Interpreting Jay’s style is such an important part of this particular shoot. Can you expand on that?
I moved to NY in 1993 and worked with some photography greats: Richard Avedon, Steven Klein, Ben Watt and a handful of others. At the same time, I was in love and a huge supporter of hip hop culture. So after a grueling day of assisting, usually 7am-9pm, I would then head off to the club and I always brought my camera. This is where I saw some of the most incredible style and Jay Z was a big part of that. I believed in the art form and chose it as my subject matter. I wanted to contribute to the culture and so storytelling became my focus. The run that I had with Jay is really unparalleled. He really trusted me to bring his vision to life. Because of that trust, I know that our relationship is built on loyalty. Shooting everything from Reasonable Doubt to The Black album, growing with Jay on his journey. We knew what we were making and we executed on it. Blueprint 2 was the only Jay album I didn’t shoot and I felt ok about that. When I got the call, I was with Nas on a beach in Miami shooting the cover for “God’s Son,” and I was like “Nas, we’re gonna send this thing to outer space.”
But really, I think the Reasonable Doubt shoot was all about articulating Jay’s vibe at that moment. And a lot of that was based on New York City. The hip hop scene was building and it was an underground movement that would grow into popular culture.
What was the vibe like with Jay, Dame and Biggs on the set that day?
Everyone was really focused, but also a lot of laughter. I was really in the zone getting everything set up and correct so I didn’t hear all of the inside conversations. It was a tight crew. Reasonable Doubt was a pure voice. Tata and Emory, everyone, they were presenting real life in New York at the time. I remember them making fun of Dame for having this little-ass gun calling it a “pea shooter.” There was a real bond between these guys. They didn’t follow rules. I don’t think they knew what the rules were and didn’t care. Biggs and Dame brought a stack of cash, all rubber banded in a specific way. So, when the shoot was done and it was just Biggs and Dame and Dame picked up one of the stacks and peeled off $1300. And there was the beginning of the career of Jonathan Mannion (laughs).
You and Jay have had a close working relationship ever since that first album shoot. You talk about a “Boop” moment. Can you expand on that?
There was supreme confidence to Jay, but also a humility. It was just the right amount of cocky. One day when I was visiting Roc-A-Fella on John street, he walked out of his office and just walks over to me and gave me a pound and verbalized this “boop.” And it was just so light-hearted and funny. In the moment, I understood who Jay was. And he knew who he was. He was who he was. And it was unapologetic. There was hustle and bustle in that office and energy and 16-year-old kids working on the street team. They knew they were building something important, and it was a family.
What was your research for this shoot?
I studied Marcy Houses and went out and shot the murals there and tried to see the world from Jay’s perspective. I wanted to see what Jay saw looking outwards from Marcy. Jay told me that being able to go home was always important to him.