A BREAD ON ERIC JOHSON
Words by Giancarlo Valentine
The role of the photographer is not traditionally a flashy one. It is usually one of great silence, anonymity, and mystery. To many people, even the best photographers are not household names. Photographers live through their work. It is their presence and their voice. So when I ask people if they know who Eric Johnson is, it’s no real surprise that most of them say no.
The most interesting thing to me about discovering Eric Johnson was that he was here all along, very much an active presence in my life and probably yours too. When I was a kid his images of Faith Evans, Nas, Eve, and Aaliyah were plastered to my bedroom walls. When I fell in love with Maxwell - who, in my opinion, is still the most beautiful man to walk this earth - it was through Eric’s images of him. When I finally got my hands on one of the greatest records of all time, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, his work was on the cover and inside the album booklet. He has photographed legends like Mary J. Blidge, Diana Ross, Mariah Carey, D’Angelo, Rosie Perez, Cyndi Lauper, Debbie Harry, Faith Evans, Biggie Smalls, and the list goes on and on. He is an indisputable icon and certainly an integral part of the photographic canon for any photographer interested in a lengthy career.
Eric represents the best parts of photography to me. He represents the creativity, originality, fluidity, and the continuity of a true artist. What impresses me more is that he is a Black man. In an industry that prefers for our stories to be told through the white gaze and limits the trajectory of Black photographers, we can look to Eric Johnson as inspiration. Having the luxury of being able to sit with him and spend hours poring over his archive of classic, unreleased, and personal works was one of the most endearing and exciting experiences I’ve had. The length of his career, the variety in his subjects, and the depth of his portfolio should inspire any and every kind of artist to step their game up.
Hey Eric! As you know, I’m a big fan of your work. I'm very excited and honored to be interviewing you.
How long would you say that you’ve been taking pictures and how did you get your start? What made you pick up a camera?
I’ve been taking photos since I was 16 years old. I was a really artsy kid in Newark and I got accepted into Arts High School. During junior year the art students get half of the year for illustration and half the year for photography. As soon as I started taking photography, I was a photographer from that moment on. Senior year you get to pick your major and I picked photography.
Tell me a little about your photography during your club kid days. What was it like? Do you miss it?
Oh, umm, that’s funny. I mean, the clubs were awesome, I loved the clubs. New York was more raw. I’m not hating on the times we’re in but you can imagine New York at that time. I met a bunch of friends at that time. I didn’t really document the scene as much but I definitely met a bunch of kids and brought them over to the studio and made photos of them. And do I miss it? No, I’m grown (laughs).
Where did Upstairsaterics come from? Is the reason you're always having people upstairs? Is that left over from your club kid days?
Me, Artem, and Messkid started hanging out a bunch and making friends and having little gatherings and I had a good space for it. I’m pretty social and pretty personable so I’d always have people over a lot. It just seems like the whole thing got more and more popular. It’s a good place and we have a lot of freedom here. I was always a big house party person anyway so I think there’s something different in partying in someone’s house, as a space, as opposed to a club, something super intimate. We just started to get a reputation and became more and more popular.
Do you pay attention to other photographers working today? Who do you like?
I don’t really pay much attention. I only pay attention in regard to the fact that if I’m looking through a magazine I'll look who’s working at the time. I’m way past the type to look and see what so and so just recently did. There are greats but I stumble upon them. Many people send me books and things like that, but I don’t really study photography. I get most of my inspiration from non-photography related scenarios. I don’t look to other photographers for any kind of inspiration.
And has that always been the case?
Well, you know, when you’re younger you do look at things because you’re even hungrier for information and at that time there were so many great magazines. So you were very excited to see the images. Per Lui, Jill, The Face, even GQ back then. The Bruce Weber photos with all of those guys. Versace campaigns in the 80’s. There were a lot of things that were just exciting visually during that time in photography. I don’t know, maybe when everyone got crazy with the retouching and digital photography. That’s something that’s just not that exciting for me to follow. Even the models, there were some really sick models. You had Lynn Koester who was really hot, I thought. Janice Dickinson was amazing when she was really young too. Tony Viramontes was a hot photographer back in the day. Yeah, fun times.
I know you are a film shooter but do you ever shoot digital? What would you say is the difference between the two and the reason you prefer film?
I don’t shoot digital unless I get a lot of money (laughs). Seriously. It’s not really my thing. If a commercial client needs something like that and it just works for that context and it’s a commercial gig that I don’t really have much of an attachment to, I’ll do that along with film. But for the most part I shoot film. I don’t feel like digital photography has a soul, for me personally. Nothing against people that shoot digital because I see digital photos that I think are really good but just with my brain, the pairing doesn’t capture anything that I think is soulful, organic, or gritty enough.
Can you share a little about the continuity in your relationship with Maxwell? Why do you guys always do such great work together? What was the first time like?
Well I mean, let’s see. The first? He was a kid the first time, he was a teenager or whatever. I just thought that he had a cool look, so that’s why I wanted to photograph him. I think Maxwell and I work together a lot because he wants those photos to look like that. I mean, it sounds real simple but he has access to work with anyone that he wants to work with, he always has. And he always asks me to shoot it. You know, we’re really good friends as well. It’s not really totally that though because I wouldn’t put any pressure on any friends to work with me or vice versa. I wouldn’t really say it’s because we’re friends. I think that for my style, I think that I’m really good at capturing people’s spirits a little bit, you know? And a soulful person like that, a soulful artist, I think that’s really kind of important.
Does the experience of being Black affect your work, if so in what ways?
I don’t know because I’ve always been Black. I don’t really have anything to compare that to, you know? I’m a curious person. I have lots of photos that feature people of all different races and genders. A lot of the kids I photographed during my club days were white kids because they just so happened to be the scene that I was a part of. It was a mixed scene, but they had way more white kids than Black ones. I’m super chill with everyone so I’m not that type of person to put labels on people or put them in boxes. I liked new wave music and alternative music and things like that so the kids that I shot were just white. Many of my photos from the 80’s had kind of a punk aesthetic which I don’t really associate with Black people as much, but that was the case. Then when Hip Hop started happening in the late 80’s I wasn’t really getting Hip Hop gigs but that’s when it was getting a lot of buzz. But I did start liking Hip Hop music a lot, artists like MC Lyte and all those kids. In the early 90’s that’s when Hip Hop starting getting really popular and Vibe came out in 93. In addition to that labels were signing Black artists and rappers were gaining more and more momentum. I think that anyone that was a working photographer, that was young or had an edge, you’d end up in those kinds of places. Hip Hop was something so big that everybody was covering it. I feel like I kind of got pulled into that because that’s what was happening at the time, I don’t feel like I got the gigs because I was Black because there were white photographers who shot as many people as I did in the Black community. I don’t even think that I had a Hip Hop aesthetic. If you know me I still don’t. It’s just that the editors and art directors were really into my photos and thought we’d make an interesting pairing.
So you wouldn’t say that you have a Hip Hop aesthetic to your work?
Someone could say that I do, for example my pictures with Biggie. I don’t think that those are Hip Hop photos. I think that it’s just a Hip Hop artist. If you look at a bunch of my work I just don’t think that there’s a Hip Hop aesthetic. That’s not to separate myself from it because I love Hip Hop. I think some photos look like Hip Hop because I’m shooting Camron and Dipset in the middle of the street in Harlem. If they were an indie band I would shoot them the same way and I have shot them the say way. If you look at the pictures of Lauryn Hill for example, the ones of her in the bathroom, they’re a lot more glamorous. They’re not really Hip Hop photos either. I feel like there are a lot of photographers that are immersed in the culture, like Chi Modu for example. I’ve been following a lot of his work lately. He has pictures with Nas and Mobb Deep and he’s in intimate scenarios with them. My photos are of similar subject matter but it’s something that’s not the same. There are other musicians that were far more immersed.
How would you define your work? Do you think that you have an aesthetic and/or an artistic voice? What would that be?
It’s funny. I’m kind of one of those people that I feel like that’s the place of other people to decide. I know what looks good and I always have. All of my photos from my teen years are good. I’m true to myself as a person. I don’t really follow trends and there’s a consistency that I bring to the table and my archive will show that, It’s just really classic beauty.
Are you heavy into gear? If so what are you favorite cameras and lenses?
No I’m not. (laughs) I don’t really care. I’m not really like that. I mean lately I’m a Contax person, I’m into Contax cameras. I have the same cameras. I get new ones but it’s the same model that I’ve had (The Contax G2). I’ve never been a big tech guy as you can tell from my photos. I’m really into lighting and setting up lights and things in the context of portraiture but I don’t know anything about digital cameras or what the latest camera is. In those scenarios I hire really good technical assistants.
A lot of your work has been of musicians, why was this your preferred photographic space?
You know what, I just love music. That’s why.
How come you don't like to be photographed?
Because I just don’t feel comfortable. There is someone that stands in front of the camera and they like, are everything. And I love that moment. I stand in front of the camera and I feel awkward and I don’t even feel awkward in normal life. (laughs) I feel like this person that is like so… uncomfortable. Instead of trying to figure it out I’m just like, let’s not do that. I don’t know but I feel like I’m more stiff, I’m not myself. In real life I’m not, but when it comes to a camera I don’t feel like I have the personality for that. I know what it’s like to have great subjects and I can honestly say I don’t think that I am one. That’s fine I’ve got other things.
Can you tell me a little bit about Aaliyah and working with her and share a little of that story?
It’s interesting that I’m so tied to Aaliyah because I didn’t really know Aaliyah that well. I’d never met her before the shoot. But I loved her; I always thought she was so cool. She’s like an enigma to me a little bit. Even though we crossed paths and we did something really amazing, it’s interesting that those pictures were so ingrained in public. It would be great to say we did this and we did that and we’d go out to dinners, but that wasn’t our exchange. She showed up at the shoot, I was excited to do it. She was totally lovely, her mom was lovely, she came to the shoot and we all got along famously. I saw her one more time after that. I was walking down the street and Jason Farrar, the stylist JJ, he and Aaliyah were walking down the street and she had this really outrageous coat and he was behind her lifting it up from the back. I knew it was a shoot because he was a sick stylist. I just saw them I didn’t interrupt. I didn’t say anything but that was the last time I saw her. She passed a couple of months after I shot her. The album had just come out and at that time she was on a promotion thing. She was putting out a record and she was on a promotional blitz where she was coming out in all the best magazines. After my shoot I only saw her that final time.
How many videos have you directed? How did you get into that?
EJ: I’ve directed… hmmm it’s not been that many but there have been a few. I’d say… about 6 or 7. I got into it by the way of; I used to carry a super 8mm camera around. I would bring it around when I went on a trip. I would shoot like a still photo of the band and then I’d whip out my super 8 camera and I’d shoot the same thing. So I just started editing those together and showing record companies what a video would look like, which is the same way my photos look. And with Maxwell and those guys, that was my first video. The reason it was appealing to those guys was because we basically made a music video that looked like my still photographs. That really made sense at that time. Because you would have platforms that played videos, Saturday morning shows and things like that. You’d also have record stores that stocked albums and CDs and if someone saw a video on one of those Saturday morning shows and went to the store to pick up the album, the covers would have the same aesthetic. It makes sense it’s how you breach those things together. I did a few but now it’s coming full circle. I’m really excited about the films I’ve been shooting. So far I’m working with Cakes Da Killer and Don Christian. With Cakes I’ve worked on some promotional stuff for him. And with Don it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve done in regards to movie film.
You’ve recently gotten into making clothing. Is there a lot more of this coming in the near future?
Yes, it’s a lot more. I haven’t even scratched the surface. The interest that I have in it that is so exciting that I don’t want to blow myself up before anything happens. I will say we’re close to making some major deals and they’re going to be in the best places. We started making them from scratch. The details are going to be the way that I see them. I’ve got so many photos and so many ideas for things that I want to do. I will say, one thing that I’m really excited about, one of those collections that I’m working toward is going to feature a lot of my work from when I was a kid. I’m still putting a lot of those things together and I think that it really works.
What do you consider your biggest accomplishment to date to be?
EJ: You know what, I feel really happy that I’ve got a lot of really successful photos as opposed to one. No one wants to be a one hit wonder. I think it’s really great that I have this body of work. Some fans online think that shoot of Aaliyah is everything. Then the Lauryn Hill album is officially a part of history. With the shoot with Biggie I’m on National Geographic. Seeing myself in context with news about Bill Clinton and all of these things that are important in the 90s then having me shooting images of the Notorious BIG, it’s crazy. I worked all of these years and I’m going to keep working. I’ve shot so many great photos of people less famous than those guys that I think are equally great. I just keep going.
Name 5 people, living or dead that you would LOVE to photograph?
EJ: That’s a bit difficult. There may have been people who I wanted to shoot when they were younger that I wouldn’t want to shoot right now. Hmm. Grace Jones. We flirted in the 90s about doing photos. She was so intense and I was just so young. It never totally panned out. I’ve got some photos of her live but not a proper session. Of the youth, Rihanna intrigues me. There’s two. Umm, I never even think about things like this. Oh Prince of course. I think he is everything. To be totally honest I would love to shoot Lauryn Hill again. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately actually. That’s something we should try to revisit. You know who I never got to shoot officially back in the day, Lil Kim. That would have been something, that would still be something. My thing is if I’ll shoot the guy in the deli because he’s got a great look I’ll shoot anybody. I’m not like a starfucker so I really feel like when someone is really into your stuff and wants to work with you I’m really into it.
What is the best life/photographic advice that you have ever received?
EJ: I guess it’s to really contribute something to your craft every day. I want to create an environment for myself where my work space and my personal and professional life are all one thing. I’m always involved in being creative in my work. Whether it’s editing photos or taking photos, editing films or making films, working on your site, you can’t get around it. For younger people it’s very important that every day you contribute something.
What would you like your legacy to be, long after you’ve passed on, personally, and photographically?
You know what’s so interesting? When Prince died it really threw me off on lots of levels. It just kind of seemed like there was someone who just bounced. For someone who was so serious about owning his things and just all of this privacy. The fact that he just seemingly left without a will and with no direction for what happens to his things when he’s gone, it just throws me off. It doesn’t matter what I say. At the end of the day, shit, all I’m concerned with is creating as much content as possible, because the more that I produce, and at a certain level the more that it’s out there. It doesn’t matter what I want because my work will speak for itself. Whoever is left will decide what my legacy will be I know it’s going to be a crazy full body of work but besides that I don’t know what’s important to feel that I left behind. We’re romantic about people when they die but at the end of the day they’re gone. I know that while I’m alive my goal is to live a long time, to be able retire to a nice villa in the country with nice land and space and all that. And basically have access to having my work all around so that I can have studio visits. I want to be putting out books and showing things in galleries and to be the type of person that can tell you that story about the 80’s, the 90’s, the 00’s, the 2010s, 2020’s, 2030’s. I would like my story to be that one. to have sick ass work from every decade for like 6 decades, and having started a teenager that’s very realistic.
Interview by Giancarlo Valentine
Photography by Eric Johson