Art //

Bring the Beat Back! Lyle Owerko’s “Boomboxes” is a Touchstone of 20th Century Culture

Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta presents a sumptuous selection of photographs from acclaimed “The Boombox Project.”

Miss Rosenby Miss Rosen
Photo: Lyle Owerko, Boombox #12, 2010.

Back in the days, when Hip Hop first took to the streets, it started out in the parks with turntables and sound systems hooked up to the lampposts for electricity. The sound of DJs scratching records, spinning breaks, and mixing tracks was as Bronx as it gets. It was the kids, Black and Latino, in the mix, taking classic joints like Apache and Hihache and flipping them so that b-boys and b-girls could dance. At a time when the Bronx looked like a third world country thanks to no less than the federal government, a cultural revolution was on the come up.

Also: Exhibit | Holly Andres: The Fallen Fawn

It was thanks, in large part, to technology. Supply met demand, as a portable sound system in the form of a boombox came on the American market during the mid-1970s. Typically black or silver, they featured removable speakers, x tapedecks, AM/FM radio, and jacks for microphones and turntables. Sizes varied, but let’s just say it was known: bigger was better.

Lyle Owerko, Boombox #33.

Lyle Owerko, Boombox #33.

Boomboxes were the epitome of style. They gave you atmosphere. They spoke to life in the city, with their brash, bold finesse, like the new sound they made manifest. Because, how else were you going to catch the latest songs? The best way to be down was to stay up. And that’s how you would hear folks like Melle Mel on The Message talking about, “Don’t push me cause I’m close to the edge. I’m trying not to lose my head. It’s like a jungle, sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from going under,” and you knew just what he meant.

Retrospect holds a certain charm. There’s often a feeling of innocence, an unknowingness that has long since faded away, that it no longer exists as part of our everyday world. It is like a song you haven’t heart in 20 years; the beat drops and you know every word and you sing along. It is in this way the photographs of Lyle Owerko bring it all back.

Lyle Owerko, Eagle Hunter 4.

Lyle Owerko, Eagle Hunter 4.

Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta, presents Lyle Owerko: Boomboxes + Eagle Hunters on view now through September 3, 2016. The gallery is also showing Holly Andres: The Fallen Fawn, previously covered by Crave. Owerko’s incredible photographs of the ancient community of eagle hunters in Northern Mongolia pair beautifully with the  selections made from his ongoing series, The Boombox Project, which examines the portable stereo as a touchstone of twentieth century culture.

The era of the boombox ran through the 1980s, and began to die down when the CDs came into being and digital slowly began to replace analogue. Some believe the boombox was replaced by the Walkman, and people became more introverted in public space. But that’s also to lose sight of the fact that Hip Hop wasn’t mainstream at the time. Instead, people like Tipper Gore were organizing federal hearings in Congress, trying to put parental warnings on rap tracks. Meanwhile, the MTA ran stickers on the subway letting it be known: “Please NO Littering, Smoking, Spitting, Radio Playing.” Trains used to be wild, though. Radios were the least of it.

Lyle Owerko, Boombox #2.

Lyle Owerko, Boombox #2.

But they were also the most—the most of an era when bigger was better. Owerko understands this and he delivers. The large-scale prints dazzle the eye, doing nothing more than invoking the era and its distinctive style. The boomboxes are heroic, once again. They are testaments to personal style and liberation, because the boombox will take you any place you want to go.

All photos: © Lyle Owerko, courtesy of Jackson Fine Art. 

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.