Jonathan Mannion Tells All: The Stories Behind His 25 Favorite Album Covers

#1. Jay-Z, Reasonable Doubt (1996)

Other works include: In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life, Vol. 3... Life And Times Of Shawn Carter, The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, The Blueprint, The Black Album

Jonathan Mannion: “When I shot Reasonable Doubt, I was 25 years old. I had just arrived in New York in 1993, when I was 22. At the time, I had some formal apprenticeships, where I was assisting some master photographers, like Richard Avadon and Steven Klein. I was just learning the craft, from a very traditional viewpoint.

“Looking back, I wasn’t nervous at all. It felt like I could finally do what had been in my heart for so long. This was a chance to really create with someone who put a lot of trust in me, and I rose to the occasion.

 

When Dame Dash told me that I had gotten the job, he asked me how much I was going to charge him. I told him, ‘$300 less than your lowest bid.’ He looked at me like I had four heads.

 

“Instantly, I understood the way he ticked. I was born the day before him, a year later. So we have that same Sagittarius mentality, a little bit. We operate from the same disposition, so we always saw eye-to-eye. He knew that music was what he needed to focus on. So he needed to find someone that he could trust, with the same passion and the same drive.

“Jay already had a certain level of sophistication, at that point. He was already starting to separate himself from the pack and do things differently. I respected him as an artist, because I’d heard ‘Dead Presidents’ before it was released and knew that he was out of here. So based on the music, I knew I had to give my all, because I knew what it meant to be associated with this project.

“Originally, that album was going to be called Heir To The Throne. So I had a list of ideas that I had gone home and researched. My mother’s from London, so I kind of knew where to go for referencing of things like old kings and monarchies. I was going to try and conceptually take him down that path.

“When he changed the name, he called me into the office. He said, ‘Look, I switched up. It’s now called Reasonable Doubt.’ I said, ‘OK. Well, I have all these references.’ and he told me, ‘That’s crazy. That would have been dope. Now, you’ve got to do it again.’ I said, ‘OK. Let’s do it again.’

“He told me, he didn’t really know what he wanted. So I suggested we go to the foundation and go old-school reasonable doubt. He was giving me references, thinking of going the Scarface route. That’s where the visuals were at that time.

“I told him, ‘Don’t worry about the Versace linens and the silk-shirts blowing in the breeze, with the drug-running boats. Stay Brooklyn. Go John Gotti, mafia, surveillance.’ It sparked something with him.

“I came back with a new set of information. The vibe was perfect, and it came from great references. I brought in books, like Evidence, by Luc Sante. It’s full of old police photos and murder-scenes from the 30s and 40s. That’s where I wanted to go with it. Visually, it was amazing to see that level of photography, and that’s how I wanted to get Jay.

“When Dame Dash told me on a Thursday that I had gotten the job, he asked me how much I was going to charge him. I told him, ‘$300 less than your lowest bid.’ He looked at me like I had four heads. He said, ‘OK, but you have to shoot on Saturday.’ I told him, ‘No problem. You just have to cover my expenses. Let’s go, I’m ready to rock.’

“I told them to bring some cool shit, like bread and guns, and a loose framework of what to dress in, and they came styled and ready to go. Jay came to my apartment and sat in the living room. It was a bachelor pad that a couple of guys and I were staying in, on 72nd and Riverside. That’s where Trump has his empire now.

“We shot it on the roof of the building. Back then, it was all busted and beat up, and it fit the vibe. I knew I could get some beautifully composed shots, based on traditional cameras. So I was shooting with Hasselblads and Rolleiflexes, like press photographers did back in the Civil Rights era.

“That marked a point of departure for me, because that was the first album cover that I had ever done. We kind of took off at the same time, and because I went so hard on that cover, I was able to shoot eight more albums with him over the next ten years.”

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