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photo-eye Book Reviews: The Boombox Project

The Boombox Project, Photographs by Lyle Owerko.
Published by Abrams Images, New York, 2010.

The Boombox Project

Reviewed by Daniel W. Coburn
Lyle Owerko The Boombox Project.
Photographs by Lyle Owerko. Foreword by Spike Lee.
Abrams Images, New York, 2010. Hardbound. 160 pp., 100 color and black & white illustrations, 9x11".

Those of us who are old enough to remember getting our audio-fix from a player that was riddled with mechanical buttons, knobs, and levers will immediately be charmed by Lyle Owerko's in-depth study of a device that turned the underground on its ear. At first glance, The Boombox Project might conjure feelings of nostalgia for a generation that experienced beatbox culture first-hand, and it will definitely be prized as a great novelty by those who may only experience the era vicariously through the imagery presented in this 160 page volume. But don't be fooled by the eye-candy. This very hip and well-designed book uses the boombox itself as a metaphor for exploring the impact of portable music on the art and culture of the urban underground during the early eighties.

Lyle Owerko and Jeff Streeper successfully designed a book that is both dynamic and engaging from cover to cover. The front endsheet sets an impressive tone with a family-tree-like illustration depicting a hip-hop lineage that rose to fame and notoriety during the short-lived reign of boombox-giganticus. And no self-respecting boombox book would be complete without schematics and exploded diagrams of the machines themselves. Owerko includes an impressive collection of photographs made by a variety of documentarians. Most of these glamorize the lives of boombox toting characters on the graffiti laden, dirty, urban thoroughfares of New York. The images are somewhat sentimental and comical in their portrayal of those who chose to clad themselves in vinyl jackets, hoodies, gold chains, ridiculous sunglasses, and those clunky sneakers with the fat laces. My only criticism of a book that is loaded with this much charisma and flair would be its potential to distract from the real content.

The Boombox Project, by Lyle Owerko. Published by Abrams Images, 2010.

The Boombox Project, by Lyle Owerko. Published by Abrams Images, 2010.

The book contains an impressive number of quotes by famous hip-hop artists, rappers, musicians, and industry professionals that testify to the tremendous influence of the boombox. The information that Owerko has collected and presented makes it clear that these machines became a catalyst for the convergence of seemingly disparate musical genres. They empowered people by providing an alternate mode of self-expression, ultimately leading to increased political activism. This book suggests that its presence cut a deep scratch in the skin of American pop-culture that continues to fester. It is an infection that became a global epidemic.

Owerko's own series of images grace the pages of The Boombox Project. The book features approximately 100 images of well-used and customized radios that he has documented from the era. These photographs transcend a fundamental depiction of the object. That's not to say that they aren't interesting items, but behind all of the chipped chrome levers, greasy knobs, tattered tuners, and dirty speaker grates lies a portrait of the courageous individual that had the audacity to project his own musical tastes onto the world.

The Boombox Project, by Lyle Owerko. Published by Abrams Images, 2010.

The Boombox Project, by Lyle Owerko. Published by Abrams Images, 2010.

Film director, producer, writer, and actor Spike Lee wrote the foreword for Owerko's project. Lee's creation of the character Radio Raheem in his 1989 film Do the Right Thing seems to make him an obvious choice for this very specific task. I am sure his name on the cover might help Owerko sell more copies, but his statement seems somewhat irrelevant and doesn't make a substantial contribution to the book. Owerko's own photographic offering to the project might seem superficial for those that compare these to the iconic images he made on September 11, 2001. This book is a sociological study and its strength does not lie in the power of a singular image, but in the collection, organization, and presentation of information. The design of the book might be a turn-off for the photo book purist who enjoys looking at plate after plate with limited or no distractions.

It is more than apparent that Lyle Owerko has a tremendous knowledge and understanding of this very complex urban movement. The book's charm, edge, and street cred will have you revisiting its pages regularly, which means it won't spend much time collecting dust on the shelf.—Daniel W. Coburn

Daniel W. Coburn is a contemporary photographer whose visually arresting images have garnered national and international praise. Selections from his body of work have been featured in prestigious exhibitions, including Top 40 at the Los Angeles Center for Digital Art and the National Competition at SOHO Photo Gallery in New York. His photographic works are held in the permanent collections of the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art, the Mariana Kistler-Beach Museum of Art, the Mulvane Museum of Art and the Moraine Park Museum. Daniel has published two monographs of his work: Between Earth and Sky and Rediscovering Paradise. His most recent body of work, OBJECT:AFFECTION, represents a photographic study on the process of self-objectification. Coburn received his BFA with an emphasis in photography from Washburn University and is currently studying photography as a graduate student at the University of New Mexico.