lI’m from Newark, New Jersey, but when I was 13 or 14 I went to New York and hung out in book and record stores, looking at pictures in books and on album covers. I was obsessed with the raw style of Blondie’s photos or the punk scene in Britain, and was drawn to street culture in general. There was a school near me where all the tough kids were outside, with cool clothes, arguing. I wanted to go to a school like that, but my aunts who lived in that area said, “Absolutely not. That is a terrible learning experience.”
I was an artsy kid and started taking pictures of friends in my high school. Around 1987 I really got into hip-hop and started photographing the kids I met in clubs. I opened magazines, showed them my work, or looked at the backs of record covers, called the record companies and asked if I could meet someone from the art department. So when hip-hop started blowing up, I happened to blow up at the same time.
By the early 90’s I was well known in the hip-hop community and got work with magazines such as Appearance, who took care of that audience. Biggie, AKA the Notorious BIG, was on the radio – he was so hot it seemed like he was every fifth song. I was an avid photographer, so when Vibe asked me to shoot him and Faith Evans, it was a perfect match. They hadn’t been married very long and were the golden hip-hop couple. I had met Faith once before, when I photographed her for Interview magazine. She was from Newark, just like me.
Vibe called me and told me they wanted me to do something important or iconic. They showed me a book of the best album covers of all time, to showcase the classic look they wanted. Most of the cover photos were indoors so I thought it would be good to take them outside. Biggie represented Brooklyn, so I thought it would be cool to shoot him under the Brooklyn Bridge with the New York skyline behind it. I picked up a Cadillac from a movie theater rental place. I think it was in A Bronx Story†
When the couple first arrived they wanted some more clothes, so Puffy [Sean “Puff” Coombs AKA Puff Daddy, Bad Boy record label boss] took them shopping. Put a big dude like Biggie in a suit and he’ll look like the guy, and he had a rough public personality, but he was 23 when I shot him and in reality very boyish and endearing. He kept looking under the bridge and said, “Is this where they dump the bodies?”
I took the photo on 120 Ektachrome film and used a mix of natural light and flash, so there are no shadows. For the photo, they both gave me the kind of look you’d expect when they were in the back of that car, very connected to each other, but when she was in the car and he was outside, they were more playful. Faith Evans also started happening and they were in love. It was a really good time for them.
Later I took some pictures of Piggy alone in the car at night, which people now tell me looks really creepy. There was a picture of the session of Biggie smiling, which the record company later used as a cover for a single. His mother said she loved that photo because she usually never saw him smile.
Vibe and everyone loved the pictures of Biggie and Faith, but the East Coast and West Coast hip-hop feud was going on and someone told me the West Coast boys were mad at me because they thought the photo depicts the car culture of the west coast looted. A few years later, The Face was supposed to fly me to LA to shoot Biggie again, but they told me they couldn’t locate him to a location in LA because he was getting death threats. They said to wait until he could confirm somewhere. Then he was killed.
Eric Johnson resume
Born: East Orange, New York.
educated: Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, and internship with still life photographer Constance Hansen.
influences: “Scenes and cultures and meeting people. There are great photographers like Helmut Newton and Janette Beckman, but I’m more interested in stories.”
High point: “The cover of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was my biggest, but shooting Shygirl last year was a blast.”
Low point: “Getting arrested for weed in Jamaica while shooting Beenie Man’s Tropical Storm album cover, and sitting in the back of a police car during filming.”
Top Tip: “Be mindful of the energy you put out. People will work with you if they enjoy spending time with you.”