Photographer to hip-hop stars, Nitin Vadukul, dies at 52

Nitin Vadukul's cinematic, dreamlike portraits of hip-hop artists broke from the gritty frankness with which photographers had been portraying them since the genre’s beginnings.
Nitin Vadukul's cinematic, dreamlike portraits of hip-hop artists broke from the gritty frankness with which photographers had been portraying them since the genre’s beginnings.PHOTO: MAX VADUKUL VIA NYTIMES

(NYTIMES) - When Nitin Vadukul photographed hip-hop artists, he gave Eminem a chain saw, captured LL Cool J morphing into a superhero and portrayed Missy Elliott as Neo, the protagonist of the movie The Matrix.

Vadukul's photography came to prominence in the late 1990s, just as hip-hop was gaining a mainstream presence, and his work reflected that evolution: His cinematic, dreamlike portraits broke from the gritty frankness with which photographers had been portraying hip-hop artists - on the streets or in performance - since the genre's beginnings in the 1970s.

He died at 52 on Feb 17 in Manhattan. His brother, Max, said the cause was colorectal cancer, which had spread to the liver.

Armed with Photoshop and surrealistic creativity, Vadukul (pronounced vah-DOO-kull) might use ghostly effects or incorporate allusions, in one case to World War II.

For the January 2000 cover of The Source, then the leading hip-hop magazine, he surrounded Jay-Z with skyscraper gargoyles and thinly attired futuristic models - references to the classic 1927 film Metropolis, Fritz Lang's depiction of the clash between man and machines.

Vadukul armed Eminem with a chain saw for the magazine's July 2000 cover, evoking his berserker-like persona as a horror movie villain. Afterward, the tool-qua-weapon was a recurring bit at Eminem concerts and became a part of his iconography.

"He understood hip-hop, he was collaborative, and he made it fun," Eminem wrote of Vadukul in an email. "Chain saws, blood, a face full of nails ... he was in."

David Curcurito, a former creative director of The Source, said that after photo shoots Vadukul would hole up in his apartment for days, turning pictures on his computer into painting-like visions. Wyclef Jean, LL Cool J and other performers began requesting him for their own shoots.

"Before all of the photographers were using Photoshop, he was certainly a pioneer in manipulating photography digitally," Curcurito said.

Nitin Shantilal Vadukul was born on Apr 20, 1965, in Nairobi, Kenya, as a British subject of Indian heritage. His father, Shantilal Karsandas Vadukul, was a travelling camera salesman and amateur photographer; his mother, the former Shantaben Vara, was a homemaker who later worked in crayon and wiring factories to supplement the family income.

Fearing violence, the family fled the country in the 1960s after Kenya had gained independence and legislation was passed preventing tens of thousands of non-Kenyans from working, an action that heightened racial tensions. Leaving behind their material possessions, the family emigrated to England in 1969, settling in Enfield, a northern London suburb.

Vadukul attended Enfield Grammar School, but by age 15 he had decided to pursue a career in photography instead of higher-level studies, hoping to build on his pocket-size portfolio of Kodachrome slide transparencies.

Ray Massey, an advertising photographer who used special effects, took him on as an assistant.

By 1985, Vadukul was pursuing freelance advertising and editorial assignments in London, and later in Paris. While he continued to shoot ads for companies like Nike and IBM, by the mid-1990s he had moved to New York and was also taking on assignments for the youth-focused magazine Details.

James Truman, a former editor-in-chief of Details, said that in a typical 30-minute photo shoot, Vadukul "would try all kinds of crazy things."

"Usually," he added, "it was the crazy things that delivered the memorable pictures." For Details, Vadukul experimented with the limits of portraiture: In one instance he had singer Iggy Pop hold a dove to the sky; in another, he created intentionally grainy shots of actor Tommy Lee Jones.

He went on to become the first-choice photographer for The Source, for which he portrayed Dr. Dre bursting through flames and Queen Latifah exhaling a viper's tongue of cigar smoke. Several of his cover photos were featured in the 2002 coffee-table book Hip Hop Immortals Volume One and were part of a global travelling exhibit.

At the same time, rock artists like Ozzy Osbourne also began collaborating with Vadukul for albums, and Newsweek featured his portraits of Barack Obama, then a senator, in 2004.

In 1997, Vadukul married Marianna Morrison and moved to the Hudson Valley, where he pursued fine art photography. By the late 2000s, he was exhibiting his conceptual photographs internationally. In one series, The Art Of War, he portrayed military gear as shrouded by death.

His marriage ended in divorce in 2010, and in his later years he struggled with alcoholism, which his brother said he overcame.

Vadukul eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he photographed local musicians and directed music videos for them.

In addition to his brother, his survivors include his children, Nitin and Aysha Vadukul; his mother; and a sister, Nilam Kumari.