Peter Beste is an american photographer who released the impressive large format book “True Norwegian Black Metal” two years ago. In addition to be a great photographer he is also a good friend of mine. A couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to be invited to join him on one of his trips to Texas, where he has been working on a seven year long project documenting the gangster rappers, nightclubs, and lifestyles of Houston's Rap culture. This project will culminate in the photo book "Houston Rap" to be released in September 2012.
Your work became known by a wider audience through the Norwegian Black Metal project for which you needed some 10-12 trips to Norway to complete. And the subsequently released book TNBM is a testament to your dedication. What philosophy lies behind the meticulous drive into a subject like this?
The only way to get an accurate portrait of this reclusive community was to build trust over time. I wasn't interested in a short term sensationalistic documentation of black metal, but rather I wanted to take time to get to know the place and the people, so I could produce something more honest and intimate. During the process I became very attached the people and the country itself, so I loved every step of the process.
Ghaal at his grandparents´cabin.
Metal fans at Elm Street Pub, Oslo.
From a photographers point of view your work has evolved a lot from the gritty and grainy images in the Black Metal project to the more cleaner and well lit shots of the Houston project. Is this intentionally or is it a natural evolvement from your progression as a photographer and the much better digital equipment that has been made available to ”everyone” in the last years? Or is it a natural consequence of the more luminous light in the dirty south compared to the cold north?
There are a few reasons for this. I think my photography evolved a bit during that period, and in the last couple years of my Houston project, most of the images were taken digitally with my 5D Mark ii. On the other hand, many of the black metal images are deliberately grainy and dark
What kind of equipment do you prefer to use and why?
I shot the entire black metal book with a Mamiya 645 medium format and a cheap 35mm Canon A2. There are a few digital images in there as well.
For the last few years I've been shooting with a Canon 5d mark ii, which has helped me be a bit more versatile.
Generally, I prefer to have a very simple set up. I don't use elaborate light set ups, only an occasional on-camera flash, and I very rarely use assistants. I find these things get in the way when I'm working in an intimate situation.
You still use analogue film occasionally. What is the advantage and how do you cope with the x-raying when you travel?
The reason I still shoot some with film is because I like the atmosphere it creates. I've gotten digital to where I am happy with the way it looks, but in certain situations, nothing compares to film. To me, it's similar to many albums sounding superior on vinyl.
However it is an absolute hassle these days. As the Police State increases, the X-Ray machines have been turned up. So you either ruin your film, or "opt-out" of the naked body scanner, and have TSA run their fingers through your hair and over every other inch of your body. I store my film in a lead bag, but I have still had occasional problems. It was much simpler a few years ago.
Splits, Club Konnections, Houston.
Big Ram of Optimo Radio, Houston.
Bun B and friends, Port Arthur, Tx.
Tiger Wood of the Hood, 4th Ward, Houston.
Some things strike me when watching you work, both in Norway and Houston. Most notably that you tend to be very close to your subjects and still be ”invisible” and not in immediate contact with them when shooting. This reminds me of watching James Nachtwey in the documentary "War Photographer." This is even more impressive when the environments you work in seems to have very few similarities to your person and background; how do you prepare yourself and what do you do to get this close to your subjects?
This is a tough one. I try to be a 'fly-on-the-wall' during these kinds of shoots because I don't want my presence to affect the mood or atmosphere. When I'm at my best, I kind of go into a super focused or almost meditative state. This is when I connect with my subjects the best.
During a shoot around some abandoned buildings in the ghetto area 3rd Ward in Houston your subject started to become nervous (as was I) and we had to leave when a particular SUV with tinted windows passed us for the fourth time, you seemed just as calm though. And looking through the material on your web site it´s easy to see that you´ve been in rougher places to say it the least; dope houses, illegal strip joints, pit-bull kennels and the list goes on. Have you ever been afraid during these shoots or is this a feeling you suppress when working?
I've definitely had moments of fear, but thankfully nothing too bad has happened. I usually follow my instincts when it comes to that kind of thing. Sometimes a situation feels wrong, so I get out of there. For some reason I didn't feel threatened on the day you are talking about.
I have had a few scares. One time Scarface (rap artist ed. note) prevented me from getting my ass kicked by a jealous on looker who wanted to get in the photos with the Rap-a-lot mafia. Or the first time I met Ganxsta NIP (rap artist ed. note) he attempted to mark his territory and intimidate me by showing me his gun and demanding money to be photographed. It took him awhile to realize I was ok, but now we are friendly.
Peter shooting K-Rino in Houston.
Peter with Ganxta Nip, K-Rino, Klondike Kat and Dope-E.
Do you have any photographers or artist whose work you particularly admire?
I am into lots of 1950s-60s documentary photographers and early color work. Some of my favorites are William Eggleston, Martin Parr, Daido Moriyama, and your fellow countryman Rune Johansen.
Several of your subjects from the Houston project has already passed away, far too young. Any reflections on this matter?
It's very sad, 6 of the rappers I've photographed have passed since I've been photographing in Houston- two from violent deaths, two from syrup related deaths, and two from other health issues.
What is syrup??
Syrup is one of the many slangs for Codeine-Promethazine, a potent prescription cold medicine that has been popularized through much Houston rap music. One small medicine bottle sells for $300-$500 on the black market. It is typically mixed with soda and then drank out of a styrofoam cup. It has become an epidemic in Houston, and now it is a felony if you are caught with it. Police even have litmus paper tests that they can dip into your cup to see if you are drinking syrup or not. Other slangs include: drank, lean, texas oil, and dozens more.
Have you tried it yourself?
I've tried it a couple times. First time with ESG (rap artist ed. note) after I took the photo of him mixing it up. It's not my thing. Way too narco for my tastes
ESG pourin´up, Houston.
Guns n´Syrup, Houston.
Do you make a living from your projects?
Yes, but barely.
You have been back in Scandinavia a couple of times the last years to work on a Danseband project. As far as I know at least you like Metal and Rap music, but seriously you can´t like the danseband music or are you starting to enjoy it? And why document the danseband culture?
My musical tastes are all over the place. My foray into danseband isn't about the music. I'm interested in documenting the colorful Rural Scandinavian culture, and I'm focusing on the Danseband Festival. Some of the music has grown on me, but it certainly isn't my normal cup of tea. I think I have a soft spot for it because it reminds me of my Texan roots!
Rudberg, 35 mm film, Sweden.
What other projects do you have cooking?
I'm working on my first landscape project documenting the Chemtrail/Geo Engineering phenomenon and another one documenting UFO culture. I'm working with editor Johan Kugelberg (who edited TNBM) on the book Houston Rap which will be out in September 2012
Finally, you recently participated in a project for the prestigious art and fashion publication Visionaire, something that surely is every fashion photographers dream. What kind of project was it and how did that come up?
I was approached by the editor to contribute something for their RELIGION themed issue. They paired me up with artist and costume designer, Desi Santiago. We decided to re-create an occult sacrifice for the shoot in an underground pool in NYC, which was formerly a YMCA closed down in the 1970s. Desi has some great costumes including 7 or 8 extremely tall, gay skinheads wearing what I can only describe as homosexual Star Wars/Transformers-style battle outfits, and the most interesting was the creation of the Demon Wolf woman. It took 3 makeup artists over four hours to paint the naked body of artist Ladyfag completely black and then meticulously cover her face with strips of black hair. You can see examples of this on peterbeste.com The shoot was a blast, and I am indeed honored to get a 6 page spread! (This issue of Visionare is available on Ebay at USD 1.250, ed. note)
All images, except the ones depicting Peter, © Peter Beste.