The first time photographer and cinematographer Barron Claiborne held a camera he was 10. “My mother found a camera—large format 4×5,” shares the shutterbug. “The first thing I shot was myself.” 

Self-taught, the Boston native studied books by iconic photographers like Ansel Adams to inform the depth of his own black and white photographic works. Now, students at art schools globally study Claiborne’s epic artwork.

Always gratified by taking pictures, Claiborne decided he could make a living doing what he loves around age 20. His first feature subject was choreographer, director and dancer Bill T. Jones for New York Times Magazine.  Reflecting on how he secured his first major assignment he said, “I was super naive when I moved to New York, so I didn’t think of the rules.” He cold-called the New York Times Magazine’s Director of Photography Kathy Ryan “I said I’m downstairs. I’d like to show you my work. I guess she thought I was crazy,” he continued. Nevertheless, Ryan took the time to view his photographs and three days later she called him and gave him the assignment.

A photo shoot with Claiborne is like watching an earnest, dandified magician in a black box theater. Instead of the magic hat, he drapes himself and his camera with a black cloth, conjuring a spellbinding image underneath. “I like the cloth because of the ritual of it. You see it in old movies and I always liked it.” But, there is a functionality to it as well. “I also have to use to it,” he adds. “Normally, you could buy a lens for it, but not for the camera that I use.”

The creative visionary has photographed an infinite number of stars for magazine covers and feature spreads. For his iconic images of The Notorious BIG, Claiborne convinced the legendary rapper out of his Coogi mindset into a white three-piece suit, with a cane to boot. “I said Biggie you will look amazing in a suit. It will give you gravitas. You’re big;, you’re tall. A suit gives you stature.” Adding, “I wanted to shoot him as Kingpin from Spiderman. That’s what I pictured.” Fashion stylist Groovy Lew had the suit tailored express for the session. “It was beautiful,” the lensman fondly recalled.

Universal Biggie, The Notorious B.I.G. for XXL magazine.
iImage: Barron Claiborne
The Notorious B.I.G. for Rap Pages magazine. Image: Barron Claiborne

Ironically dragonesque, the photograph of Method Man is a masterpiece among many. Claiborne captured his gaze, intense brows, slight snarl and sensuous relationship with smoke in a mesmerizing moment—like Meth’s character in Wu-Tang: The Saga, Claiborne explained that image was actually a pivot from his original ideation for the shoot. “[Method Man] was smoking, the whole time. So, I asked if we could just take the picture that way instead.“ And the result—an arresting image of authentic art. “The photo looks cool and he’s a cool dude,” added Claiborne. “Before there weren’t many pictures of people with weed smoke. Now it’s everywhere.”

Method Man for Rolling Stone magazine. Image: Barron Claiborne

Claiborne places his images of women—comprised of friends, models, and celebrities—in a respective collection with series titles like Siren, Her, and Copper. Regarding his popular Saint series, which brings the concept of the Black Madonna to mind. “Those images are timeless; you can’t tell when they were taken,” explains Claiborne. “At the time, I was reading about Christian saints. When I’m inspired by what I read, I turn it into images.”

“Save Yourself.” Image: Barron Claiborne
Model Nicola Vassel. Image: Barron Claiborne
AzzaFour Times. Image: Barron Claiborne

Like the Stetson Hat from New Mexico he wears during the interview, Barron’s captivating self-portraits happen as result of travel. “I usually take a self-portrait when I come back from from a trip with item that I got.” Or when he’s testing before a photo shoot, he states, “I have a lot of pictures of myself from testing light and set for photo shoots, so the quality is really high.” Like the 10-year old, given a magical tool from his mother that would enchant his life,  “I always shoot myself first.”

Self-portrait of the photographer. Image: Barron Claiborne