Jonathan Mannion: A Conversation.

We have featured the work of Jonathan Mannion previously on the blog before (See our past article here) but he has so many great videos that I figured we’d share his work again. Mannion has shot everyone in the rap scene including Eminem, Lil Wayne, Jay Z, DMX, and Ice Cube. Often borrowing from his mentor Richard Avedon, Jonathan’s work can be edgy and provocative but also clean and iconic. In this video Jonathan showcases a lot of his work featured in the Milk Gallery exhibition he did last year. It’s pretty interesting to hear Jonathan talk about trying to remain creative with his work while at the same time knowing the specific image the record labels want for their musicians’ brand.

Jonathan Mannion, 41, is a professional photographer, capturing intimate moments that readers of popular magazines, often, remember sooner than the accompanying articles. Mannion, a Manhattan resident and Cleveland native, is not only a photographer, but a photography fan, too. In his pastime, he reads photography books. Currently, he’s reading Henri Cartier-Bresson, a French photographer that hid from Nazis during WWII. “He’s arguably another one of the great photographers known for the decisive moment – the moment when you snap a frame and what makes it different from any other that could be taken,” says Mannion.

Whether shooting with an 8 x 10, wooden Deardoff or a Polaroid 195 (Mannion never uses digital unless he’s scouting locations with his Sony Cyber-shot. His “work horses” are large or medium format Pentax cameras, “I love cameras, because each of them allows my eye to change compositionally. Cameras allow your mind to adapt to compositions. I like the cadence of shooting film,” he says), Mannion is able to make his subjects that include, but are not limited to, Jay-Z, Andre Agassi and Beck, feel at ease by understanding them. “An artist sees a picture where they blink or they think they look fat – artists have those days, too!” he says, adding that “sensitive days” are not immune to celebrities.

Perhaps, Mannion’s inviting demeanor is why his clients are repeat customers. “Reasonable Doubt was my first album cover in `96 and I did The Black Album, and every one in between,” he says, reflecting on the relationships with celebrities that he’s had for a decade – “I got to grow with these people.”

“There are these 500-pound gorillas telling you what to do while cutting checks and you have to bow down, a little bit.”

A healthy portion of your work is with athletes. Are you a sports fan?

Jonathan Mannion: I’m a huge sports fan. My mother’s from London and father’s from Brooklyn, so I grew up growing going back and forth to London. I grew up in Cleveland. In the Midwest we’re forever running around and acting a fool, so my two sports are soccer and tennis. I played both of them for 25 years. I’m a huge Premier League fan. I love American football, too – I’m a die hard Cleveland Browns fan. I respect real athletes and real people with a magical gift of performance, like Olympic athletes that train all their lives to do one thing. Not everybody can do that and I guess it applies to anything.

How was growing up in Ohio?

Ohio is good. It was a nice pace. I grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland and didn’t really have a care in the world. I refereed soccer matches, life guarded a pool and it was like playtime all the time. I went to school and became disciplined. I think that’s a super valuable thing. I have a degree in psychology and studio art. I grew up painting and drawing. I only took photography for one year in school.

Where did you go to college?

Kenyon, a small liberal arts school, mainly known for literature. I think it’s the oldest school in Ohio.

Harlem rapper, Cam’Ron, was once on 60 Minutes explaining the “no snitchin’” to police policy that he lives by and glamorizes to youths. What is your opinion on the “no snitchin’” message that Cam’Ron is glamorizing to youths?

I don’t think that Cam’Ron is the best representation of what hip-hop music is, today. Not to dog him, I’ve worked with him, he’s a good guy, we’ve have good times and taken good pictures. But this is someone who has a certain mindset, a certain position and a certain appearance to uphold. Maybe, he truly believes what he said, I didn’t see that episode, but I heard about it through the grapevine. The entire no snitching policy and if a serial killer lived next door he wouldn’t turn them in – that’s just stupid. Again, that is not in comparison to him, he has his focus and his clear mission about what he does. For the target market he’s trying to reach it makes sense. I think there are so many other people that would represent the hip-hop movement, better, from a broad stroke of hip-hop. Snitching has to do with the drug game and you don’t turn your back on the people that are around you that are family – that is what snitching is. Snitching is not like, ‘Yo, there is a serial killer next door and I’m not going to tell the cops, because I don’t like that cops.’ As far as the face of hip-hop, today, it is definitely changing.

People are fed up with the stereotypical hip-hop that people in Middle America and politicians are attacking. This movement has allowed so many people to live out their dreams and be profitable, and to create careers for themselves. They have to be grateful for that position and there are certain people that get it more than others.

When you’re photographing, specifically for celebrities and musicians, do you feel a responsibility for the messages that your photographs send?

Absolutely. I think everything you put out in the world you have to be responsible for. Even people that claim they’re not a role model and their behavior should not be emulated, fine, but it’s still going to have an impact on people that look up to the actions. Everybody guides each other and that’s why, I think, certain people have gotten so far off track, because they’re looking towards the wrong people to guide them forward. I’m an artist that is following my dreams and money is going to come when I follow my passion. That’s a motto of my life. If my heart is in the right place I’m going to be protected and I’m going to bring this message, because I have a real perspective and a valuable contribution to make to this movement.

People don’t last in the game; they come and go if they’re full of shit. The people that are in this industry for over ten years, myself included, are the ones that have made a difference along the way and will continue to make a difference. My desire to shoot hip-hop photography results from wanting to make a contribution to something I think is incredible. My love comes from listening to Big Daddy Kane, The D.O.C. – that was golden moment in time. What I’m trying to do and will continue to do is bring these images that really make people think, and elevate a person within the structure of who they are, not taking them outside of that, and applying my style of photography. To elevate people to the best that they can be in that moment, I’m trying to tell stories and if a picture is worth a 1000 words, than I’m doing OK. I entered this arena, because of a passion and wanting to make a contribution.

Photography is important to me, it’s not a just a job. I’ve documented a ten-year period of music that no one can take away. I can say the only person I’ve missed is Tupac. I photographed his mom and his sister, and I’m still trying to make contributions, because I know we would have done some amazing things. To cover the greats of an era: Jay-Z, Eminem, DMX, Nelly, Ja Rule, Snoop, Dre, Biggie, Aaliyah, Left Eye, Jam Master Jay, Big Pun. All these people I had time with and, a lot of them, a ten year relationship. Reasonable Doubt was my first album cover in `96 and I did The Black Album, and every one in between. I got to grow with these people.

Are there potential clients that you would not want to photograph?

There are certain people who’s careers, in the past, that have been made by working consistently with a single person. Looking at Neil Leifer or Howard Bingham and the relationship they had with Muhammad Ali – that real access to the beautiful moments that are behind the scenes, because they had this position of trust between the photographer and the talent man. There is something to be said for that. Photographers don’t have to take everything. If that was the case, shit, I’d be shooting weddings, headshots, album covers and puppies! People go down different roads, thankfully, I have grown with an industry where the people I was out in the club with knew I wanted to make a difference and contribute.

There are 30 people that I was running with, at the time, who are now heads of companies. It is a logical progression that your career grows and if you stay on your mission and operate from your heart, the great people will come your way. The people that just want to do a job – it’s a check to them and there is no passion behind it – I see right through it and that is who I would rather not associate with. I’m not about a check. Sure, I have to live, pay my studio manager and assistants. I feel a strong responsibility as the hub of a wheel with all these spokes – each of these people have spokes and have dreams that they’re trying to chase, too. It’s important to look after people, because they’ll look after you.

How do you establish trust with your subjects?

To comment on it generally, there are great photographers, there are good photographers that, probably, take a better picture than those great photographers, but what makes a photographer incredible is the ability to put somebody at ease to gain access and trust. My disposition, when I deal with people, I want people to win so much and chase their dreams that I put them before me; I can’t say, ‘I’m just a messenger and I talk through my camera.’ The fact that I believe in people and I truly want to make somebody have a great experience is why people come back to me. These people do about ten shoots a month, minimum, and the greats, probably, two or three a day. They know the difference between somebody that’s just snapping or somebody that is just starting – they can read people, too.

After being in the industry for 16+ years, you gain the calm. The fact that I have a body of work and I can open a portfolio and say, ‘I just want you to know you’re in good hands.’ Certain people that just have to get through it – Kobe Bryant that has eight minutes to spare. Then you have people like Lance Armstrong. He didn’t know who I was, but he was going through the motions, we were doing a great shoot and it was cool. I showed him my book and he looked at me like I’m a bad motherfucker, I’m the shit! Here is a six time Tour de France winner, beat cancer and is one of the most inspirational athletes of our generation telling me that I’m bad-ass! You know how hard I worked for the rest of that shoot; they have the ability to inspire and gain your trust, too. There are people that hate photo shoots and the fact that they know I’m quick, I know what I want immediately and I go for it – if you give me one frame of film, I will get the shot.

With the advent of instagram, Flickr and Deviant Art, and how easy it is to make a website, a lot of people call themselves professional photographers, but they lack resume-backing experiences that make them professional photographers.

There are a lot of people that take pictures. Probably, every human that has ever touched a camera, here or there, but a snap here or there doesn’t make you a photographer. What’s in a name, I could call myself a rapper. I’m not a rapper, but I can call myself that. I can put it on a business card, put it on a website and do bits of stuff in the studio. I can call myself anything I want. I can call myself an astronaut, because I’ve jumped six feet off the ground! It’s just a name. There are people that fabricate umbrella companies that are a subsidiary of this enterprise and that enterprise, but if you’re not doing shit, it’s just a title.

There are real photographers and it is easy to see the difference. There are people that don’t call themselves photographers that are better photographers than people that do and are even working! I know people that call themselves photographers and I’m like, really? The Internet is a beautiful tool, because it is giving everyone an opportunity and, maybe, a person that would not have picked up a camera could be the next Annie Leibowitz. Inspiration comes through education and information, what people do with it is within their own structure and how they process it out.

Have your photography skills transferred into your directing skills?

I’ve been at it for a year and a half. I did one video in Paris in `96 and I did it like, what’s this about, let’s try it! That was cool, but it changes and that’s why I sort of backed away after the video; the idea that I had walking into it and how I could see it playing out was so watered down, because the group wanted something. I felt that what the group wanted was cheesy. The label wanted something and thought that was cheesy, too, but you have to do it. Your vision gets watered down from contributions by people who should just be doing A&R. I have respect for great directors and their struggles and battles in Hollywood movies. There are these 500-pound gorillas telling you what to do while cutting checks and you have to bow down, a little bit.

I find, in music videos, there are a lot of sacrifices, especially now, as budgets drop and drop; you have to have a tight group of people around you to allow your real vision to come to life. People have given me a lot of access and I think those are the best videos. The Game and Junior Reid tune that I did, “One Blood,” was awesome, because of that total trust that I had with Game and Junior Reid. Busta Rhymes chopping his dreads off – I paid for that! I was like, ‘You know, I know you said you’re having your homeboy shoot it, but we got to make this, this is 15 years in the making.’ He was like, ‘That’s crazy, that’s crazy! We got to do it!’ So I asked every favor and $15,000 later I’ve documented something I’ll always be attached to – Busta cutting his dreads off. A thing like that changes the game, it changes perspective, it changes movement, it changes spirit. In summary, I like it, but I don’t love it. I love taking pictures. Me and a subject and a camera.

Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt

“I spoke to Damon Dash first [about shooting the album artwork], and he goes, ‘All right, cool. Nice pictures. What are you going to charge me?’ And I was like, ‘I’ll do it for 300 less than your lowest bid.’ I was talking hundreds. … I was like, ‘Just let me do what I want to do, man. My vision.’ I went with Jay on the creative stuff and had a whole list of things. Then he changed his title. I don’t know if it’s common knowledge, but it was originally going to be called Heir to the Throne. That was a title that was tossed around. Reasonable Doubt came around, and I came back with a whole other set of ideas. They styled themselves. I told them I didn’t want the whole Versace, ‘Scarface,’ Miami Mafia drug-running kinda thing. I wanted the New York, the Brooklyn Mafia. Little Italy surveillance, the real business.”

DMX’s Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood

“I met X on the set of ‘4-3-2-1.’ I was shooting behind the scenes. X was like, ‘That’s my dude. That’s my man. That’s who I want to do my cover.’ So then [we shot] It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot — came up with the iconic shot of him with his arms crossed and his shirt off, which really captured who he was at that moment. Then he wanted to push borders out a little bit farther with Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. That we shot in L.A. He was down with taking a chance. It took some convincing to get him into a bathtub full of blood. But it happened, and I think now it’s one of the most recognizable pictures in hip-hop. It was horse blood. We slaughtered a horse. Nah, I’m kidding. I don’t wanna reveal the secret of what it was. Leave the mystery, buy the book. I really went deep as far as my research. I wanted something that was like, ‘Whoa!’ And he was willing to take it there. He’s like, ‘Man, if you believe in it, I’ll go with it.’ ”

Aaliyah’s Aaliyah

“God, everything everybody says about her being an angel and being amazing, that is true but probably an understatement of how sweet she was. There were demands put on me that day of shooting. I produced literally to the minute, more production than I had ever done, just to make sure I got this. I wanted to shoot her. I don’t know if there were other things [after this particular shoot], but I have been told this was her last photo shoot. [It was], like, two or three weeks before [her death]. I really wanted to do a good job.”

Eminem’s The Eminem Show

“The Eminem Show [cover] was sort of like, ‘You see me onstage. You see me here, not ready to come out for the crowd exactly. But [I’m] behind the curtains and you caught a glimpse of it, like they opened the curtains too soon.’ You just build up this dialogue that just becomes easy. To me, the relationship between photographer and artist is everything. People that you’ve worked with prior to shooting them, you already have that dialogue built in. They know what you’re about, you know what they’re about. I do my research. I want to hear music. I want to know what you’re about. What’s the name of the album? What inspires you? Where are you at in your life right now? All those things allow me to go one step deeper.”

Lil Mama’s VYP: Voice of the Young People

“I just did her album cover. I did it, I guess, last year. You know, it was when ‘Lip Gloss’ was poppin’ and the lip gloss was cool. I don’t wear lip gloss — I keep it ashy and classy. We shot it in my studio in Harlem. Great day. She showed up a little late, but talk about energy, man. She just doesn’t stop. It’s the next generation, it’s the kids paving what their paths are gonna be. We just sort of ran around. And she had a set of ideas she really wanted to achieve. She wanted to be on the phone in a pink room, in a pink chair. So that was sort of a collaborative effort.”

A very hard to find book with an amazing collection of hip hop images called: HIP HOP: A CUTURAL ODYSSEY could be found here.


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