Hip Hop’s Most Sought After Photographer Aligns With Popular Champagne Company

Written by on February 18, 2020

Fashion designer Don C, KNC Beauty owner Kristen Noel Crawley and photographer Jonathan Mannion.

There’s hip hop royalty and then there’s hip hop photography royalty.

Jonathan Mannion is the latter. The New York City-based photographer is known for his intense yet illuminating portraits of prominent figures in rap, hip hop, R&B and the greater popular culture.  He shot Jay-Z for the cover of “Reasonable Doubt.” He was the last pro photographer to shoot Aaliyah before she died. He’s profiled Kendrick Lamar and Kelis and Lil Wayne and Lalah Hathaway. Bella and Gigi Hadid have asked for him. And, he is also the guy that everyone calls when they’re finishing their album and need a striking cover shot, taken, for example, on location in the Swiss Alps on the side of a mountain accessible only via helicopter.

That’s Mannion. And though the Golden Era of hip hop along with its record stores and big picture displays is long gone, the master photographer’s business only expanded as the digital music era grew up and matured. He has since taken over 300 album cover images.

“Part of my ministry is to make somebody feel like the greatest version of themselves in that moment,” says Mannion, while visiting Chicago recently to continue the launch of Moët & Chandon’s Nectar of the Culture tastemaker program and also reconnect with friends like NBA baller Iman Shumpert during the 2020 NBA All-Star weekend. “I document something that will never be the same again. That is the premise of why I love photography.”

Mannion came by his talents honestly. His parents are both artists and he saw them paint, examine perspective and mix colors to perfection. He also minored in psychology at Kenyon College, so now he knows how work with every manner of personality that needs an image taken. And people like him. Boy, do they like him. At one of the All-Star events, a hyper exclusive fete sponsored by new NBA liquor partner Hennessy, Mannion couldn’t walk five feet without someone giving him dap, asking for a photo or asking him for a listen.

And he stopped and talked to everyone even as A$AP Ferg and Dababy performed on an upper floor of the old Chicago Post Office, while sparkles flew around as skinny women dressed in black circled the floor with their sparklers. Later that weekend, at the Chicago launch of Nectar of the Culture, Mannion unveiled portraits he’d made of taste-making couple Don “Don C” Crawley, a fashion designer and former manager for Kanye West, and Kristen Noel Crawley, who owns KNC beauty. The program, which markets Moët & Chandon’s redesigned rosé Champagne bottle while also honoring the people, places and moments that push culture forward, is also moving around the country. Last week, in New York, fashion designer LaQuan Smith was celebrated, but for Chicago, Don C and Kristen represented some of the high-end fashion and business ideas that were birthed in or around the Windy City.

Don C created the Just Don clothing line and is the co-owner of RSVP Gallery in Chicago, a boutique purveyor of high-end street wear along with fellow fashion trendsetter Virgil Abloh. (Don C also has a limited edition American Express sneaker that was the subject of yet another All-Star weekend event, an AMEX Fireside chat to discuss the “AMEX blue” sneaker with ESPN’s Cari Champion.) The partners are selecting culture makers in four additional cities, including Miami and Atlanta. Don C, KNC and Smith’s contributions to pop culture are being described as the part of the “rose-gold era,” a futuristic nod to the Golden Era that has already passed.

Mannion’s portraits of the couple, revealed at the event, had the same intensity of other images that are now iconic in the world of hip hop. Mannion listed a few of his memories of famous shoots, all of which provide some insight into how he views and treats his customers. In short, he does more than look at them, he sees them.

DMX: “When he was in the bloodbath, I had chills the entire time I was shooting.”

Snoop: “A burst of 12 minutes [of shooting] with Snoop Dogg in Baton Rouge on the side of a building when he had to go to the airport. Twenty-five minutes, I said. I’ll give you six, he said. C’mon man, I need 20! [They eventually settled on 11.]

Outkast: “I’ve had 17-hour photoshoots with Outkast. We covered Big Boi’s boom boom room, the garage, Stankonia Studios…”

Jay-Z: “You have to keep the pace. You have to keep it going . You have to engage and sometimes that comes in a burst with Jay looking at his watch like, ‘ok man you can do this.”

“I will always be dealing with people, so I need that skillset of understanding people,” says Mannion, explaining more of his mindset. “Are you taking a photo or are you giving a photo? I give photos. I’m giving my work. I’m proud to say that I give photos to the work and the culture.”

Mannion doesn’t do it all for money, and he often gives back. Just a few weeks ago he was teaching at a college and leading workshops for students interested in fashion and portrait work. He will work with new artists if he believes in the music and the work.

Mannion even shot Kobe Bryant, back in March 2003. It was in Chicago at the Ritz Carlton.

“I had a couple minute conversation with him, asked him what are you working on now and in general, what motivates you,” he says, remembering that moment. “He said ‘I’m working on my game and on what I’m gonna need five years from today. I’m strengthening that muscle.’ I was like man, what a comment. I can’t say that I knew Kobe and we were friends, but you get critical time with people where your senses are hyper present for the moment and that’s what’s required to take these authentic photos.”

Speaking of which, it should be noted that Mannion understands the needs of dark-skinned people who need to be properly lit in order to take a beautiful image. If he didn’t, he would not have been able to capture the stars that he captures so well on film. As the Oscars So White debacle gives way to other conversations of makeup artists and photographers ill-equipped to deal with non-white skin in Hollywood circles, Mannion – who is white – says the trick is all about studying and knowing your craft.

Lighting dark skin for a photo and getting skin tone right is not a special skill, he says, it’s a basic skill.

“I can tell you the difference between burnt sienna and brown or brown with warm undertones,” he says. “Developing photos teaches you the precision of color. This starts by being able to see anybody and ask ‘how close can I get to [your color.]  For me it’s honoring who is in front on the lens. If it’s Eminem and his platinum blond hair I want to get it right because he spent some time cultivating that blond. It it’s Lauryn Hill, that’s the same. We can talk about hue and color and tone, and I think it really comes down to understanding craft and honoring it, getting as close as possible to the human in front of the lens.”

For Mannion’s business model, partnerships have to make sense. He takes pictures of culture makers and millionaires, mixed in with a few up-and-comers who have high prospects for success. Champagne has a long history with hip hop, and, anecdotal evidence would suggest that only the brands that genuinely support the hip hop artists are fully embraced by the larger community. Plus, he jokes while laughing, back in the Golden Era of hip hop, what champagne was Puff popping? Moet.

Of course times have changed and many hip hop moguls, such as Diddy and Jay-Z, now have their own liquor and champagne lines. But Mannion still sees an affinity in the culture for the imagery that Puff once represented.

“There is no other champagne that I’d want to rock with that’s been part of the culture throughout,” he says, bringing up song after song and video after video where the spirit figured prominently. “It’s been part of hip hop culture as this aspirational item to have for celebration. It makes total sense.”

 

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Fashion designer Don C, KNC Beauty owner Kristen Noel Crawley and photographer Jonathan Mannion.

Fashion designer Don C, KNC Beauty owner Kristen Noel Crawley and photographer Jonathan Mannion at … [+] an NBA All-Star 2020 event in Chicago.

Christopher Bain

There’s hip hop royalty and then there’s hip hop photography royalty.

Jonathan Mannion is the latter. The New York City-based photographer is known for his intense yet illuminating portraits of prominent figures in rap, hip hop, R&B and the greater popular culture.  He shot Jay-Z for the cover of “Reasonable Doubt.” He was the last pro photographer to shoot Aaliyah before she died. He’s profiled Kendrick Lamar and Kelis and Lil Wayne and Lalah Hathaway. Bella and Gigi Hadid have asked for him. And, he is also the guy that everyone calls when they’re finishing their album and need a striking cover shot, taken, for example, on location in the Swiss Alps on the side of a mountain accessible only via helicopter.

That’s Mannion. And though the Golden Era of hip hop along with its record stores and big picture displays is long gone, the master photographer’s business only expanded as the digital music era grew up and matured. He has since taken over 300 album cover images.

“Part of my ministry is to make somebody feel like the greatest version of themselves in that moment,” says Mannion, while visiting Chicago recently to continue the launch of Moët & Chandon’s Nectar of the Culture tastemaker program and also reconnect with friends like NBA baller Iman Shumpert during the 2020 NBA All-Star weekend. “I document something that will never be the same again. That is the premise of why I love photography.”

Mannion came by his talents honestly. His parents are both artists and he saw them paint, examine perspective and mix colors to perfection. He also minored in psychology at Kenyon College, so now he knows how work with every manner of personality that needs an image taken. And people like him. Boy, do they like him. At one of the All-Star events, a hyper exclusive fete sponsored by new NBA liquor partner Hennessy, Mannion couldn’t walk five feet without someone giving him dap, asking for a photo or asking him for a listen.

A$AP Ferg performs at first event for new liquor sponsor of the NBA.

A$AP Ferg performs at an NBA All-Star event.

Caleb Zahm & Noel Vasquez

And he stopped and talked to everyone even as A$AP Ferg and Dababy performed on an upper floor of the old Chicago Post Office, while sparkles flew around as skinny women dressed in black circled the floor with their sparklers. Later that weekend, at the Chicago launch of Nectar of the Culture, Mannion unveiled portraits he’d made of taste-making couple Don “Don C” Crawley, a fashion designer and former manager for Kanye West, and Kristen Noel Crawley, who owns KNC beauty. The program, which markets Moët & Chandon’s redesigned rosé Champagne bottle while also honoring the people, places and moments that push culture forward, is also moving around the country. Last week, in New York, fashion designer LaQuan Smith was celebrated, but for Chicago, Don C and Kristen represented some of the high-end fashion and business ideas that were birthed in or around the Windy City.

Don C created the Just Don clothing line and is the co-owner of RSVP Gallery in Chicago, a boutique purveyor of high-end street wear along with fellow fashion trendsetter Virgil Abloh. (Don C also has a limited edition American Express sneaker that was the subject of yet another All-Star weekend event, an AMEX Fireside chat to discuss the “AMEX blue” sneaker with ESPN’s Cari Champion.) The partners are selecting culture makers in four additional cities, including Miami and Atlanta. Don C, KNC and Smith’s contributions to pop culture are being described as the part of the “rose-gold era,” a futuristic nod to the Golden Era that has already passed.

Mannion’s portraits of the couple, revealed at the event, had the same intensity of other images that are now iconic in the world of hip hop. Mannion listed a few of his memories of famous shoots, all of which provide some insight into how he views and treats his customers. In short, he does more than look at them, he sees them.

DMX: “When he was in the bloodbath, I had chills the entire time I was shooting.”

Snoop: “A burst of 12 minutes [of shooting] with Snoop Dogg in Baton Rouge on the side of a building when he had to go to the airport. Twenty-five minutes, I said. I’ll give you six, he said. C’mon man, I need 20! [They eventually settled on 11.]

Outkast: “I’ve had 17-hour photoshoots with Outkast. We covered Big Boi’s boom boom room, the garage, Stankonia Studios…”

Jay-Z: “You have to keep the pace. You have to keep it going . You have to engage and sometimes that comes in a burst with Jay looking at his watch like, ‘ok man you can do this.”

“I will always be dealing with people, so I need that skillset of understanding people,” says Mannion, explaining more of his mindset. “Are you taking a photo or are you giving a photo? I give photos. I’m giving my work. I’m proud to say that I give photos to the work and the culture.”

Mannion doesn’t do it all for money, and he often gives back. Just a few weeks ago he was teaching at a college and leading workshops for students interested in fashion and portrait work. He will work with new artists if he believes in the music and the work.

Mannion even shot Kobe Bryant, back in March 2003. It was in Chicago at the Ritz Carlton.

“I had a couple minute conversation with him, asked him what are you working on now and in general, what motivates you,” he says, remembering that moment. “He said ‘I’m working on my game and on what I’m gonna need five years from today. I’m strengthening that muscle.’ I was like man, what a comment. I can’t say that I knew Kobe and we were friends, but you get critical time with people where your senses are hyper present for the moment and that’s what’s required to take these authentic photos.”

Speaking of which, it should be noted that Mannion understands the needs of dark-skinned people who need to be properly lit in order to take a beautiful image. If he didn’t, he would not have been able to capture the stars that he captures so well on film. As the Oscars So White debacle gives way to other conversations of makeup artists and photographers ill-equipped to deal with non-white skin in Hollywood circles, Mannion – who is white – says the trick is all about studying and knowing your craft.

Lighting dark skin for a photo and getting skin tone right is not a special skill, he says, it’s a basic skill.

“I can tell you the difference between burnt sienna and brown or brown with warm undertones,” he says. “Developing photos teaches you the precision of color. This starts by being able to see anybody and ask ‘how close can I get to [your color.]  For me it’s honoring who is in front on the lens. If it’s Eminem and his platinum blond hair I want to get it right because he spent some time cultivating that blond. It it’s Lauryn Hill, that’s the same. We can talk about hue and color and tone, and I think it really comes down to understanding craft and honoring it, getting as close as possible to the human in front of the lens.”

For Mannion’s business model, partnerships have to make sense. He takes pictures of culture makers and millionaires, mixed in with a few up-and-comers who have high prospects for success. Champagne has a long history with hip hop, and, anecdotal evidence would suggest that only the brands that genuinely support the hip hop artists are fully embraced by the larger community. Plus, he jokes while laughing, back in the Golden Era of hip hop, what champagne was Puff popping? Moet.

Of course times have changed and many hip hop moguls, such as Diddy and Jay-Z, now have their own liquor and champagne lines. But Mannion still sees an affinity in the culture for the imagery that Puff once represented.

“There is no other champagne that I’d want to rock with that’s been part of the culture throughout,” he says, bringing up song after song and video after video where the spirit figured prominently. “It’s been part of hip hop culture as this aspirational item to have for celebration. It makes total sense.”

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