In Conversation with Jonathan Mannion
Milk Studios Gallery Director Song Chong sat down with long-time friend and photographer, Jonathan Mannion, at Fedora in New York City to discuss his life and his upcoming photography exhibit at Milk Gallery.
Rough Around the Edges: The 665 Polaroid Work of Jonathan Mannion runs June 18th – July 7th.
Song Chong: I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about your childhood and how you came upon photography. I know you come from a family of creativity and artists, so how much did that influence your decision to go into photography?
Jonathan Mannion: I don’t think that there was a definitive moment for me where I decided okay, I’m going to do photography. I begged to get into a class because I felt it was going to be cool and somehow I got attached to it. Little did I know how firmly I would grasp photography my final year.
JM: The professor was amazing, a gentleman named Greg Spade. He was super encouraging and allowed me the freedom to create. I was encouraged to create and explore composition all throughout my life. I watched my parents paint and draw. There was no disconnect between me as an artist and what was being created. It was totally unconscious for me.
My other side, which is actually probably a more valuable component that I bring to the table, was being a psychology major.
You know, I think the moment that I shot my first roll of film and developed it was of a kid named Chase Smith. I shot him on a basketball court. I went on top of the rim and shot down, so it was through the hoop of him dunking over and over. I totally thought I was going to fall off because this kid could throw down. And that was the moment I was like, wow, what a way to deal with people, what a way to connect, what a way to make a moment that can never be deleted. There was a moment when I had to choose, okay let me give this a try, because a guy named Richard Avedon offered me a position.
SC: So at a young age, you leave the comforts of home, the American Midwest, and you come to the big city. You have this opportunity to work with (basically) the most legendary portrait photographer of the 20th century…as far as I’m concerned.
JM: Totally agree. So working with Avedon, I arrive as the smallest fish in the biggest pond in my mind. I think the biggest thing I took away from that was learning the business. Like, how are the biggest jobs in the entire world being achieved by this one gentleman? Pirelli calendars, Versace campaigns. How does he deal with the client? How many crew members does it take to make a photo? All of these things were brand new to me.
SC: After you had this year with Avedon, how did you make the segway into the work that you’re now most famous for?
JM: I moved here in ’93. It was interesting to mark my arrival with the release of the Wu-Tang album. There’s a lot of big 20-year milestones that are happening. Mine’s in August, August 3rd. I think that was the day that I actually arrived in New York to take this position. And that’s right when it dropped. It was an amazing moment in New York City, where the access was unbelievable. I think that was the biggest thing that got me in because I was omnipresent.
So after working for Avedon, at 9 o’clock I would go eat the single piece of pizza that I could afford and I would be out in the clubs with cameras. At Palladium watching Biggie perform, with Ill Al Skratch at Esso’s. I did the run because I could get in. I felt that I needed to be seen twice as much as everybody else to prove my worth, but also to generate an incredible body of work at the same time.
I am going to be part of this community, but I can’t rap, I don’t want to be a manager and I don’t want to babysit anybody. I have a different skill set and I need to apply it at the highest level. No more seamless background papers, let’s tell richer stories.
SC: Real stories.
JM: Yeah and true to them. Take people back to the heart of where they came from. Jay-Z we took to Brooklyn, went back to Marcy. Eminem was shot in Detroit or conceptually shot in Amsterdam, you know when it was the Red Light District and that debauchery. It was real concepts that we were playing with.
SC: You always have this reportage approach, I think, with a lot of your imagery. And there is a level of truthfulness to the kinds of images you take. I feel that hip-hop artists today have become so aware of their media presence and their celebrity, visual persona. So I wonder if you would actually have the same access to a lot of these people that you had with Eminem, Jay-Z and DMX?
JM: Yeah, there’s no way it would have been the same. Even back then, being in the club, I always felt–and I still feel this way–that I have the ability to talk to anybody. I am comfortable enough in who I am as an artist and as a person to talk to somebody if I respond to a moment. I ask for it. They say no? I asked and I tried. I think people knew back in ’93 that something was building, it just felt like something. The OGs of the industry, like a heavy D, the people that were really kind of moving and edging things forward because of their experience from ’88/’89, which was another branch of the movement, really kicked in all the doors for Wu-Tang to arrive and for Biggie to emerge on the scene. It was really just that moment in ’93 that birthed what everybody knows to be hip-hop today.
SC: Yeah, there are two culture pushes, I feel, with hip-hop. There’s that mid-seventies to late-seventies push, and then it happens. I agree with you that the late-eighties and the early-nineties were a whole different cultural push. It was more about The Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Zulu Nation, and being culturally aware of where the music was coming from. I actually miss that about hip-hop. I’m always sort of ruing the days that people don’t make music like that anymore.
JM: Sure, yeah I mean it’s totally a different spirit. You said it right.
SC: This is change, right?
JM: Yeah, of course. Now it is just big business. I think that’s part of it.
SC: It really is a big business.
JM: Yeah. It’s so hard, but you’re making these stars. Oh I found this kid who can sing, now I’m going to get behind him and we’re going to move this thing forward. And through connections, Justin Bieber arrives on the scene. Talented, you know. Mega-crazy star. The most talented kid ever to touch the stage? Absolutely not.
SC: I think Michael Jackson or Stevie Wonder might get that prize. I think Stevie Wonder might win that actually. Just saying.
JM: I mean it’s insane the depth of talent that was on the scene at that time.
SC: I think that’s actually what’s so remarkable about your career. Everybody knows your pictures. Whether or not they know Jonathan Mannion took this picture, everybody knows your pictures. And I think that’s something really remarkable. To say that you might not know who I am, but I’m willing to bet that if you flip through your iPod you have at least 15 of my album covers, right? At least.
JM: It’s crazy. I did an interview the other day and it was like you probably have shot more album covers than anybody in the history of album covers. Granted, it’s in a certain lane and it’s in a certain musical genre, but I was like…is that true, can you try and find out? I don’t know how many album covers I’ve done. I know it’s over 200.
SC: And they used to be packages, right? It wasn’t just covers.
JM: God, I wish I lived in a time when it was like record sleeves. Then it was like the image was so important. People would spend the time and would really think about it. There are certain shoots where you just don’t have the opportunity. These artists are so busy and I think that’s also why I put the pressure on. I’m going to make you look great and they know it. A Jonathan Mannion session is a dedicated, clear and focused journey. I’m not going to let anybody down because I wont let myself down.
I always wanted something to be lasting. A couple of things: my objective in shooting these artists was to take the definitive portrait of that person in that moment. When you close your eyes, think about a picture of Jay-Z. Close your eyes and think about DMX. What do you see? I’d see my blood.
SC: Yeah. Exactly.
JM: Okay, cool. That’s me. Alright now close your eyes and think about Eminem.
SC: The curtain. The red curtain.
JM: Eminem show. That’s me. Jay-Z, Reasonable Doubt. People who have actually followed the work obviously have the benefit of knowing it a little more intimately. I think I quickly learned my role that I was documenting it on the rise. And my dedication. There was no separation between my personal work and my job work, what I did to earn a living–they were synonymous. I didn’t go home and shoot a still life of acorns or fruit after I was done. That’s not me. It became about how do I get complete coverage of the genre.
SC: Right. My favorite Robert Frost quote is: “Lucky is the man who is able to have his vocation be his avocation.” I think that’s such a powerful statement and I think you’ve been able to do that. I think you are a lucky man because you have been able to do that.
JM: Absolutely. It’s not without its struggles. It looks very glamorous from the outside, like a duck swimming on top of the water, but underneath its paddling like shit!
SC: Nice. Last question. You said the one person you wish you photographed was Tupac Shakur, is there anybody else?
JM: Bob Marley. Bob and I would have had fun, man.
SC: Thank you.
Photos by Andrew Boyle