The fateful day that Jay Z walked into Jonathan Mannion’s New York City apartment on West 72nd Street was one that would jumpstart a 20-year legacy.
It was 1996 and the then 26-year-old rapper had plans on a “one and done” approach to the hip-hop game. Mannion, a then 25-year-old photography newbie, was simply down to take an aesthetic risk. Taking their vision to the roof of the building, the two – along with Jay Z’s Roc-A-Fella cohorts Damon “Dame” Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke – relied on the sun to illuminate their mission. Armed with a fanny pack full of film and a light meter, Mannion was tasked with shooting the Brooklyn native’s debut album artwork.
“It was covered inside, but it was kind of a dusty room,” he recalls. “I just dropped the white backdrop, I shot all daylight. It was kind of like my personal little studio, because it’s just empty space with beautiful North light. Up there with my tripod, it’s kinda dusty and funky, but you know, we made it work and it all contributed to the vibe – and the quality of the light was beautiful.”
The final phase of the shoot took Jay Z and Mannion to the West Side Highway to chase the day’s last bit of sunlight. There – with everyone collectively naive to what the shoot would become – classic New York mobster appeal would etch itself into hip-hop history. One prop in particular, stacks of cash totaling up to nearly $200,000, remains in Mannion’s memory. Not just for the sheer guts of having that much money on hand, but also because it was from that pile that he would receive his payment: a very modest $1,300.
“I was talking hundreds, I didn't know. I didn't know what to expect. I didn’t know what to fight for, I was like, ‘Just let me do what I want to do. Let me control the creative and let me deliver something for you guys that is going to be epic and timeless.’"
And he held up his end of the bargain. To celebrate the launch of his career, Mannion brought the art that would change his life back to the city it all started in. Decking out the Marlborough Gallery in Chelsea, the now-famed hip-hop shutterbug brought a curation of his Reasonable Doubt work to the masses with his "PROPHECY" exhibit.
BET: When did you have that, ‘Wow, Reasonable Doubt is 20 years old’ moment?
Mannion: You know what’s interesting is, I knew that this year marked my 20th year of being a professional photographer and I always marked the beginning of that as a professional career with Reasonable Doubt. [My moment] was, really at the top of the year. I said that I’m going to claim the second half of the year because June 25 is the actual date that album got released. So that was always sort of like, ‘OK, that’s the mark, and then that’s where we began celebrating the 20 years.’ So there’s definitely other things planned and I wanted to put attention on what certainly was the most important album cover I had done in my career, because it marked the beginning. And it was obviously an incredible way to start with a massive album with a major artist, and at the time he was just a 26-year-old kid and I was a 25-year-old kid. I don’t really think that we totally understood exactly what we were making and how long this would last and that it would still have a certain relevance now and that it would become a classic album. We just passionately created in a very pure space and delivered the product.
And the album, in particular the music, what does that mean to you now?
I speak about the album as a complete project. Because, over time, there are many artists that deliver amazing singles. And its like, maybe there’s two, three, four good songs on the album and the rest are sort of filler and fluff. That’s kind of a typical analysis of majority of the albums out there. There’s albums that stand out that are complete thoughts from start to finish. I look at [Reasonable Doubt] as that. The flow, the rhythm, the cadence, the sequencing, everything sort of built on what happened before in order to paint a complete picture of everything that he was seeing and around at the time. I speak of Brown Sugar by D’Angelo is complete, start to finish. Long Live the Kane by Big Daddy Kane, you can play that all the way through. It just flows. People put proper energy and time and obviously this was his original release, so it wasn’t tainted or guided by anything like, ‘Oh we have to do the commercial single because the label is making us, so we’ll just come up with something that will fit.’ This is just a pure delivery of an amazing perspective.
Even 20 years later, which is the crazy part.
Yeah, I mean 20 years later and it’s still in rotation. You can play any of that stuff right now and it’s still – I mean obviously, I go back for the sweet spot in time because I’m reminded of all the sounds and going out to The Palladium and The Tunnel and all these kinds of places. It was an amazing moment of discovery for me and really when I planted my seeds firmly in New York City after having moved here in ‘93, and this was ‘96. I started to get some traction, but with this album being completed, it was always looked at like, ‘OK, who’s the kid that did that? Let’s get him to do ours,’ ‘Who’s the kid that did DMX? Oh, let’s get that kid,’ ‘Oh, it’s the same kid that did Jay Z that did DMX. Let’s get him to shoot Ja Rule,’ ‘OK, let’s get him to shoot Nelly,’ ‘OK, let’s send him to Atlanta to shoot Outkast.’ So it’s like, look, we got work because I was delivering product that was different and had a lot of substance and heart and was authentic to the person and the movement and told a richer story. It was about storytelling.
So at the time, this was a really ballsy aesthetic move for hip-hop. Was there any fear that it wouldn’t resonate?
Nah, I don’t think so. I think my focus has always been to take timeless photos and really classic images that could have been taken yesterday or in the '60s or in 1996, as we did. These things will last forever. And I think that’s what I wanted it to be about. It was classic portraiture, I learned under Richard Avedon, one of the greatest to ever touch a camera, so that was the sensibility that I really brought to the table. You know [it] was based on the example that he set of working at his craft for many, many years but working under him. You know you can’t help but draw that influence. I took to the edge and really demanded something that felt like a classic New York moment that was based on style and certainly drew influence from the mobsters and the John Gotti’s and this underworld and surveillance. That was sort of our original set of influence that we kinda drew from because there was a parallel in a lot of ways. This is really about the family and those moments are for him and Dame and Biggs, and also the extension to Emory and Ty Ty — people that he’s remained loyal to for his entire run of show pretty much. But in that moment it was really about family and laughter, so that was part of the sounds as well and a lot of the images were straightforward and more intense but there were definitely moments of them laughing hysterically.
Artists, I think, kind of have to step away from their work in order to look back at it later to appreciate it. Do you keep that kind of distance with your work like this so you can look back at it and go, "Man this is crazy"?
Yeah, I think that there was a lot of distance. What’s interesting is once I’ve shot it, it’s kinda like you gotta set it free a little bit. And I think that’s with everyone in the shoots, I don’t sit and stew in it very long. I’m only now revisiting it because it is its 20-year anniversary. It’s like, OK, let me go through every single frame and let’s look at these images and edit and curate the best ones with a new eye, with a very sophisticated eye that I’ve developed over the years. So I’ll be doing that now going forward as I continue to celebrate anything that I’ve done during this 20-year career, for the next 20 years. I’m gonna be celebrating these milestones of every Jay album that I’ve ever done – which is eight of them – three for Eminem, Luda, everybody, The Game four, Rick Ross four, you know what I mean? We have a lot of celebrating to do.
Speaking of your later work with the likes of Game and Rick Ross, how did working on Reasonable Doubt inform those later works?
It had certainly given me the opportunity by Roc-A-Fella Records, Jay and everybody to achieve that first one. They basically gave me a product out in the marketplace that was just instantly available for everybody. And it wasn't a magazine cover that was up and then down in the month. This is forever attached to the music. How did that particular individual shoot affect my process? I’ve really chased it hard. You know it’s like shooting maybe 100 — you know, maybe 80-120 rolls of film in a day with 10 frames per roll plus Polaroids. And I was that crazy guy that might shoot with an 8x10 camera or a panoramic camera. You know, Fuji 617. And I think a beautiful thing to mention is because I was shooting film, it was like I had to know when I had the shot. It wasn’t really the cheat sheet like looking at the back of the camera like ‘Oh, OK. We got it. It’s right here.’ We were directing, shooting, everything at the same time and then it’s OK, let’s move on. Next shot. Like you sure, you got it? I’m Jonathan Mannion. If I say I got it, then I got it.
So when it comes to celebrating now, why’d you start with the art gallery? Why not like a coffee table book or a guerrilla-style video on the side of a building like Kanye West?
A lot of the work that was in the gallery here in New York, I created it in London at Jealous Gallery, a printmaking sort of shop. I went to London for 48 hours and I literally landed off the plane and went to the print shop and started printing. And printed for about 12, 15 hours straight. Then I was like, ‘Yo, let’s do something. Let’s give something back to the people in London. Here’s what we’re doing.’ I mean with the prints still, sort of wet on the wall, still drying, we were able to give London this pop-up thing. And then, it was sort of a great test run like a little burst of energy and then we brought them all back to New York and the goal has always been to elevate the perception of photography, especially hip-hop photography. I knew I wanted it to be at a gallery in Chelsea just to like legitimatize it and rightfully so. We need to be seen on this stage as photographers. We bust our ass, all of us, trying to get our vision. Trying to make artists look incredible. So we were very fortunate that Marlborough Gallery came through and saw the vision. New York was buzzing and I really, really truly felt that energy.
The energy in that room was something. How was that for you? What was I guess the most interesting conversation you had that night?
When I’m in that space, I know that I wanna touch everybody in the room. You know? And I know that I have that ability. I’ve seen it. I’ve felt it. When you’re talking to me, there could be a thousand people waiting, but I really wanna spend that quality time and touch people, hug people. I had every shade of MAC makeup on my shoulder because all the ladies wanted a hug. All the dudes wanted a selfie and a shot and [to] ask me questions and just say that I was appreciated and it’s just you have to do that. You have to charge up sometimes. And also you have to throw the party, so there was definitely kind support and that Jay Z kind of came through [with] Tidal and Dusse and Ace of Spades. To have him believe in what I was doing — he didn’t owe me anything. He never owes me anything. We work together. I got paid for that work, but I think that there was another understanding that, like, the people need this. You know?
What was you and Jay’s conversation like? How did that exchange go?
What’s very interesting is I didn’t actually speak to him. There are many artists that I can call on speed dial. You know, Mos Def, The Game, people that are my homies. I spoke to Clark Kent and I said, ‘Look can we pass it by to Jay? I just want his blessing and his understanding that it was gonna happen regardless.’ Like, I’m going to do this for the people. I mean, let’s celebrate this moment. This moment is bigger than both of us. It is the fact that culture and certainly people really want to celebrate. This is the time. It’s important to people. I wanna know how it happened and these stories inspire the next generation to really chase their dreams. I wanted it to be known what I was doing and to be transparent with my movements that I was gonna do something around this that wasn’t to take advantage or for self-gain. It was just to celebrate something that is such a critical moment in my career in that it gave me my first album cover that opened the flood gate for the 300 other ones that I did. So, it’s — that starting point is a sweet spot. That’s something that you’re gonna be passionate about, It’s sort of like a first kiss. Like, ‘Ah man, that was sweet.’ There is something special about that and the energy in that room and the conversations that were had were really had by people who wanted to be there.
Where is the big book, encyclopedia-style coming? When are we getting that?
We are actively working on that. What’s so funny is I’ve done the lion’s share of every hip-hop book. Hip-Hop Photography, Hip-Hop Immortals, Def Jam's 45-year anniversary. Maybe not the VIBE one. But I always want to be included in that conversation at the highest level. The book is overdue, but I think now is that perfect time. I was about the work. I got 20 years, now it’s like here’s the story. Yes, one dude shot all of those. Knock them out. Enjoy your flip. 200 pages of, like, ‘Oh my god, I know this one and I know this one. Oh, you did that one too? He did Lauryn? He did this? He did Big? He did Left Eye? Jam Master Jay? Aaliyah? Holy s**t.’ One dude in 20 years did that.
We need that book.
It is a daunting task to be on the wall of fame to really go through. I really wanna go through every picture. I don’t want to miss anything. I just need to start, and we have started. We’re making sure that we have all the powerhouse shoots that I’ve done. I’ll be starting with the heavy hitters. Cash Money. Eminem. Jay. Luda. Game. You know, sort of, the people I’ve had major runs with. And the biggest voices certainly. You know, Marshall Mathers LP, Eminem Show, Devil’s Night. Like just from Em alone, that set a visual. That’s a book itself.
And I’m sure there’s things we haven’t seen! You gotta show us.
Yeah, like Eminem standing with eight dudes dressed up as Elvis at a bachelor party.
Yeah, we were in Amsterdam and all these Elvis’s were running around and he was really Elvis in that moment. In that fame and popularity. You can talk about Marshall Mathers LP. I was like, ‘Yo fellas, come here a minute. Get in.’ They’re like, ‘Yeah cool.’ We were surrounded by these Elvis’s. So much man. I mean I could do volumes of a book and never repeat a photo.
Man, no. The people need that. We need that.
For the streets. You will have that. You will have it soon.