached to every one of them, and no two models are the same. Shot against a plain white backdrop, the tech begins to speak for itself (not quite Transformers style, don’t worry). From the dulled chrome finish and multiple dials of one to the matte-black dual cassette decks and primary-colour highlights of another, each is an example of industrial design and contemporary (1980s) engineering. More than that though, they are – in Owerko’s words – the battle shields of a generation. A boombox declares its owner’s tastes and the urban and musical tribe they associated with.
And just like that, you begin to understand the photographer’s interest in them. Each individual boombox holds a story, collectively they contain a history – of technological innovation as well as of a series of cultural and musical conversations that changed the face of the music industry. You’re not just seeing a chunky, dated tape deck any more, are you? You can thank the curiosity of Lyle Owerko for that.
See more of the photos from Owerko’s Boombox Project, and start your own dialogue with our art advisors, in the gallery or online from 19th May.