Dynamic Range

Assistant Professor of Communications John Nordell’s career in composition—from ’80s hip-hop to AIC.

On September 15, 2020, Sotheby’s held the first-ever hip-hop-dedicated auction presented by a major auction house. Its marquee lots included the autographed plastic-jewel-encrusted crown Notorious B.I.G. wore during the 1997 “KONY (King of New York)” portrait session for Rap Pages Magazine three days before he was killed (sold for $594,750) and an archive of twenty-two—“incredibly sweet and at times steamy,” per Sotheby’s—love letters from a sixteen-year-old Tupac Shakur to his high school girlfriend between 1987 and 1988 (sold for $75,600).

In a press announcement, Cassandra Hatton, vice president of Sotheby’s books and manuscripts department, who co-curated the auction with Monica Lynch, former president of Tommy Boy Records, said the Biggie and Tupac lots “offer an introspective look, in their own way, at the personalities behind their respective public personas.”

But not all of the auction’s 120 lots pertained to hip-hop’s pantheon. Some, like lots twenty-six and -seven, two sets of photographs taken in the mid-1980s by John Nordell, MEd—now an assistant professor of communications at AIC—conjure the genre’s salad days.

“I felt that there was a real uniformity of open and excited and proud expressions. Whether that had to do with me or just the nature of the event, I don’t know. They were excited they were going to be performing; this was almost another performance backstage.”
John Nordell

The first lot, featuring a dozen digital prints, documents a December, 1985, concert, featuring Rusty “The Toejammer” Pendleton, at the former Bromley-Heath housing development in Boston. (Pendleton was so named because he scratched records with his bare feet.) His career still in its latency, Nordell covered the show on assignment for the alt-weekly Boston Rock. “It was very much a labor of love,” Nordell says, “working for that magazine.” He was paid $15 for his write-up and two photos of the event.

Nordell became interested in Boston’s hip-hop scene through his friend Magnus Johnstone’s late-night radio show on MIT’s WMBR 88.1FM. “A lot of the artists would come down, and they’d play a backing track and would rap live on the air, so I’d just go down and take pictures,” he says. “It was a fun scene; there was a lot of energy.”

The second lot, thirty prints, documents a January, 1986, talent night hosted by Boston music producer Maurice Starr. “He had these periodically,” Nordell explains. “It was a community-building event, but also a way for him to try to find some local talent to groom.”

Nordell brought with him portable strobe lights, photography umbrellas, and a vintage medium format camera, creating “almost like a mini studio setup” backstage. His photographs show the performers against a cinder block backdrop. Groups wear corresponding, if not matching, outfits—some with iron-on letters spelling out their band name—or, in the case of the not-yet-famous New Kids on the Block, each member’s name. Most performers smile and pose—some with pubescent slouchiness, others with youthful bravado.

AdvertisementRex Holiday Ornament - All proceeds to benefit the Student Auxiliary Aid Fund

“I felt that there was a real uniformity of open and excited and proud expressions,” he says. “Whether that had to do with me or just the nature of the event, I don’t know. They were excited they were going to be performing; this was almost another performance backstage.”

NKOTB notwithstanding, most of Nordell’s subjects surely returned to permanent obscurity after that night. His photojournalism career, though, was just gaining momentum.

Clockwise from top left: Rusty “The Toejammer” Pendleton performs at a 1985 concert at a housing development in Boston; from the same concert, another of the forty-two photographs taken by Nordell included in a September 15, 2020, Sotheby’s auction devoted to hip-hop; the five members of the boy band New Kids on the Block backstage at a 1986 talent show hosted by producer Maurice Starr in Boston; and Fat Girls, another of the talent show’s many aspiring young acts who would not become such household names as NKOTB.

Between 1986 and 1987, he twice traveled to South Korea to document the opposition to President Chun Doo-hwan’s authoritarian military regime, culminating in the June Struggle, which led to the democratic Sixth Republic as we know it today. He was in Panama in 1988, in the months leading up to the US invasion and Manuel Noriega’s subsequent capture. Later that year, he traveled to the Soviet Union to dually cover the dawn of perestroika and the arts underground—which included hippies, punks, rockers, and the necessarily “very underground” gay community. His photo of Kitty Dukakis on the campaign trail in New Hampshire graced the cover of the February 20, 1989, edition of Newsweek. Also in ’89, he traveled cross-country to interrogate corporate pollution and the influx of Japanese capital in the US market. The latter venture led him, in 1990, across the Pacific to document westernization in Japan itself.

Having studied intercultural communication as an international relations major at Stanford, Nordell prepared for each overseas trip by learning a practical amount of the native language and studying each country’s history, culture, politics, and economics. “So when I got there,” he says, “I wasn’t this typical American expecting everybody to speak English and tell me what was happening.”

Nordell made two trips to South Korea, in 1986 and ’87, as a photojournalist covering mass protests against the country’s authoritarian regime. These demonstrations led to the installment of the present-day democratic government.

By the early-nineties, Nordell had met the woman who would become his wife, and so sought safer and stabler work first as a corporate photographer, then as a photo editor for Christian Science Monitor in Boston, and then, finally, as an academic.

The Boston hip hop images, meanwhile, “languished” in his files until Brian Coleman, a Boston-area hip-hop historian and publicist, reached out to inquire about a pair of Nordell’s photographs he’d recently acquired and ask if he had any more like them. Nordell scanned several hundred images to show to Coleman, who then referred them to Lynch, the Sotheby’s auction’s guest curator.

Together, Nordell’s two lots garnered $6,552.

Nordell, pictured in a major Taiwanese newspaper in 1987, climbs a telephone pole to get a shot of a factory there. Asked about the context of the photo and its surrounding text, Nordell says he can no longer recall.

Nordell started at AIC as an adjunct professor in 2013. Two years later, he joined the full-time faculty. In 2014, he founded the visual and digital arts program, a part of the School of Business, Arts & Sciences.

“When I left being a professional photographer and started teaching, I first wondered what I was going to photograph,” he says, “but I found the question quickly became how am I going to photograph?” A revelation arrived in the form of what he calls “reality-based abstractions,” series of exposures layered on top of each other to multiply and distort the subject: “There are some snippets of reality in them, but they’re very abstract and, in a way, at the other end of the spectrum from photojournalism, where your goal is to ethically capture reality without altering it.” He likens the effect to that of Cubist portraits that portray multiple perspectives, simultaneously, of a face.

“In some ways,” he says, “I feel abstraction can capture the true essence of a subject that a straight photo might not be able to achieve.”