While nursing his morning coffee in his Tribeca apartment, Lyle Owerko‘s voice perks up over the phone as he recounts the chain of events that led to the creation of his first photography book, The Boombox Project. Subtitled, “The Machines, the Music, and the Urban Underground,” the book is more than just a collection of photos that fetishize the so-called “ghetto blasters” or “ghetto briefcases,” a term Spike Lee dismisses for its racist connotations in the book’s forward. At its core, The Boombox Project is both an oral history and an anthropological study. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, hip-hop, punk, and new wave were all at a flash point. The one thing that tied them all together was the ever-present but often-overlooked icon of the times—the boombox.
Owerko’s boombox series shows off the sleek designs and battle scars of this once ubiquitous machine. In the book, he juxtaposes his crisp color photos, which are set against a stark white backdrop, with a collection of historical images that illustrate the boombox’s cultural significance. Owerko likens its role to a “sonic campfire” around which people would gather to laugh, dance, tell stories, and exchange ideas.
To accentuate the reverential photos, Owerko conducted interviews with a cross-section of voices from the times: DJs, producers, and several generations of New York City hip-hop artists, including Fab 5 Freddy, LL Cool J, DJ Spooky, and Adam Yauch, aka MCA, of the Beastie Boys.
But before Owerko becomes too engrossed in tales of nostalgia, urban Americana, and his own passion for these antiquated pieces of stereo machinery, he relates the dark tale that ultimately helped fuel The Boombox Project. In late summer 2001, Owerko returned to New York for a photo assignment after a six-week stint in Africa. Visible from his living room, Owerko had always thought of the World Trade Center as the metaphorical tree in his front yard. “I could look at the towers and tell what the weather was going to be like by how much of them that I could see,” he says.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, he was up early, jet-lagged, and still functioning on Africa time when he heard the first plane slam into a tower. He hadn’t yet unpacked his camera bag, so he grabbed his gear and raced toward the buildings to see what was happening. “I composed a shot that showed one tower that was still virgin and untouched next to the other tower that had this gaping hole in the side of it,” Owerko recalls. “I put the sun behind myself and composed these two shots of the tower with the sun in the perfect lighting position, and that put me in the perfect place to catch the second plane hitting.”The image he captured of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center appeared on the Sept. 13, 2001, cover of TIME magazine, just 48 hours after the attack. In 2005, the American Society of Magazine Editors ranked it as one of the 40 most important magazine covers of the last 40 years.
Accolades aside, witnessing such death and destruction was traumatic for Owerko. But in the years following the 9/11 attacks, when the War on Terror was in full swing, the idea for The Boombox Project began to grow. “When everyone else was showing the worst side of mankind, I thought why not try to find something that really shows the best of mankind?” Owerko says.
The project was initially conceived as a series of 40 to 50 portraits of boomboxes, with a plan to have someone write an introduction, which Owerko hoped would lead to a book deal. But as the photos materialized, he began to see the boom box as a larger metaphor for free speech, empowerment, innovation of youth culture, and the powerful effects of pop culture on the voices of many generations.
Throughout the book, Owerko combines vivid color photography of various boom box designs, with portraits of dancers, rappers, and rock musicians, ranging from LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys to Bruce Springsteen and the Clash to shape a coherent and surprising narrative of the machine’s history and legacy.
In addition to its social, political and historical contexts, the book traces the equally intriguing evolution of boombox aesthetics.
“I was falling in love with the objects, and I wanted to celebrate the fact that they were beat up,” he says. “At the time of the photos we were really just being bombarded with so much militaristic imagery, that when I was designing the images, the boomboxes took on sort of a militaristic look themselves, and they had lived through an embattlement of the times—the late ’70s and early ’80s—that was a really tough time in America’s history.”
Owerko claims to own somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 boom boxes, many of which will be on display with the traveling exhibit accompanying the book tour. The artist bubbles with childlike enthusiasm when he talks about some of his favorite makes and models. “My favorite is the Sharp GF-9696,” Owerko says. “That one and the Rising 20/20, which was the first mint vintage one that I found.”
The boombox gracing the book’s cover now resides in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum as part of its permanent collection. “It’s a great-looking box with the crash bars on it,” he adds. “It looks mean.”
“Boomboxes are a kind of hidden archaeology for me,” says experimental hip-hop/trip-hop turntablist/producer DJ Spooky, who contributes to the book’s oral history. “I had forgotten how influential they are until I saw Lyle’s book. I don’t have a particular, specific boombox favorite. I just live through the memories that Lyle’s book brings back.”
A version of this story was first published by CL, Atlanta. June 21, 2011, when the Owerko’s show appeared at Jackson Fine Art Gallery.
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