As soon as Jonathan Mannion started hanging photos in the lobby of Dream South Beach, curious onlookers began walking up and asking who had taken so many portraits of hip-hop and R&B legends.
"They would say, 'Wow, that's Biggie onstage,'" he says. "And I would say, 'Yeah, it was 1995; I was 24 years old.' So many people wouldn't guess I'm the photographer because I just look like some schlep who is hanging the stuff."
Mannion is, in fact, a celebrated portrait photographer originally from Cleveland, Ohio, who has shot more than 300 album covers for hip-hop artists, including Jay-Z, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, Outkast, and Ludacris. He is rolling out a collection of 665 Polaroid photos — including never-before-seen shots — of hip-hop and R&B royalty as part of Art Basel 2018. Dream South Beach will host a viewing of Mannion's work Wednesday, December 5, followed by a Q&A and reception on the hotel's rooftop. The exhibition runs through Sunday, December 9.
The show's title, "It Was All a Dream," is a reference to the Notorious B.I.G.'s opening lyrics to the classic joint "Juicy" and to Mannion himself living the dream for the past 25 years. At the age of 48, he is finally pausing to reflect on the stories behind the photographs.
"Now the importance is telling the stories," he says, "which is why it's a perfect time to share the photos and allow people to ask, 'Oh my God, that's Aaliyah — what was she like?' I'm as much a storyteller and historian as I am a photographer."
New Times: How did you get into this unusual career of hip-hop photography?
Mannion: For whatever reason, I really gravitated to hip-hop. I loved the music, from Big Daddy Kane to N.W.A back in the late '80s. I dove right in and started growing with the culture as it was growing, but it was certainly an underground movement then; it hadn't yet amassed the power it has today as the dominant force in music and pop culture. Hip-hop infuses everything now, even the biggest stars on the planet. But back in 1993, when I moved to New York, it was still this undercurrent. I wanted to contribute to the elevation of the art form, but I wasn't an MC. I couldn't rhyme, I didn't want to be a manager, so I had to figure what my contribution would be. As the son of two artists, I knew it was a creative endeavor. For me, it was about storytelling and exploring the artists as people. I separated myself by saying, "Let's go to where you grew up. Take me to your grandmother's house. What has meaning to you?" Because I wanted a richer story, I endeared myself to a lot of the artists.
Most fans of rap probably have no idea that one person is responsible for so many iconic album covers, from Outkast's Stankonia to Jay-Z's Reasonable Doubt. How did you become the go-to photographer for so many rappers?
I chased it because album covers were always going to be attached to the music. When it's all said and done, the music is going to live on. There is a visual attached to the music that will forever represent the bigger picture of the project. I felt it was more permanent than magazines, though you can get phenomenal pictures from those opportunities. But the album covers were special to me because it was telling their story in their words, not through a magazine that had an agenda or a gimmick.
Speaking of the storytelling aspect of album covers, one of your projects that stands out is Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP. That image of him curled up on the ground seems to represent the origin of his Slim Shady character.
Originally, The Marshall Mathers LP was going to be called Amsterdam. At that time in Em's life, he was very experimental and taking substances to allow himself an altered reality to create within. So I said, "We've got to go to Amsterdam. Let's get on a plane and go." That photo of him curled up was actually shot in Amsterdam, and it was one of the last shots of the day. He went fully into the character, almost like a Method actor. He was there in his boxer shorts, a trench coat, and combat boots in the freezing cold and drizzling rain. You can see pills on the ground; we were really focused on every small detail. He's an artist who really knows what he wants and collaborates beautifully. The Marshall Mathers LP was a moment of understanding how he wanted to tell his own story.
A lot of hip-hop personalities are portrayed as these larger-than-life characters. Ludacris, for example, is almost a cartoon version of himself.
It's self-imposed sometimes; Ludacris did that video where he had that tiny body and giant bobblehead. And, look, that takes supreme confidence, to take those creative chances and sort of poke fun at yourself. The brave ones, I think, are rewarded. With Luda, he took a chance and created this memorable image that you and I reference out of thin air. He's always been willing to push his animation to the limits, even in the photos I've done with him.
Of the hundreds of artists you've worked with, did any of them surprise you with their real-life demeanor?
There is one picture at the Dream show of Scarface from the Geto Boys. He had an album out called The Untouchable, and I was just certain he was going to show up in a suit and be all polished and kind of thugged-out. They came to pick me up in this green Range Rover. I'm sitting in the back seat with Scarface and he says, "Hey, man, play my tune." And the driver puts on Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets." I'm like, Wait a minute, who is this guy? Why is he playing the same songs my dad played when I was little?
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You have slowed down in terms of album cover credits over the past several years. How are you approaching this new chapter of your career?
I don't feel like I've slowed down; I feel like the focus changes. I'm in a place now where I'm looking back at a body of work. I never stopped to do that before; it was always about generating more. I'm working on a book next year, so I'm focused on mining the gold from what I've done. Naturally, photographers have to stop because it's an arduous and crazy process. So it's not like I'm turning down the volume knob; I just have a responsibility to show the world what the last 25 years looked like at the highest level of hip-hop.
"It Was All A Dream." Wednesday, December 5, through Sunday, December 9, at Dream South Beach, 1111 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; dreamhotels.com/southbeach. Q&A begins at 6 p.m. Wednesday; reception follows at 7. RSVP via email@example.com.