For the past two decades, Jonathan Mannion has photographed a laundry list of rappers and R&B singers creating a portfolio jam packed with some of the most iconic pictures in hip-hop history. He has created album covers for the likes of Jay-Z, Eminem and Aliyah to name a few. Mannion is among the most important photographers to ever set a lens on hip-hop.
What made you fall in love with hip-hop?
I’ve always been a music lover ever since I was little. I’ve gone through every phase of loving 80’s pop music. My parents definitely had music playing in the house but it was like Elton Johnand Bread. So that was the foundation. When I started deciding what I was going to listen to I sort of went into the Alternative space so like Depeche Mode, the cure and new order and that kind of stuff. That was my foundation. When I was in highschool. There was a kid in my English class that was like ‘yo, you need to check this out,’ and he put headphones on me. It had so many classics, or what I know now as classics. Like Dana Dane, Kool Moe D and Slick Rick. I was like, ‘oh my god. What is this?’ It immediately opened this portal into what would really grow into a total love of hip-hop music.
You said your early favorites included a lot of 80’s pop. Through your time working in hip-hop you got a chance to see it really blossom into pop culture. What has that experience been like?
It’s been an honor to be a part of the movement on such a critical level. When you close your eyes and think about a picture of Jay-Z or DMX or even Outkast-- nine times out of ten it’s probably a Manion photo. My contribution of visuals and storytelling is really a gift from God through me to the world. To be able to really showcase these incredible talents, to really give the world an authentic story was really the goal at all times. Looking back at a 20 year career, it’s a special feeling to look back and be like, ‘I’m really apart of this and you can never erase me from it.’ There is never a moment that I’m slacking because I know that these images are going to last forever as a representation of who we are in this moment and who will always be. I wanted to create timeless images that last forever.
What’s the most important connection you’ve made during your time working in hip-hop?
I think the most important connection that I make is with my subjects. It’s a connection in that you are making something with an artist and that connection yields a final product. There is no separation. The camera is just a tool for documenting. I would say that’s the critical component is the connection between you and the subject.
Making human connection seems to be such a key component of what you do. Is that something that came naturally or is that something that you had to work on?
I’ve always been pretty comfortable in my own skin. I’m a people person. I was a psychology and art major. It was always about understanding people and what makes them tick. What makes them allow their guard down? You have to get a performance. What makes them laugh so you get a documentation of real laughter versus a fake smile. The psychology of the shooting is always something I like to speak about. One of the gifts too is that I’m not star struck. I feel like I have an equal role in that room at that time. I think those two things have allowed me to have a very rich and robust career with people that actually appreciate me and what I do for them.
What’s the most important thing you had to learn early on in your career as photographer?
Patience. I’m an incredibly patient human being when it comes to people’s time. And I think you have to be waiting for rappers (laughing). They show up seven hours late sometimes. These guys have a lot of demand on them. But early in my career I wanted to have the opportunities that certain people were getting. There were great shooters out there and there are still are some today. But I just felt there were people working that weren’t really delivering what I knew what I wanted to give that artist based on loving the music or loving the vibe. I felt like people were phoning it in. Maybe they were or maybe they just didn’t have another gear. I knew my time was coming and it was just about being patient while passionately moving forward in the direction of my dreams.
Are than any people that you haven't worked with yet that you are itching to work with?
I have to go back to the legends. My answer has always been the same and I’m going to
continue to put this energy out there. But I plan to chase it with a little more focus. Sade is a person that I would love to shoot the most. She doesn’t give a lot of photoshoots. And I just think she is one of the most classic, beautiful, soulful, connected to a higher power artists that we have experienced. I would love to work with Kendrick again. He is a brilliant cat. The Mighty Outkast again anytime. Chance the Rapper I’m digging right now. I would love to spend some time with him and get a least a couple of shots. J. Cole because I was supposed to work on his album but it ended up being the bad timing. I would like to work with Drake again too. I get where he is at right now and he is on fire. I want to work with people that want to work with me and are going to allow me to do what I want to do for them.