meI’m from Newark, NJ, but from the age of 13 or 14, I’d 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 raw style of images of Blondie or the punk scene in Britain, and was drawn to street culture in general. There was a school near me with all the badass kids outside, in great clothes, squabbling. I would have liked to go to a school like this but my aunts who lived in that neighborhood would go: “Absolutely not. This is a terrible school.”
I was an artistic kid and started taking pictures of my high school friends. Around 1987, I got involved in hip-hop and began photographing children I met in clubs. I would hit magazines, show them my work, or look at the back of record sleeves, call the record companies and ask if I could meet someone in the art department. So when hip-hop started to explode, I happened to be blown away at the same time.
By the early ’90s, I was well known in the hip-hop community and got work with magazines like Vibe, which 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 shoot him and shoot Faith Evans, the match was perfect. Not long after they were married, they were the golden couple of hip-hop. I’ve met Faith once before, when I photographed her for an interview magazine. She was from Newark, as was I.
Vibe called me and told me they wanted me to do something important or creative. They showed me a book with the best album covers ever, to show off the classic look they wanted. Most of the cover shots were on the inside, so I thought it would be a good idea to take them outside. Like a Brooklyn Biggie, so I thought it would be cool to shoot him under the Brooklyn Bridge with the New York skyline behind him. I picked up a Cadillac from a place that used to rent cars to the cinema. I think it was in A Bronx Tale.
When the couple first arrived, they wanted more clothes, so puffy [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 rugged public figure, but he was 23 when I shot him and in fact he was very boyish and likable. He kept looking under the bridge and going: “Is this where they dump the bodies?”
The photo was taken on 120 Ektachrome film and used a combination of natural light and flash, so there are no shadows. As for the photo, they both gave me the kind of look you’d expect with them sitting in the back of that car, connected to each other, but when she was in the car and he was out, they were a lot more fun. Faith Evans also started happening and the two were in love. It was a really good time for them.
Later I took some shots of Peggy in the car at night alone, which now people tell me looks really scary. There was one shot of Biggie’s session smiling, which the record company later used as a cover for one of the songs. His mother said she liked that photo because she didn’t usually see him smile.
Vibe and everyone loved the pictures of Biggie and Faith, but the East Coast/West Coast hip-hop runner was going on and someone told me West Coast guys were upset with me because they thought the picture was tearing up West Coast car culture. Two years later, The Face was going to fly me to L.A. to shoot Biggie again, but they told me they couldn’t locate him in L.A. because he was receiving death threats. They said wait until he can confirm somewhere. This is when he was killed.
Eric Johnson Biography
Boy: East Orange, New York.
trainee: Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, and intern for still-life photographer Constance Hansen.
Effects: “Scenes, cultures, meeting people. There are great photographers like Helmut Newton and Janet Beckmann, but I’m more interested in stories.”
high point: “The cover of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was the biggest for me, but last year’s shoot for Shygirl was great.”
low point: “Arrested for weeding in Jamaica, shooting the cover of Benny 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.”