In our series, Contact High: The Stories Behind Hip Hop’s Most Iconic Photographs, writer Vikki Tobak talks with those who have played critical roles in shaping hip hop imagery. They offer a rare glimpse of the creative process that went into the making of each photo.
Getting access to the original and unedited contact sheets, we see the ‘big picture’ being created can look look directly through the photographer’s lens. Photographers typically don’t show their contact sheets. They’re a visual diary. Film negatives on a roll of analog film allowed these photographers (and now us) to see the full range of images in order to develop the “money shot.”
For our latest installment, photographer Jonathan Mannion tells us what it was like to shoot a young Hov for the rapper’s debut album Reasonable Doubt…
What defines a legacy? In a recent radio interview, Jonathan Mannion was asked if he believes that photographers — just like producers, artists, and lyricists — have a responsibility to define the times they are documenting. The answer was an astounding yes. In 1996, Mannion, in his first major commission, was hired to take photos for Shawn “Jay Z” Carter’s debut studio album Reasonable Doubt. June marks the 20th anniversary of that seminal LP — both the landmark album and the visuals created by Mannion have stood the test of time.
Not unlike the artists he photographs, Mannion has a swaggering bravado, a trait that comes from an earned confidence after many years photographing just about every important hip hop artist in the game. The magnitude, not to mention organization, of Mannion’s photography archive is intense. You can’t knock the hustle. With a camera in hand and a serious love of hip hop in his heart, Mannion moved from Cleveland to New York in 1993 to work with the legendary Richard Avedeon. The days were long and putting in work as an assistant was grueling. Mannion would set out at night to the clubs of hip hop’s golden era to take photos and vibe out. It was at a downtown venue that he first snapped a photo of Jay Z. A few years later, their artistic partnership for Reasonable Doubt would set the tone for what has become a decades long visual collaboration.
Originally, the Reasonable Doubt album was to be called Heir to the Throne. As the first release on Roc-A-Fella Records, the LP represents what many believe is the crowning jewel of Jay’s contribution to hip hop, even 20 years later. Jay and his crew – Kareem “Biggs” Burke and Damon Dash and production team (DJ Clark Kent, DJ Premier, Ski) – created what would become his magnum opus, a debut considered by many hip-hop fans to be a lyrical force. The singular album from Marcy House’s native son has not only stood the test of time, but also defined Hova’s legacy.
As the release date of the album neared, Mannion set to work meticulously creating a set of visual references for the album but a couple days later Jay came to him with a different vision. He wanted to scale down from the growing flossy flashy trend in hip hop at the time and instead wanted a real New York power moment—simple and determined. The resulting cover portrait for Reasonable Doubt shows a clean black and white image of the underworld gangster luminary who had nothing to prove.
The cover would be shot on the roof of Mannion’s apartment building on West 72nd and Riverside in upper Manhattan. Jay Z arrived with Dame and Biggs. Mannion recalls the light being spectacular and advised Jay to go with a black-and-white cover since nobody was really shooting in black-and-white. One of the few other albums that came out around that time in black-and-white was De La Soul’s Stakes Is High album. The stretch of Manhattan’s Westside is where Trump’s buildings are lined up in all of their dystopian glory. Now, in this moment, it was Jay’s turn to express his empire state of mind.
Mannion and Jay’s artistic partnership just might represent the longest partnership between a photographer and a hip hop artist with Mannion shooting every one of Jay’s album covers except Blueprint 2, which was shot by Albert Watson.
Mannion is a contact sheet nerd and proud of it. Here he takes us through the creation of the Reasonable Doubt album cover…
Jonathan Mannion: I am so fortunate to have reshot his album cover for Reasonable Doubt. The first time I ever met Jay Z was in the back of this downtown club during an Eazy E tribute. I remember Supernatural performed and I set up this whole photo studio in the back of the club. I expected Jay to be a bit flashier but he was really on the humble. I shot a quick shot and that was it. A short time after, Kasha Payne from Roc-a-Fella called me and she was like, “bring your ass down here, Jay’s doing an album and you should go for this.”
I was determined to get that job. Jay really wanted the people to discover things for themselves. At the time, stylistically guys were rocking Versace suits and linen, all the fly guys were rocking that. And I was like let’s do this different. Think Brooklyn. True bosses that move in silence, a sort of mafia vibe. Running shit. That was the mentality I applied to the album. It was a conceptual move because we used thorough references. I brought them a book called Evidence by Luc Sante which had all these black and white images of forensic evidence photographs taken by the NYPD between 1914 and 1918. I brought him references that were art books. I was serious. Lets go to Marcy Projects. Take me to apartment 4B. What is your life like? How do I turn that to art? How do I interpret your everyday into art?
Something I love about photography is that you get to document something in real time that will never be the same again. I mean people are rocking flattops now and medallions but people back then did it for different reasons. A photographers dream is to get truly intimate access. For the Reasonable Doubt shoot, I thought I’m gonna do whatever it takes and do it with integrity. Photographers have a responsibility to tell the truth. If I shoot a shot of Jay Z super serious then laughing then posturing….all three of those photos are a true statement. Its taken me speaking to Biggs again to get some reflection on the session. I was so focused on getting the imagery and everything falls away. I was a 25 year-old-kid, never having done an album cover. I said I’m gonna do it for $300 less than your lowest bid. It was bigger than the money for me. It was really irrelevant. Jay approves of the creative…and I knew that was my one shot. This was on a Thursday and the shoot was scheduled for Saturday. I left and panicked.
It was my first ever album cover and its now legendary. Every single roll and frame continues to tell the story.
I have a system for going through my contact sheets. If there’s a star next to an image that means i like it. If there’s a star and a square, that means I like it a lot. So I went through this contact sheet and marked it up and once it got to to the rest of team, i think we all felt strongly about certain images. I wanted every single image we chose to give you the real impression of who Jay-Z was. I initially really wanted to take him to Little Italy and shoot surveillance kind of shots, but these streamlined black and whites were more authentic and stylized.
The Camera Nerd Out
My go-to when I shot hip hop in the clubs was Nikon, but during the day I shot on large format Rolliflex and Hasselblad. For the Reasonable Doubt cover I used Hasselblad with an 80mm lens, a Pentax 67 with a 90mm lens and a Konica Press. All daylight, no flash.
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.
Talk a bit about the pose, was there a moment you knew you had “the shot”?
Jay always knew who he was and was always comfortable in his own skin. And, as a photographer, so am I. Jay and I were born one day apart. I was born December 3rd and he’s December 4th. So yeah I knew we had the shot.
What do you shoot on now? Do you still make contact sheets? What percentage do you think you shoot film vs. digital?
I shoot mostly digital now with the Hasselblad IQ250 and The Leica S2. Polaroid 195 Land Camera is my favorite camera of all time. When I do personal projects I shoot analog. I shot Pele in an 8×10 format. If I’m shooting film, please know that you’re special (laughs).
What do you miss about early analogue photography and the contact sheet/dark room process?
It was in the darkroom that I fell in love with photography. I knew it was chemistry and science but you couldn’t tell me it was not magic.
Do you think hip hop photography changed over the years?
Photography is all about capturing a defining moment. Reasonable Doubt Jay Z is different than Jay Z today. Black Album Jay Z is different than any other time of his career. And that’s what makes it special. We are documenting history and it’s all part of a larger, ongoing conversation. I feel so blessed to be contributing to this.