II’m from Newark, New Jersey, but from the age of 13 or 14, I was going to New York and hanging out in bookstores and record stores, looking at pictures in books and on album covers. scrapbooks. I was obsessed with the raw style of Blondie photography or the British punk scene, and drawn to street culture in general. There was a school near my house where all the badass kids were outside, with cool clothes, fighting. I wanted to go to a school like that, but my aunts who lived in that neighborhood said, “Absolutely not. It’s a terrible school.
I was an artistic kid and started taking photos of friends in my high school. Around 1987, I got really interested in hip-hop and started filming kids I met in clubs. I would go to magazines, show them my work, or look at the back of record covers, call the record companies and ask if I could meet someone from the art department. So when hip-hop started exploding, I happened to be exploding along with it.
In the early 90s I was well known in the hip-hop community and worked with magazines such as Vibe which catered to that audience. Biggie, AKA the Notorious BIG, was on the radio – he was so hot it seemed like one in five songs was his. I was a hot photographer so when Vibe asked me to shoot it with Faith Evans, it was a perfect match. They hadn’t been married long and were hip-hop’s golden couple. I had met Faith once before, when I photographed her for Interview magazine. She was from Newark, like me.
Vibe called me and said they wanted me to do something big or iconic. They showed me a book of the best album covers of all time, to demonstrate the classic look they wanted. Most of the cover photos were indoors, so I thought it would be good to bring them out. Biggie was representing Brooklyn, so I thought it would be cool to shoot him under the Brooklyn Bridge with the New York skyline behind. I picked up a Cadillac from a place that rented cars to go to the movies. I think it was in A Bronx Tale.
When the couple arrived they wanted 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 man, and he had a tough public persona, but he was 23 when I shot him and actually very childish and endearing. He kept looking under the bridge and saying, “Is that where they dump the bodies?”
I took the photo on Ektachrome 120 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 with them sitting in the back of this car, very bonded to each other, but when she was in the car and he was outside, they were more playful. Faith Evans was starting to show up too and they were in love. It was a very good moment for them.
I later took some shots of Biggie in the car at night, all alone, which people now tell me look really weird. There was a session shot of Biggie smiling, which the record company later used as the cover for a single. His mother said she loved this photo because she usually never saw him smile.
Vibe and everyone loved the pics of Biggie and Faith, but the east coast/west coast hip-hop feud was happening and someone told me the west coast guys were pissed at me because they thought the photo was tearing apart West Coast car culture. A few years later, The Face magazine was going to take me to LA to shoot Biggie again, but told me they couldn’t locate him in LA because he was getting death threats. They said to wait until he can confirm somewhere. It was then that he was killed.
Eric Johnson Resume
Born: East Orange, New York.
Qualified: Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, and internship for still life photographer Constance Hansen.
Affecting : “Scenes and cultures and encounters. There are great photographers like Helmut Newton and Janette Beckman, but I’m more interested in stories.
High point: “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill cover was my biggest, but filming Shygirl last year was amazing.”
Low point: “Getting busted for weed in Jamaica shooting Beenie Man’s Tropical Storm album cover and sitting in the back of a police cruiser during filming.”
Trick : “Be aware of the energy you exude. People will work with you if they enjoy spending time with you.