Jonathan Mannion Gets Personal with Vice
We don’t have to tell you that Jonathan Mannion is one of the most influential photographers in hip hop history. But if you don’t know the details of his story, he recently teamed up with Vice to tell it. In his Vice “Autobiography” we got a full snapshot of who this photographer is and some of the landmarks along the way.
Born to two artists, Jonathan was creatively supported his whole life but didn’t pick up a camera until he was a senior in college. He went straight from assisting Richard Avedon during the day to bringing voice to the hip hop community at night, building inroads for a career that would define the rest of his life. It wasn’t the chance meeting with Notorious B.I.G. (while wearing rollerblades) that tipped him into his professional career, but rather shooting the infamous cover of Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt in his own apartment. He went on to create iconic images from a bloodied DMX who had his own hesitations, to photographing Aaliyah's last professional shoot.
For Jonathan, there’s something special about photographing for the musical world. It’s how they come together that makes it so exciting, “The function of visual mixed with the music,” he explains. He works in a form that is without auditory response to a form that is without visuals, creating a symbiosis of creative work that speaks for itself.
Check out the Vice piece here, some clips below, and enjoy a collection of some of Jonathan Mannion’s most iconic imagery.
Jonathan Mannion and Gucci Mane Make Limitations Work
One of the musical marvels of the last decade is how Gucci Mane was able to continue recording music while serving his time in prison. In the past two years he worked on twelve projects, including work with Young Thug and Migos, all from behind bars. So when he was finally released last month his next course of action was obvious: it was time to release another album. That EP, called Everybody Looking, released in July, includes all new work, and features Drake, Kanye West, and Young Thug. It's a short amount of time to put together an entire project, and considering he's still under house arrest Gucci needed creative collaborators who could work around some real obstacles so he invited Jonathan Mannion to photograph the artwork for it. The house arrest and ankle monitor meant Jonathan and Gucci were limited in what they could do but rather than trying to fit their concept into a keyhole, they exploded it into a fully realized vision.
The wide shoot covered more than just the album; Jonathan and Gucci created imagery for the singles off the album as well. The whole experience shows a series of situations that uses their limitations to their advantage.
One set up finds Gucci in front of a massive, colorful mural. Jonathan didn't work to avoid showing the ankle bracelet. This is what's happening in Gucci's life right now, and what is an album but a snapshot of an artist at a certain point in time? Additionally, it’s the interest of his recent corrections experience that has brought so much incredible attention to this album - the highest charting of his career - so better to embrace this story than to shy from it.
In another set up we find Gucci in his car engulfed in a special kind of luxury reserved for artists of his caliber. This image builds a whole world in what is essentially Gucci's garage, but paints a picture of him that is complete. The entire frame is filled with a relatively small area, but Jonathan was able to tell the whole story.
The fact that Gucci Mane asked Jonathan to photograph this album isn't a surprise, Jonathan has shot some of the most iconic imagery in the history of hip hop. But this was a special project, both because it marks the next phase of Gucci's career but also because it required creative problem solving. Jonathan was the right choice to successfully handle both aspects and balance the logistical needs with the creative.
The Duality of Kendrick Lamar by Jonathan Mannion for Reebok
One of the most tried and true marketing techniques for any brand is the celebrity endorsement, but recently brands have been working with their celebrities in more collaborative ways. Commodities companies, like sneaker company Reebok, can involve their celebrities in a richer way, using heir creative natures to create projects that bridge the gap between the artist’s message and the brand’s capabilities. A few years ago Reebok invited Kendrick Lamar to join them as a brand ambassador that quickly turned into a collaborative relationship, something that Jonathan Mannion not only thinks is a perfect fit, but also made him feel great about photographing the latest campaign for the creative pairing. “The statements he’s making, if you look at the Grammy performance, what he’s done with the album, musicians that he chooses to work with, there’s no disconnect of his messaging as it relates to everything that he’s associating with even if it is involving another brand,” explains Jonathan. “I feel something for the brand and then I see them trying to work with different people and make the right choices, he is the absolute right choice as an artist, as the artist sitting in the throne right now.”
Lamar’s work with Reebok transcends the typical aesthetic choices that celebrities usually bring to their collaborations and instead focuses on a message. The first release focused on trying to create common ground in gang scarred Compton. This time, Jonathan and Reebok wanted to highlight the duality of Lamar’s nature and bring that straight into the visuals. “It’s the calm when you’re creating and you’re in your zone and you’re thinking problems through and that focus, that internal focus,” says Jonathan. “And then your outward persona that you give to the world is this animated, huge, powerful and concentrated message that gets delivered. And so visually we needed to separate those two things. And so the extremes that he took it to within those two categories still within what he was comfortable with, but pushed him right to the edge, and then covered everything else in between.” The imagery brings that almost split personality to the front, while highlighting some very clean shoes.
When it came to getting the photographs, it was easy. Jonathan and Lamar have worked together before so they had something of a shorthand between them. But not only that, Jonathan found a very willing participant in the rapper. “He really listened, he really paid attention, he really responded, and he gave his all,” says Jonathan. For just a few moments, Kendrick Lamar trusted Jonathan with his vision, giving Jonathan the responsibility of creating imagery that would speak for him and his message. The shoes are just a part of what Lamar is doing with his body of work, and now Jonathan in an inexorable part of it.
It's All Love with Jonathan Mannion and Viacom
When Viacom approached Jonathan Mannion to help them with their latest campaign they were really looking for a partner. They had the beginning of an idea, but wanted his input to send it over the top. “They asked, ‘What would you do if we identified the North Star as the fans?’ And I came back with an idea that was, ‘The Circle of Fandom’,” explains Jonathan. In his concept, all fandom is essentially a cycle. The example that he uses is the singer Brandy. Brandy is on BET where she does her things, and her fans watch her because they love her. But she also loves her fans, and loves being a part of BET. And obviously BET loves it all. It becomes an ever moving circle of love and support, creating a community through fandom, and that’s what Jonathan was pursuing in this campaign. “The circular nature of it all coming together was at the core of what we wanted to do,” he says.
There are thousands of fandoms all over the world of people connecting over their shared loves, whether it’s television like at Viacom, or any number of other hobbies. To capture even a tiny slice of the fandoms that touch what Viacom does at BET, Comedy Central, VH1, MTV, it was going to require a monumental undertaking, something that Jonathan doesn’t balk at even a little. But it did mean some packed days. “One day I shot three amazing, beautiful drag queens, Brandy, and then a four year old and his mother,” says Jonathan. “That was my eight-hour chunk of shooting for that day. My ability to react so purely and authentically to the talent that I shoot really allowed for all the images that we created to be so meticulously considered in their final execution.” It’s not enough to merely show up for the shoots, a photographer has to react and be present in every moment, no matter what’s happening on their set. Jonathan rolled with every thing that presented itself and that allowed him to capture moments that might be missed by someone else who isn’t as ready for anything.
Part of the way Jonathan is able to get the images that he does while staying as engaged as he does, is by getting down to the core of what makes his subjects tick and engage with them on a personal, human level. “It’s always about the communication and the rich dialogue that allows us to yield imagery that feels real,” Jonathan explains. “I never want anything that I create to feel stale or gimmicky. So it was pushing people to belt out lyrics at the top of their lungs, and making them laugh, taking them a little bit further than they thought they would go that day.” When Jonathan finds something that surprises him he delivers that straight to us so we can be surprised in exactly the same way.
Jonathan Mannion Thanks All the Moms with VH1
Motherhood is hard. It's complicated. Every child has different needs and offers different challenges, and mothers take on that burden while maintaining and building their own lives. It's an impossible challenge but one we expect of every mother who parents a child. That's why we're sure to take at least one day a year to appreciate what mothers do. Every spring we celebrate Mother's Day as a culture to bring attention to these sacrifices and generosities. This year VH1 put together a concert that celebrates mothers that they called "Dear Mama," after the Tupac Shakur song that celebrated his own mother, Afeni. VH1 invited musicians and stars to celebrate their own mothers on stage and brought in Jonathan Mannion to photograph the performers and attendees in a unique way while they were heading into the event. He met and photographed Alicia Keys, Swizz Beats, Queen Latifah, Rito Ora, Alessia Cara, and the Smith Family, as well as Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “It was amazing to spend that time with that level of talent and to hear the performance that Alicia gave to her mom was spectacular,” says Jonathan about the experience. “It’s an honor to work with this level of brilliance in so many different categories. And to celebrate women and celebrate mothers.”
In a despairing twist of fate, the day of the Dear Mama show Mrs Shakur passed away. The coincidence was lost on no one, least of all Jonathan whose own photograph was used as memorial for Tupac's mother. As Mannion remembers, she was so much more than a mother to one of the most significant rappers in history, she was an activist herself and her work for social justice was worthy of note on its own. He photographed Mrs Shakur years ago in a shoot that he describes as “beautiful,” and that image became the unofficial image of her memory that day and still is.
‘Dear Mama’ was a celebration about all mothers and Jonathan wouldn’t give up the opportunity to express gratitude for his own. “My Mom is the most incredible Mom on the planet. Period,” says Jonathan. “I know many people feel that way about their Mom but pound for pound I’m putting my Mom up against any Mom that has ever lived.” Being a mother is a tireless, impossible job, so the least we can do is thank and remember the Moms that have touched our lives. Thank you.
Jonathan Mannion Gets Behind the Wheel with Gigi Hadid and BMW
Jonathan Mannion has shot more than three hundred album covers for artists from all over the music spectrum. He's shot for some of the biggest names and biggest personalities and there's little that he hasn't seen. So when BMW called for him to shoot a campaign with Gigi Hadid in the Mojave Desert, he didn't bristle for a moment. “I’m extremely war tested. You can’t really put me in a situation that I’m going to be like ‘Oh my god, what do I do?,’” he says with a laugh. “If you can shoot a picture at the highest level you can do it with anybody. It’s really joyful to create with a different energy and I get almost butterflies of excitement.” Jonathan was attracted to the challenge of it, so he jumped right in.
Jonathan’s experience made him a unique choice for a car campaign with a fashion element but it’s his history working with so many large personalities that afforded him the ability to create something for BMW that would encompass everything they were trying to do in the campaign. “As a character I bring a different sensibility than a typical fashion shooter,” explains Jonathan. “And I think it was just a perfect hybrid of the most beautiful environment in the Mojave Desert.” Jonathan engages his subjects on a personal level, understanding that whom he is shooting knows what they’re doing and it’s his connection with them that's going to show up on film. The photographer is a proxy for the audience and Jonathan takes that seriously.
The M2 cars that BMW provided for the shoot were their own rarity. At the time of shooting there were only six of them in the world, and each one was lined up for Jonathan to photograph. That was a total thrill for him, but nothing compared to shooting Gigi. In the last couple years she’s taken over, becoming one of the most sought after models in the world, and Jonathan totally saw why. “Gigi was… she was a dream. And I can see why she’s omnipresent in the marketplace right now, because she was a total pleasure and joy to work with, not to mention kinda cute,” Jonathan says, laughing. “She’s gorgeous.” Gigi is a unique talent in the marketplace, combining a fresh, funky attitude with indelible beauty. It was her personality that BMW wanted to highlight and Jonathan was the perfect choice to blend that with BMW's special cars to create something truly extraordinary.
Jonathan Mannion and Beats By Dre Reflect on More Than Two Decades of Hip Hop
When Jonathan Mannion arrived in New York City in 1993, he came to start working on his photography career, but part of what he brought with him from Clevland Ohio was a deep passion for the world of hip hop. His musical tastes represented a pantheon of styles and genres, but what he found in Hip Hop was unparalleled. The genre in that form was relatively new to scene having been focused by the formation of N.W.A. just a few years earlier, and Jonathan’s early interest meant that he was able to secure access to figures in that scene that would help shape the furture of his career. “I was honing my craft working for major photographers like Steven Klein and Richard Avedon, but still chasing and pursuing what I had incredible access to in New York which was the music scene,” explains Jonathan. “I was able to craft and contribute because my formal training in photography and my love for the music. So it really became about storytelling and telling the richest story and making these people that I admired so much for their musical talent look incredible.” A little over twenty years later, as Hip Hop has become the dominant musical force in the world, we’re starting to take stock of that history and understand where it began. The release of ‘Straight Outta Compton’ is another step towards the popular understanding of this incredibly influential community, and Jonathan Mannion was the natural choice for Beats By Dre’s campaign promoting the film.
‘Straight Outta Compton’ is technically a biopic in that it is a movie that dramatizes the actual events that took place in the late 1980s with the formation of N.W.A. and the creation of the eponymous EP. But Hip Hop’s roots are of contention, struggle, and more than anything the need to be heard. These are issues that are as present today as they were back then, and it’s been the responsibility of the film and production to do justice to them. “I really think that they nailed the feeling, the style, the emotion in the movie. These are young kids that were doing something that was absolutely groundbreaking for the world, and then realized their voice in the process,” says Jonathan. “I just think that awareness, and certainly there’s a ways to go with everything we’re seeing, but it brings some of these issues right to the forefront that I would say this generation is so passionate about.” As Jonathan tells it, when they were putting together the campaign with Beats that would ultimately feature 100 different artists, athletes, and influencers, the point wasn’t about focusing on product, but instead paying homage to how N.W.A. reshaped the scene and made space for a company like Beats By Dre possible.
By taking the title ‘Straight Outta Compton,’ N.W.A. put forth a hypothesis stating how influential a hometown can be for an artist, a creator, a person. Jonathan completely agrees with this statement as he’s seen it in his own life. “I’m from Cleveland and that built me and formed me into a certain type of individual,” says Jonathan. “So what was really at the core of this idea were these major artists, influencers, athletes, and tastemakers claiming where they’re from as part of the growth of who they’ve become.”
At the end of a shoot that included one hundred different subjects, Jonathan was tired, hungry, but most of all thankful. “To be part of something like this one can only be grateful, you know you’re part of something special,” he says.
We've included a behind the scenes video from the shoot with Beats By Dre where you can see artists like Stalley, Warren G, Bow Wow, and Omarion talking about how awesome it was to work with Jonathan and extolling his virtues. Well deserved, of course.
We are thrilled to welcome Jonathan Mannion to the roster at B&A. Check out his portfolio here.