In two-plus decades, Jonathan Mannion has built a solid reputation as the gold standard for hip-hop photography. The photographer born and raised in Cleveland combined his love for rap music with an infectious interpersonal savvy and tenacity for constantly finding different angles, turning passion and personality into capturing some of the most iconic album covers and portraiture to ever come out of hip-hop culture.
Mannion’s warm and patient process begins by engaging in in-depth conversations with each of his subjects. From those chats, the former understudy of famed fashion photographers Richard Avedon, Ben Watts, Steven Klein and Michael Halsband can pull comfortable, revealing moments from his clients with each click from one of his choice instruments, typically a Honeywell Pentax 6×7. The final product is a medium format portrait born out of a genuine connection.
Mannion then likes to have all of his subjects sign Polaroid snapshots at the end of each shoot. Now 44-years-old, hip-hop’s quintessential cameraman says his objectives are always to make his photo shoots run smoothly and to take the definitive portrait of that person. “I want to go to the core of people and create images that are that important,” says Mannion periodically looking down at his fluorescent Reebok Ventilators. “I always try to make the images personal for that artist.”
Wrapping a photo session with rapper/songwriter Future the day before this interview, Mannion spent the following morning delivering an informal lecture at the Center for Civic Innovation (CCI) in Atlanta. The extroverted visual artist’s intimate TED Talk-inspired delivery consisted of him offering success tips and sharing numerous vivid anecdotes about his photo shoots with his A-list clientele.
He simultaneously clicks through an abridged slide show of his catalog featuring images of Big Pun, Lauryn Hill, Puff Daddy, Kelis, Usher, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Outkast, Boosie Badazz, Scarface, Kller Mike, Ludacris, 2 Chainz, T.I., Nicki Minaj and Kendrick Lamar. A highly sought after professional, Mannion’s portfolio of over 300 album covers is widely known for producing eight of those covers for Jay Z. Mannion provided art direction for In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, Vol. 2..Hard Knock Life, Vol. 3…Life and Times of S. Carter, The Blueprint, The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, and The Black Album.
Mannion is actually responsible for conceptualizing the multiple Grammy winner’s black-and-white Mafia-inspired gangster silhouette for his debut release, Reasonable Doubt. Mimicking the massively successful rapper and businessman’s voice precisely, a charismatic Mannion, who majored in psychology and art at Kenyon College, remembers negotiating to conduct the shoot for $300 less than the lowest bidder. That one deal jump started one of the most seminal partnerships in hip-hop.
“I had a run with [Jay] that was unparalleled,” says Mannion, once known throughout the hip-hop community as ‘Jay’s Guy.’” “He showed loyalty to me because he felt something about my work. He could never stop in his journey because his passion is so rich.” It was also Mannion who convinced DMX to immerse himself in blood for the Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood album cover.
To get the platinum-selling gravel-voiced rapper to comply, the photographer who also shot DMX’s debut LP, It’s Dark and Hell is Hot, dropped his pants in front of everyone in the studio. A resistant DMX gave in, creating yet another memorable shot. Mannion also shot another DMX LP, Grand Champ. “I have the ability to articulate what I want very clearly and to challenge people in that moment,” asserts Mannion with his easygoing delivery. “You can’t put me in a situation that I can’t make go in my favor visually.”
Mannion, a fan of Depeche Mode and New Order, broadened his knowledge in hip-hop while working at his college radio station. Following graduation, psychopharmacology or pursuing medical school seemed to be in his plans but quickly eroded. Mannion moved to New York City in 1993, witnessing first-hand some of the genre’s most important artists heading towards their glory.
The photojournalist prides himself on being someone who brings an artist’s first project to life. One particular performance featuring a recently signed The Notorious B.I.G. being flanked on-stage by Puff Daddy and Lil’ Kim proved to be just the boost Mannion needed. He told a white lie to someone at the venue about being the official staff photographer for The Source just to get a better vantage point for his image on-stage.
Mannion believes part of being a successful photographer is being able to seize and capitalize on opportunities on-the-fly. “Whatever you got to say in the moment to get the shot, go for it,” suggests Mannion. “The hustle and desire for full coverage allows me to have special moments that are different. As an artist, creatively you want to explore new ground and really have the ability to keep moving.”
Some other candid moments Mannion shared at CCI were conducting singer/actress Aaliyah’s last photo shoot before her untimely August 2001 death, Eminem (who Mannion refers to as “a method actor”) bringing him garbage bags full of lyric sheets for a spread in XXL Magazine, following Drake to see his grandmother and Lil’ Wayne telling VH-1’s Behind the Music producers to interview Mannion for the rapper’s profile episode.
Mannion is especially proud to have covered the Straight Outta Somewhere campaign, spending anywhere between five-to-12 minutes taking pictures of 100 people in three days. That photo gallery still resides on Times Square.
Surviving the shift from film to digital doesn’t faze Mannion one bit. Admitting that he’s battled with periods of self-doubt, Mannion encourages aspiring photographers to concentrate on their art rather than compete with active social media picture takers. “Don’t compare yourself to anyone else’s journey,” he warns. “Photographers want what people don’t have. It defines their voice. Moments are given to you as gifts. It’s your own footsteps towards being the best you can.”
Mannion was also in Atlanta to donate six portraits to The Art of Organized Noize, an installation celebrating the 20-year career of the legendary Atlanta-based production and songwriting trio. He reiterates a few times the importance of patience and building trust with performers as the foundation for his successful brand.
The living legend additionally suggests to any creator to remain dedicated to their craft and be diligent at all times. “The secret to success is to bust your ass at all times,” assets Mannion. “I’m an artist, but I always want more. I want what’s next. Twenty years of work is an incredible journey. I’m looking 10 years, 20 years down the road. What I’m doing now is a look back.”
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for the Burton Wire. He is also contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.