Celebrity is a funny thing. A lot of people still don’t understand that there’s a team behind every Great Person. Most of the supporting cast stay behind the scenes—managing schedules, booking travel, cooking meals—but they’re there, combining efforts to allow that Person to be Great.
Jonathan Mannion has worked for some of the most visible people on the planet in his 20-plus years as a professional photographer. At times he’s been nothing more than a cog in the machine that is Jay-Z, for example, but when you look at his entire body of work, he himself is a Great Person.
I don’t actually know the story of how you got started in photography.
There’s a lot of people that have this, “I was six and I had my first box Brownie that my dad gave me” story. I don’t really have that. Both of my parents are artists, so I grew up painting and drawing, looking at light and seeing and being taught how to see. But I only took photography one year in school, and then I moved to New York in ’93 to work for Richard Avedon.
How long were you with Avedon?
I worked with him for a year. That was my commitment. There was a moment that I started meeting a lot of assistants who were miserable, like, “I gotta shoot in Spain, man. I gotta pack.” “Oh man, I’m going to China tomorrow.” I’m like, “Damn, I’ve only been to Montauk! Maybe I need to expand.”
It was incredible. It was like getting a PhD in photography. Seeing all the layers, like how to get the job, how they were done, how he dealt with clients, the post [production], the retouching—that wasn’t digital; it was all massive sheets of film that I was dealing with for Versace campaigns, Pirelli calendars, all that kind of stuff. It was like, these are the biggest jobs being done, and I get to see it from a bird’s-eye view and just absorb it.
Is there one shoot from that year of working with Avedon that really sticks out in your mind, that inspired you?
Yeah, man. As a 24-year-old kid, little young and tender Mannion, I had the opportunity to pick up Naomi Campbell, butt-ass naked, from the sand. She was rolling around in the sand because it was a shot of her back as if she got up off the sand. It was for the Pirelli calendar. And it was one of those Wonder Years moments where you look to the camera like, “Oh my God, this is happening!” and then you look back. It was glorious.
That’s not a bad job to have.
Yeah, I was the official picker-upper of Naomi Campbell for 1993—a title that I’m proud to have [laughs].
How did you start working with Avedon?
A lot of people just dive in and start shooting. I went to school first. I went to Kenyon College. Middle of nowhere, Ohio. I was a psychology and art major. Double cum laude, came out, I thought I was going to med school. And then I had an opportunity to work with Avedon because there was a connection with my school: all three of the assistants that he had at the time I graduated had gone to Kenyon. I was strong in my class so the professor put a call in. Avedon held a master class—the school gave him an honorary degree. So he came and looked at everybody’s body of work. He called my body of work a “failure.” It wasn’t like I was shooting portraits of all my friends and whoever I could find…farm workers. I wasn’t in that mind set, really. I was just trying to learn the technical side of things. So I would go drive and shoot barns that would fall down. It makes sense for me now, looking back. It was sort of like a meditation for me, to go and think about what I was thinking about. But also that these barns were falling down to the ground. You have to let barns fall down by themselves; it’s bad luck if you rip ’em down. So you learn a little bit—strange and probably useless knowledge in the game of hip-hop—but it made sense to me, wanting to see the passage of time.
So Avedon looked at this body of work and he’s like, “Don’t take this the wrong way. I’m a portrait photographer, but I see this body of work as a failure, ’cause there’s no life in it.” And I was like, “Great. Makes sense.” What was I, like 22…23? That could easily have just shut the whole game down.
Did it just make you go harder?
I think so. It was sort of like, “Cool.” And literally eight months later, after I graduated, I was working there. I set myself apart with my total dedication to everything that was happening. I was present.
It was about seven in the morning to about nine at night, every day. You would get the call just as you’re packing up your bag on a Friday night, thinking, Alright, I’m gonna hang out with the fellas, live those glory college moments of drunken debauchery on the Upper West Side, which was like the coolest, of course!
Right! Where else.
And then he would say, “I need you to drive me to Montauk.” So I’d go get this blue Suburban and drive him there. But looking back it’s like, I had access to him, alone, in a car, telling me stories about Marilyn Monroe and Satchmo and Malcolm X and fashion in the ’50s. It’s like…Dude, really? And I really don’t think I harnessed as much of that as I could’ve, because I was so respectful of him as a creative genius—period. I was like, I don’t want to say the wrong thing, I don’t want to mess up, I just want to work my ass off.
Wow. Do you have any pieces of his?
I do. We hung his show at the Whitney and he chose a picture for each of us based on how he saw us, from his whole career. Which was not like, “Oh, that’s my favorite!” “Alright, here you go: ‘In The American West’ print. Have a good day.”
It was this guy diving off of a ship and there’s like these big—you know the hoorsenbuhs link, the round one? It was going into the water and just diving off. I said, “Why?” He’s like, “You have that energy. You’re about to dive into an arena that’s so big and vast.”
Wow, that’s incredible!
It was really crazy. After a little bit of time he was friendly with me. He was friendly with anybody. Super generous with his time and energy. Not a bad way to kick off your career!