‘I was told to get an iconic picture of hip-hop’s golden couple, Biggie Smalls and Faith Evans. So I photographed them under Brooklyn Bridge with the New York skyline behind’
I’m from Newark, New Jersey but from the age of 13 or 14 I’d go into New York and hang out in book and record stores, looking at photos in books and on album covers. I was obsessed with the raw style of the photographs of Blondie or the punk scene over in Britain, and attracted to street culture in general. There was a school near me which had all the badass kids outside, with cool clothes, getting into fights. I wanted to go to a school like that but my aunts who lived in that neighbourhood would go: “Absolutely not. That’s a terrible school.”
I was an artsy kid and started taking photos of friends in my high school. Around 1987 I got really into hip-hop and began shooting the kids that I met in clubs. I would hit up magazines, showing them my work, or look on the back of record sleeves, call the record companies and ask if I could meet somebody in the art department. So when hip-hop started blowing up, I happened to be blowing up at the same time.
By the early 90s I was well known in the hip-hop community and getting work with magazines such as Vibe, which catered for that audience. Biggie, AKA the Notorious BIG, was on the radio – he was so hot that it seemed like every fifth song was him. I was a hot photographer so when Vibe asked me to shoot him and Faith Evans, it was a perfect match. They had not long been married and were hip-hop’s golden couple. I’d met Faith once before, when I photographed her for Interview magazine. She was from Newark, like I was.
Vibe called me in and told me they wanted me to do something important 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 shots were indoors, so I thought it would be good to get them outside. Biggie represented Brooklyn, so I thought it would be cool to shoot him underneath Brooklyn Bridge with the New York skyline behind. I picked up a Cadillac from a place that rented cars to the movies. I think it had been in A Bronx Tale.
When the couple first arrived, they wanted some 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’s gonna look like the man, and he had a rugged public persona, but he was 23 when I shot him and in reality very boyish and endearing. He kept looking under the bridge and going: “Is this where they dump the dead bodies?”
I took the photo on 120 Ektachrome film and used a mix of natural light and flash, so there are no shadows. For the photo they both gave me the sort of look you’d expect with them sitting in the back of that car, very connected with each other, but when she was in the car and he was outside it they were more playful. Faith Evans was starting to happen as well and they were in love. It was a really good time for them.
Later on I took some shots of Biggie in the car at night on his own, which people now tell me look really eerie. There was one shot from the session of Biggie smiling, which the record company later used as the cover for a single. His mother said she loved that photo because she never usually saw him smiling.
Vibe and everybody loved the Biggie and Faith photos, but the east coast/west coast hip-hop feud was happening and somebody told me that the west coast guys were pissed at me because they thought the photo was ripping off west coast car culture. A couple of years later The Face magazine were going to fly me to LA to shoot Biggie again, but told me they couldn’t pinpoint him to a location in LA because he was getting death threats. They said to wait until he could confirm somewhere. That’s when he got killed.
Eric Johnson receives the first Icon Award at Abbey Road Studios Music Photographer Awards on 14 May.
Born: East Orange, New York.
Trained: Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, and interning for still life photographer Constance Hansen.
Influences: “Scenes and cultures and meeting people. There are great photographers like Helmut Newton and Janette Beckman, but I’m more interested in stories.”
High point: “The cover of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was my biggest, but shooting Shygirl last year felt amazing.”
Low point: “Getting arrested for weed in Jamaica shooting Beenie Man’s Tropical Storm album cover, and sitting in the back of a police car during the shoot.”
Top tip: “Be mindful of the energy you put out. People will work with you if they like spending time with you.”