Who Shot Ya?: Jonathan Mannion
Stories from behind the camera.
Proud as we are of the way SLAM reads, we know the biggest reason we’ve lasted 20 years is how the mag looks. To celebrate some of our most memorable photo shoots we spoke to the great photographers who made them happen.
by Peter Walsh
SLAM has been bringing the stories of players to the forefront for two decades, but rarely do we get to hear from the people behind the lens who provide the iconic shots that will live on long after the player’s career is over. Between the phone calls, e-mails, scheduling, cancellations, and moody subjects, the amount of work it takes to get the perfect shot is one of the toughest aspects of bringing you the best in basketball month after month, and year after year.
The relationship between Jonathan Mannion and SLAM was a match made in heaven. Not only is he one of the greatest hip-hop photographers of all time, he is never afraid to take risks to put out the best possible product—a shared trait that has pushed both SLAM and Mannion to amazing heights over the past 20 years. During the mid-’90s, Jonathan was shooting many a classic cover art for some of the top MCs in the game, including DMX’s Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood and Jay-Z’s first four album covers. His work with the world’s biggest rappers gave him clout when he transitioned to shooting ballers for SLAM. Jonathan’s gritty style and hip-hop influence paired perfectly with SLAM’s vision and his work with SLAM is some of the best in the history of the publication.
To view more of Jonathan’s work, check out www.jonathanmannion.com.
On shooting the “Showbiz and KG” cover for SLAM 21…
I think my first adventure [with SLAM] was shooting Stephon Marbury and KG when they both played for the Timberwolves. That shoot had a special feel to it because there was such a camaraderie that existed between the two of them. At that moment, it was sort of this birthing of the bad boy of basketball, sort of that Iverson moment when basketball became more hip-hop. I have a theory: every basketball player wants to be a rapper and every rapper wants to be a basketball player.
It was a moment where the players started breaking out and developing these bigger than life personas. This was a moment when hip-hop started to really, truly influence what was happening in the League with tattoos and all that kind of stuff. Everyone had a chance to be themselves, and a lot of players were influenced by hip-hop, which was moving into the limelight.
Luckily for me, I was shooting Jay-Z and all these big people, so [when I was shooting players they would say], “Oh my God, we got this kid [who has worked with rappers]. Now we gotta put on a show and perform.” It was this beautiful storm of all of this happening at once and it really kicked off with that cover.
I still have a picture of KG that is the illest ever of him with this crazy chain on and his shirt off while he’s doing this weird muscle pose. I asked for a couple other moments like, “Yo, can you take your shirt off man? I just want to see that fuckin’ crazy chain.”
I think they were into it because they knew it was something outside of this NBA photographer shooting against a seamless pink backdrop for a picture that would be used for the NBA Cares or the United Way or whatever. It was something that felt cool and when you look back at SLAM Magazine in general, it opened up the ability for people to be seen in that different light.
On how his style works for shooting hip-hop artists and ballers…
It’s strange, man, when you’re doing album covers there’s always those six or seven shots that you go for in a day that cover a range of activity. Around that time, [my style] was taking people home. I would shoot Outkast in Atlanta so they got to show me their spots and things that were important to them. That was always my agenda, to shoot people where memories were attached because then the picture became more important. It wasn’t the person posted on some City Hall steps that are just cool looking steps but mean nothing to the person. I always tried to attach on a deeper level. [I would say,] “Let’s go to where your grandmother would do your braids or cornrows when you were six or whatever it was. Or, let’s go to where your girl lived and you thought you were a mack.”
I always liked that application and mindset so I always tried to shoot NBA players the same way. Obviously these people are on the road all the time, sometimes you’re at the mercy of their schedule but I would always try and showcase the true essence of who they are. Not for their skillsets—obviously there were certain requests that came in from the building—but of them trying to be themselves. That was also more my vision as a photographer. Things were always a little rougher around the edges [when I shot]. The fact that I came from shooting album covers probably gave me a different structure than they experienced before.
On shooting Ron Artest after the ‘Malice at the Palace’ for SLAM 90…
This was a moment where there was a crazy press and publicity machine that was following him around. Literally the press person told me, “We want him smiling in every shot.”
They wanted a DisneyLand approach to try and sweep it under the carpet and no one was going to believe that. So I thought, Why don’t we just take beautiful images that will make a statement on a deeper level? My dream would have been to shoot him with a thousand empty cups around him. Before the whole group rolled up, I saw that there were these little plastic see-through Solo cups there so I scattered them all around just sort of randomly. When he showed up, I did one shot against the wall and he seemed like the happiest guy alive. [For another shot] I was like, “Hey man, can I shoot you on the bench? Just lay over here.”
I think he had a smirk on his face, leaning his head back against the basketball. I was telling him, “I just want you to relax on this shoot. Life’s okay…Yeah, you had this moment but it’s going to pass and people are going to forget about it or remember it like, ‘Yeah, yeah, he wil’d out, that was funny.’” I was using psychology as motivation.
There was a hood Queensbridge Projects sign that said ‘No Ball Playing’ so I shot him right there and told him to lean against this brick. There were all these little subtle, woven-in stories during this shoot that kind of happened by chance and by being aware of the story we wanted to tell going in. I wanted it grittier around the edges because I saw him as this character. I wanted to take him fully there but the press machine wanted to clean it up. It was a battle but I still feel like we won.
On shooting LeBron James in high school for SLAM 71…
Everyone always says he came from humble beginnings, is a workhorse, is undeniable as a talent, and I really got to see that foundation. He was on the balcony of the apartment where he grew up and I remember stealing a quick shot of him that was super small in the frame but in my mind, was a real point of departure. He knew what was coming; he just didn’t know where he was going to end up. I know that he jokingly wore a Denver [Nuggets] baseball hat and was like, “Yo, they’re gonna love this, they’re gonna love this!”
He was making these little statements but deep down, he knew where he wanted to be. It was amazing to see his growth after that. I had an arsenal of photos and I brought my portfolio just so he knew he was in good hands. He was like, “Oh shit! This is you? Oh my God, what’s Jay-Z like?”
I remember that sticking out to me and telling him, “Dude, Jay-Z is the dopest. Here’s what this shoot was like.”
I was able to build a rapport with him during that shoot. I got to see him shootin’ in the gym—no pun intended—way back when [laughs]. It was amazing to see him even in that moment as a high school-aged kid just throwing down. I remember him being in there with Maverick, who is still part of the squad; he’s remained loyal to those people. I think that’s kept him grounded and focused. I’m sure he had years of frustration when he couldn’t break through, but it was only a matter of seconds until he became who everyone knows him as now—the greatest in the League.
It was great to see that rise. I wish I had documented him during the journey, but he rose so quickly to the top, it wasn’t possible. There were so many demands on him. It wasn’t like he could just have a day. I bet he doesn’t even have 30 minutes that isn’t allotted to something important. I have mad respect for LeBron.
On shooting Stephon Marbury for SLAM 31…
My agenda with anyone is to make him or her look incredible in that moment, the best ‘you’ you can be for a timeless photo to capture your greatness in that day. I’m a die-hard and if I care about you, I’m there thick or thin, great or not, have nothing or have everything. It’s not what you have, it’s what you do that defines who you are. When I bump into Stephon in the street, he’s like “Aw, Jonathan, what’s up man?! Come here and take this picture with me, I’m gonna send this out to my fans. This is the dopest photographer—I remember the shoot we did way back when!”
Those are standout moments and I’m proud that I can be attached to a special moment that they can look back on if that fall from grace happens. Maybe that’s motivating to them in some way. I think people that have played in the League constantly get told they’re the greatest in high school, in college and in the “eague. And then you fall, and it’s like, Oh shit…I’ve never not been the greatest. Now what? Now what do I do?
On shooting Kevin Garnett for SLAM 38…
KG was one of the greatest subjects to work with. I photographed him at his house when he was in Minnesota and it was a special shoot. He allowed me to gain a real access to where he was mentally in that moment. He trusted me, in a way. When you shoot someone when they’re young in the League, they’re like, “Oh, he’s back again? I loved those last pictures, what do you want me to do?”
I told him, “I want you to wear all the jewelry you have in this moment of over-opulence and go crazy. Let’s just shut down the game, wear everything that you can possibly bring down. Just go nuts. Let’s show them what’s up.”
I shot this low angle portrait, and a storm was coming in and I remember that being the moment. For me that was a perfect picture and that’s a rare moment in photography where I wouldn’t do anything different. There are a handful of pictures that exist like that in my career, and that’s one of them.
Afterwards, Coors Light wanted to commission me to use a picture that was just like that. They sent me the picture and I did the job and didn’t get it. So I’m driving in LA and I see this massive billboard and it’s that picture! It wasn’t KG, but they reshot it exactly, flipped it and turned it black and white. I pulled over and was like, Yo, that’s my picture!
So I shot the billboard, developed it, had my studio send the other picture and as it turned out, it wasn’t my picture. They copied it so identically down to the placement of the watch and it wasn’t KG’s Rolex, it was a Folex with a different color band or whatever. So I went after Coors Light and the ad agency and because of my belief that these images were really important, I changed copyright law. People still come up to me and say, “Yo, I just studied you the other day in Law School.”
I thought it was this bigger moment and a special thing that I fought for. I fought for the image that was unique and special to not be stolen from me but also for other photographers and people that get photos stolen and adapted and changed so that they have a case to go to and say, “No, no, no. Mannion v. Coors Light—which we won on all counts—you can’t steal this photo.”
It wasn’t a big payday at all, but it felt good to be fighting the good fight and the honorable fight for the future of photographers working with talent. Yet another deeper reason I thought that shoot was something special.
On SLAM’s influence and the impact on his career…
SLAM was allowing the world to see deeper into the personality of these major, major talents and not just as stiffs who are smiling, sterile, holding the basketball under their left arm in a grade school basketball pose. They got to really be themselves and wear all their jewelry and show off their tattoos with their shirt off with a What Would Jesus Do arm band and crazy diamond earrings. They got to be themselves and flaunt a little bit as individuals.
Having that perspective was really interesting for SLAM as an entity. You guys were the originators of letting people into these massive personalities and really showcasing who they were. For me, that’s always my agenda as a photographer: to get to the core and the heart of who somebody is. I also have a major, major respect for athletes and the dedication it takes to perform at the highest level. I have shot rappers in my career that I just didn’t believe—(mocking) “Yeah, sure, I know you’re the greatest.” When in my mind, I think, Fuck, you suck! Your lyrics are shit and you’re horrible and if I ask you your favorite song on the album, you tell me all of them. But you’re there to do the job. Most of those rappers will remain nameless, but they are no longer MC’s in the game.
There are certain [rappers] who try and fabricate themselves into something—fake it until you make it. There’s no faking it until you make it as an athlete, you can either play or you can’t. You’re either superior as a player or you’re great. There are degrees of greatness and I think there’s a certain criterion, you don’t get to play in the League just because you’re dope and you have a ton of money. You’re either great or you’re not in the NBA. Seeing these people and these athletes and what it takes and the dedication and seeing some of them train and shoot. I know what it takes as an athlete. I know how much time you have to dedicate to your craft in order to be brilliant at it. I have another layer respect for every single one of the people I shot for SLAM.
How did it affect my career? I had the ability to walk up to rappers and tell them I just shot KG, I just shot Chris Webber, I just shot Penny Hardaway, etc. And it reinforced my theory that rappers want to be athletes and athletes want to be rappers.