Beastie Boys Photographer Sunny Bak: "None of Us Really Realized That It Was History in the Making"
If you've come across a photograph of the Beastie Boys in the past 25 years, chances are the woman behind the lens was Sunny Bak. An acclaimed photojournalist and no stranger to the music industry, Bak also photographed such talents as Madonna and Jay Z, capturing fashion and music moments in the New York life and beyond.
It was with the Beastie Boys, though, that Bak found one of many opportunities that helped propel her toward the success she enjoys today. Two years after the death of Adam "MCA" Yauch, Bak is bringing over two decades' worth of unpublished prints to light in a traveling exhibition in memory of the rapper.
New Times caught up with Bak as she traveled to the Sunshine State, where she will spend some time infiltrating the arts community with talks and kicking off the East Coast tour of her exhibition, "Beastie Bak and the VAC," at Studio 18 in Pembroke Pines.
New Times: You've spent a lot of time with the Beastie Boys, and your current exhibition is dedicated to the memory of Adam Yauch. How do you think it celebrates Yauch?
Sunny Bak: All the photos in this exhibition and thousands more were in a box for over 25 years in storage.
A few years before I even printed them, I showed them to Adam Yauch and Cey Adams. It was a blast from the past.
When Adam was ill, I decided to show them in New York City at Russell Simmons' gallery to celebrate the Beastie Boys entering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The exhibit then moved to Ivy Brown's gallery the next week.
Adam Horovitz did not show up to the opening night, which we all thought was unusual. The next morning, May 4, 2012, I got a phone call that Adam Yauch has passed away.
The show stayed up as a memorial for Yauch for over a month, and fans came from all over to see it.
You've taken a ton of Beastie Boys shots and eventually became a friend of the group and worked with them through tours and album art. At what point in photographing the Beastie Boys did you all become so close?
The photos shown were taken in the early '80s, when I first met both Adams and Mike D through my intern at the time, David Scilken. Scilken was in the Young and the Useless, a punk band, along with Adam Horovitz, before the Beastie Boys. I was a fashion photographer throughout the '80s with a studio on Broadway and 18th Street in Manhattan.
I got to know them pretty well because they hung around a lot. Maybe because there were always models. We were all pretty young and frequented the same places, Studio 54, Palladium, Mik Bar, etc., almost every night.
What is your favorite shot of the band?
I love the photo of MCA jumping up on the Palladium marquee. We were driving along Sunset Boulevard in a limo, just really having fun on the License to Ill tour, and they were scheduled to play at the Palladium the next night.
When we saw their name up in lights, it was just such a kick that we hopped out of the car and Yauch just leaped up on the marquee. And I caught it.
Were the Beastie Boys always socially aware guys, or was their turn toward activism kind of a surprise?
Hell no. When I first met them, they weren't into anything like that, but Yauch was in those beginning stages. Being a Buddhist myself for over a decade by then, he would always ask me questions about it.
It was no surprise when I heard him start taking it seriously. I heard recently that at that time, he was talking to his then-girlfriend about Buddhism.
The '80s, early '90s were a really influential time for music, and a lot of really great things were happening. What appealed to you about the Beastie Boys, in particular, that prompted you to become so interested and follow them so closely?
I actually didn't follow them at the start. I really had no interest in them. They were just always around, and so much was happening that none of us really realized that it was history in the making.
I spent so much time with Adam Yauch and Russell Simmons at the studio. Rick Rubin would pop in sometimes...
You're bringing other artists with you from something called the Venice Art Crawl, which you founded. Can you tell us more about the Venice Art Crawl? How has it shaped the art scene in Venice?
Restaurateur Daniel Samakow and Venice Paparazzi founder Edizen Stowell started the Venice Art Crawl in 2010. I have been around as an ambassador for the VAC and serving as president since only March 2014. It is not a collective but a quarterly event of pop-up art galleries in Venice for and by the people that promotes collaboration within the community.
It has started new galleries, supported businesses, nurtured friendships, and championed artists. The Venice Art Crawl has been very inspiring to many people, and I want to take that spirit and share the crawl with art communities in other places.
You can find more information about VAC at Bak's website, sunnybak.com. See her and her work from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday, September 5, at Studio 18 in the Pines, 1101 Poinciana Drive, Pembroke Pines. Call 954-961-6067, or visit ppines.com/studio18. She'll be interviewed by WLRN's Caroline Breder-Watts.