When hip-hop photographer and dancer Traci Bartlow reads her artist statement aloud, it brings her to tears. Specifically, the part that’s taken from a journal entry she wrote as a young adult in the early ‘90s after deciding to return home to Oakland from New York: “I abruptly returned home to support my family, who like most of my community, was being devastated by the crack epidemic,” Bartlow reads. “It is at The Wash House that I created a photography business.”
Bartlow shared the memory last Saturday at the opening of her new exhibit, Oakland Picture Lady: Tales of a 90’s Girl. The collection of photographs, collages, and short stories captures moments from the Bay Area hip-hop scene in the 1990s. For Bartlow, it’s work that all began at The Wash House—the laundromat that her family operated in East Oakland.
At 19, Bartlow had moved to New York on a scholarship to study with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. After spending time on the East Coast and traveling the world, returning home and to her family’s laundromat on 98th Avenue and Birch Street felt like an inescapable obligation. She’d intended to go back to New York several times, but something kept her home.
What resulted from those days of youthful exuberance and wanting to run away, was Bartlow’s visual documentation of Oakland. Bartlow began taking photos of her neighbors and the surrounding community; one of the first photos you come across in the exhibit is a self-portrait of Bartlow standing in front of the laundromat’s duct-taped window. She never stopped photographing, and it was this early work that helped springboard Bartlow into a career as a hip-hop photojournalist.
In retrospect, Bartlow now appreciates that the reason she could never leave is that she felt a calling to capture images of Oakland—its style, music, and culture—and share them with the world. “It was a bigger picture that I didn’t see or understand yet,” said Bartlow. “I see it now and it’s like, ‘Wow, thank you.’”
Using her experiences in the entertainment industry as a dancer, Bartlow was able to transition into photojournalism, shooting and writing for hip-hop magazines like Rap Pages and East Coast-based The Source. It was on a modeling audition for The Source that Bartlow made her move to professional photography at that magazine.
Using a plastic photo album with pictures she’d taken in Oakland as her portfolio, Bartlow was able to get a foot in the door. “I talked my way into meeting the photo editor, Chi Modu,” said Bartlow. Modu was skeptical but took her up on the offer. “He was like, ‘If you get pictures of the scene in the Bay, we’ll publish them.’ So I started publishing pictures first in the Coast to Coast section of The Source magazine.”
Bartlow’s early photos are among those now featured in the new exhibit, which is free to the public and located at a Victorian house that Barlow owns in West Oakland. The space, which she also advertises and rents out as B Loves Guest House, often serves as a place for her traveling artist and musician friends to stay when they’re in the Bay Area.
The imagery on exhibit, full of fashion and apparel that was dominant in the ‘90s, transports the viewer to that time when Black men and women wore finger-wave hairstyles and Cross Colours clothing. The portraits of hip-hop dancers, many of whom still work in the music and entertainment industries today behind the scenes, range from soft to stunning.
“Within the collages, there’s a lot of stories,” said Bartlow. “There’s a story about this photo I took of Biggie. There’s a story about a rap battle. There’s a story about Queen Latifah.” Bartlow is planning to imprint some of the collages with augmented reality.
Throughout Saturday’s gallery tour, Bartlow shared stories that were pivotal in shaping how she worked in the entertainment world. One of those stories involves an interaction she had with Tupac Shakur. When Bartlow attempted to introduce herself while working on the set of an album cover shoot, she received a dirty look from the artist. “Shade!” Bartlow said, referring to being looked at as if she didn’t belong on the set.
“At the beginning of my career, that moment was formative,” said Bartlow. The interaction taught her a lesson about being a woman in the hip-hop world. “Not another one of y’all are going to treat me like I’m a groupie,” she vowed. “I’m here for business.”
It wasn’t until going through the collection of photos for the exhibit, said Bartlow, that she realized how male-centric her work was during that time. “In doing this show, I noticed how male dominant it is,” said Bartlow. “My gaze was always about uplifting men and that was because of the music and what was dominant in the culture.” Bartlow intentionally needed to go through her photos to make sure that women were properly represented in the exhibit.
Covering two rooms and the backyard entry of the Victorian, the gallery exhibit had been a long-term goal of Bartlow’s. In 2016, she began the process of sorting photographs and received a business loan in hopes of one day creating a book with the encapsulated memories. Portions of the exhibit were originally displayed during the Oakland Museum of California’s 2018 hip-hop exhibition, Born On The West Coast, which included contributions from rapper Mystic as well as journalist and DJ, Davey D.
Photographs of Oakland Picture Lady: Tales of the 90’s Girl are not allowed but visitors can look through booklets and framed portraits, and wander through the photos featuring artists such as the rap group De La Soul and stand-up comedian Luenell, the latter of who lived in Oakland during the ’90s.
Seeing her portraits at the exhibit, it was clear why Bartlow had been emotional: She’d finally realized her mission of capturing and sharing stories that Oakland needed to be told, from a time when the crack epidemic and financial recession were harming the neighborhood in ways that would continue to have an impact for years to come.
The piece of her journal entry that she now includes in her artist statement, reads as a testimony to those days in Oakland. “It is that I did survive and found something else,” said Bartlow. “It was really hard but I survived. We are all able to overcome some things.”