Photographer Profile - Jessica Lehrman: "I never listened to rap growing up"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday July 14, 2015

Jessica Lehrman  moved to Brooklyn in 2010 and found a place for herself, both professionally and geographically speaking.

She’s become known for documenting the hip-hop community there and recording the rise of a new wave of underground groups like the Beast Coast collective, shooting at concerts and festivals (often wearing her signature heart-shaped sunglasses) and accompanying emerging  stars like Joey Bada$$ and Meechy Darko of the Flatbush Zombies during performances on the West Coast. Her pictures have appeared in Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Vice, Complex, Relapse, GQ, among other publications, as well as in advertising for Adidas and Pepsi.

Her work has also appeared regularly in the New York Times, where, last year, Lehrman described what drew her to the hip-hop world and how she wants to portray it:

“The story of these kids is one of triumph over odds — how friendship is driven by passion, motivation and love,” she wrote, adding, “When you capture hip-hop, or anything that displays action, it’s easy to get stuck shooting clichés. I collect the experiences I have with these artists — all of whom I thankfully call my friends — that show their sensitivity, their determination, their love for their art and their love for one another. That’s what’s important: showing the substance beneath the style.”

Truth be told, however, Lehrman says she's not into the music itself.

“I have nothing against it, but I never listened to rap growing up,” she says. “When I moved to Brooklyn, it seemed like the biggest revolutionary music movement was hip hop, and it seemed like that would be the direction to head, so I fell into it by accident. I met one person, who introduced me to everyone.”

Lehrman’s own taste in music runs to the Beatles and Cream, an old-school affinity she picked up from her parents. She picked up more from them than that, however, through a nomadic childhood that provided with her a unique perspective on people and places—one that made the world of hip hop amenable.

"I grew up in communes, and anything that’s very accepting is the direction I end up in,” she says.

Career Pivot Point

Lehrman has come to a pivot point in her career—after establishing her bona fides in Brooklyn hip hop she is branching out from music. She has already covered the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations for Rolling Stone and the Cyber Goth culture for Relapse magazine, and this summer the New York Times assigned her to photograph teen baseball sensation Monay Davis  and photographer-cum casting guru Kevin Amato.

“That’s the direction I’m going in — more news-culture stories,” she says. “I also have a story in Elle magazine on different squads in New York City—crews of kids who are doing cool things. So I love hip hop, it will always be a part of me, but it won’t be as central for me anymore.”

Lehrman herself was the subject of recent a short documentary from Brooklyn-based Dutch filmmaker Bas Berkhout, the first in a series focusing on young creatives produced by online portfolio website In the film, she talks about the various threads of her life and how her upbringing helped define her as a photographer.

Lehrman was born in Seattle, but when she was six her family to moved to Tucson, Arizona, then kept on moving. “When I was nine, my parents decided to home school my younger sister and me, and we moved into an RV and traveled across the country,’ she says. They ended up in Paonia, Colorado, a small town where Lehrman attended high school. “Actually, I’m not sure I went to high school—it was a pretty alternative school,” she says, “But I got my diploma from this weird program I was in.”

Her interest in painting led her to apply for a three-month program at the Rhode Island School of Design, but because she applied late she ended up in a photography class. After the program ended she decided to go to business school rather than art school—“I didn’t want to be a starving artist,” she says—and attended SUNY Purchase.

Money has never been her end goal, she says in the documentary. “I think I realized, though, in not having money growing up, that sometimes it helps in being able to have choices.”

Her career as a business student ended after two years, when she was hitchhiking cross-country with a boyfriend. They got a ride from a person who, she says, “turned out to be the biggest acid dealer in Colorado.” She faced some serious trouble when police pulled the car over and found drugs.

“I was going to go to prison for 25 years, but luckily my GPA in college is what convinced them I couldn’t be a big-time drug dealer,” she says.

At any rate, she decided not to go back to school and eventually she ended up in LA, where her sister, Cassidy Lehrman, had become an actress—she played the role of Ari Gold’s daughter in HBO’s Entourage series—and began taking pictures for a newspaper in Santa Monica. Later, she made her way to Brooklyn.

There, she says, it was her ability to make friends with people anywhere, a skill she honed during her much-traveled youth, that led to her success. “Really,” she says, “in terms of launching a career I’ve done just about everything wrong.”

A Family Trip

Last summer, Lehrman produced a story  for the New York Times that was partly an autobiography and partly an account of a cross-country trip she’d recently made with her family. “My life has always been a trip. I’m actually the only one in my family who currently has a home, a Brooklyn loft I share with three roommates,” she wrote in a text that accompanied her photos.

The journey had been the idea of Jeffrey Henson Scales, a photographer and photo editor at the Times, who thought it would make a good narrative device for framing Lehrman’s childhood memories. “I’d never photographed my family, and I didn’t anticipate it would be hard. I was actually really excited about the whole thing,” Lehrman says.

But the trip got off to a rocky start and didn’t get a lot better.

“We were going to use my parents’ car, but before we left they crashed it, so we ended up using my sister’s Nissan Sentra,” Lehrman says. Being cooped up in the compact for six weeks wasn’t always fun—at a stopover in Colorado, the two sisters needed a long session with a family-therapist friend of their father.

The problem, according to Lehrman, was her sister’s unwillingness to be photographed during candid moments. “Being an actress, she is very aware of cameras and her image and the way she’s portrayed at all times,” Lehrman says.

Now, however, she’s glad she made the trip. “Our bonds were strengthened by the time together,” she says. Lehrman also came away with a renewed appreciation for her parents and the childhood they’d given her.

“After the trip, to commemorate our newly found adult-sister closeness, Cassidy and I decided to get matching tattoos,” she wrote in the Times article. “I’m nearly a blank canvas, except for the small writing I have on my wrist that simply says ‘gypsy.’”