Even if you recognize his work by his name, Eric Johnson is the photographer behind some of the most memorable musical images of the past few decades. He photographed films like Notorious BIG and Faith Evans, and created unforgettable album visuals for Aaliyah, Cat Doja, Eve, Foxy Brown, Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott, the Hot Boys, and Yung Miami, among many others.
As for the development of his realistic portrait style, which has resulted in a legion of stories, covers and more, Johnson was “always very specific” about how things looked, even before taking a camera to the age of 16. “When my mum went to the disco when I was little in the 70s, I was like, ‘Oh, you should wear this.’ That’s how I got people to push me towards art. I was just this kind of quirky artistic person… I just think I’m naturally a vibrant person, but I photograph all of these things without thinking about it,” Johnson said. Vanity lounge.
To celebrate 50 years of hip-hop, Johnson recently spoke with vanity lounge on what went into creating some of his favorite photographs.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity..
Vanity Lounge: Your image of Biggie and Faith for the October 1995 issue of Atmosphere The magazine is an emblematic image of hip-hop, what do you remember from this day?
Eric Johnson: It was my first cover (for Vibe). George Pitts (Founding Director of Photography at Vibe) like all of our sponsors, he took care of us as a photo editor. He made us all so much better. So he said to me, “Your photos are really great, people are really in love with you. When I went to meet George… they wanted an iconic image on the level where we were looking at books like the 100 Greatest Album Covers of All Time, things like that. One thing, nobody really got shot outside Atmosphere blankets. And then second, Biggie is from New York, he’s still representing New York. I said to myself: let’s take a car and park it near the bridge. I wasn’t thinking of anything serious. Nothing was planned at the angles and I didn’t even know what they were going to wear. I had shot Faith once before and Biggie was just adorable, just like a little boy who follows you around talking random bullshit. And I’m like man, I’m still working. But he looked so powerful in a way in the pictures, but he was also so childish, because he was so young.
I heard after the fact that the guys in LA were pissed and said Biggie was trying to rip off the west coast car culture. Looking back, I understand why they think that, because they’re mad at the East Coast and Biggie. And we weren’t Lowriders, it was just a Cadillac. But it wasn’t necessarily New York, but I didn’t think of that either. So all of these things together, combined, made him sick.
When the cover was out, every time I saw it, I froze, it was like I just cringed or something. It’s not that I didn’t like it, but it was just something.
The number of times people asked me to recreate different photos, but especially Biggie and Faith. And they are so enthusiastic that if when they told me, the idea would amaze me. I understand that if people in the world are doing this, I can’t really control it. But I think it’s such a basic idea, when you look at what happened that day and Puffy’s badass, everyone was on top of the world, a beautiful summer day. We were in our youth, just everything. That’s why they came out like that. So people think you’re going to sit someone in the back of the car and think you’re going to benefit from the same kind of magic? It’s crazy.
How did the image of the Foxy Brown orange fur-trimmed jacket come about?
There was a studio on Broadway and she came and we had a stylist and a makeup artist and these outfits. I’ve always loved those punk images. If I saw someone on the street in London I would lose my mind, there is something so pure about it. We’re all in New York and it’s pretty cool for people from Central America and the rest of the world to think of themselves as New Yorkers. I’m not very conceptual, but it’s little details like that that make the photos public. It’s Foxy Brown down the street, no big deal, you could have passed her, you could have walked past and seen what was going on. So something about it that I still love. And I think these photos are some of my favorites.
It’s the 25th anniversary of The bad education of Lauryn Hillwhat do you remember from the filming of the visuals for this album?
The buzz around the project was crazy. With what happened with the Fugees, (Lauryn Hill) was like a doll. So right after the album came out, everyone was sure it was going to be big. I didn’t know it was going to be huge with ten Grammy nominations, because I don’t think like that, but I knew something. I just felt like they were giving me this?!
I still love Lauryn to this day, she’s one of my favorites and we had such a cool working relationship. She already had her ideas, she had the title of the album and she wanted to shoot in a school and we looked at a few schools, but then we thought why not just shoot in her school. So we went there and we shot in his school. I looked around and I liked the restroom, because I’ve always liked a girl’s restroom, and then I went to this classroom, then we’ll turn down the hall. We just did all these different scenarios without specific coverage, just to shoot in the school. So that’s what we did. Our families are nice to each other, but actually my mom did her hair. My mom has a beauty salon in the Newark neighborhood.
It’s funny because at different stages of my life, I often went to the beauty salon, so you didn’t have to go home and be alone. So I sometimes stayed for hours at the beauty salon. I feel like there’s something cheeky about this experience.
It seems like this experience has helped shape the way you see, have seen, and are able to capture women.
Oh my God. I never even thought of it. And I’ve never heard that before. Literally. But I never put those two things together until you said that. But as of course! You can literally learn something new every day.
Do you have a favorite photo you took?
I have so many favorite photos. I started putting pictures on my wall and I think I have about 40-50 pictures on the wall of some of my favorite pictures over the years. There are so many good ones, you know? One of my most recent favorite photos of all time is the photo I took of Doja Cat walking down the stairs. Looks like she’s in a ballroom, like in the 70s. You know those houses and balls and stuff, I haven’t been there, but I know. I saw Paris is burning and I’ve seen things about it. For her to be a rockstar, this photo is so live! So I look at this picture and currently it’s my favorite picture. Not that he’s better than any of my others.
Is there anyone you haven’t worked with that you would like to work with?
People ask me that and I kinda want to shoot everyone, everyone’s popular, everyone’s alive and has a story to tell. You know what, CardiB! I feel like that makes a lot of sense. Especially with my authentic style, this is the kind of person you have to meet. It is quite logical. I start photographing all the new artists that I like. I like Lil Uzi (Green). All. I want to shoot everyone – whoever fucks me, I want to shoot them.