meI’m originally from Newark, NJ, but when I was 13 or 14 I would go to New York and hang out at book and record stores, looking at pictures in books and on album covers. I was obsessed with the strict style of Blondie pictures or the UK punk scene, and was generally drawn to street culture. There was a school nearby where all the strong, well-dressed men were arguing outside. I wish I could go to a school like this, but my aunts who live in this area said, “Absolutely not. It’s a horrible school.”
I was a kid artist and started taking pictures of my high school friends. Around 1987, hip-hop came into being and I started filming kids I met in clubs. I hit magazines, showed them my work, looked at album covers, called record companies, and asked if I could meet someone from the arts department. So when hip-hop started to explode, at the same time I was blown away.
In the early ’90s, I was well known in the hip-hop community and started working with magazines like Feelings to cater to this audience. Biggie, AKA the Notorious BIG, was on the radio – he was so hot that it sounded like every fifth song was his. I was a sexy photographer, so when Vibe asked me to take a picture of him and shoot Faith Evans, the fit was perfect. Not long after their wedding, they were a golden hip-hop couple. I met Faith once while I was photographing her for an interview magazine. She was from Newark, just like me.
Vibe called me and said they wanted me to do something interesting or innovative. They showed me a book with the best album covers ever to show off the classic look they wanted. Most of the cover photos were inside, so I thought it would be a good idea to take them outside. Like Brooklyn Biggie, so I thought it would be cool to shoot him under the Brooklyn Bridge with the New York skyline behind me. I picked up my Cadillac from where the movie rental cars were. I think it was in the Bronx Tale.
When the couple first arrived, they wanted more clothes so they were bloated [Sean “Puff” Coombs AKA Puff Daddy, Bad Boy record label boss] Take them shopping. Put a guy as big as Biggie in a suit and he’d look like a guy, he had a tough public figure, but he was 23 when I shot him, and he was actually very boyish and likable. He looked under the bridge and asked, “Is that where they put the bodies?”
The photo was taken on 120 Ektachrome film and uses a combination of natural light and flash so there are no shadows. As for the photo, they both gave me the look you’d expect from sitting in the back of this car hooked together, but when they were in the car and he wasn’t there, they were a lot more fun. Faith Evans also started happening, and they were both very much in love. It was a really good time for them.
Later I took some pictures of Peggy in the car alone at night which people now tell me looks really scary. There was one Biggie smile session, which the record company later used as a one-man cover. His mother said she liked the photo because she wouldn’t normally see him smiling.
Vibe and everyone else loved pictures of Biggie and Faith, but the East/West Coast? The hip-hop runner It was going on and someone told me that West Coast guys were worried about me because they thought the photo was destroying the car culture of the West Coast. Two years later, The Face was scheduled to travel with me to LA to shoot Biggie again, but they told me they couldn’t locate him in LA because he had received death threats. They said wait until he can confirm somewhere. That’s when he was killed.
Eric Johnson biography
the boy: East Orange, New York.
the Apprentice: Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and an intern in still-life photographer Constance Hansen.
Effects: “Scenes, cultures, meeting people. There are great photographers like Helmut Newton and Janet Beckmann, but I am more interested in stories.”
high temperature: “Lauren Hill’s warped residence was the biggest for me, but shooting Shygirl last year was amazing.”
low point: He was arrested for weeding in Jamaica, shooting the cover of Penny Man’s ‘Tropical Storm’ album, and sitting in the back of a police car while filming.
Most important tip: “Pay attention to the energy you dissipate. People will work with you if they want to spend time with you.”