Photographer Jonathan Mannion on Shooting Eminem's 'Marshall Mathers LP': 'It Was Divine Sh-t'

Saturday (May 23) marks the 20th anniversary of Eminem’s third album, The Marshall Mathers LP. His magnum opus not only shattered records on the Billboard 200 (debuted at No. 1 with a whopping 1.78 million copies its opening week) but highlighted his abilities as a raw and gifted storyteller. With Em looking to shed light on his real-life persona of Marshall Mathers, he hired famed photographer Jonathan Mannion to help capture his vision.

Mannion, who previously shot legendary album covers such as Jay-Z’s 1996 Reasonable Doubt and DMX’s 1998 Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, relished the task of teaming up with one of rap’s polarizing acts because of their commonalities. Like Eminem, Mannion was a young, hungry creative from the Midwest, whose affinity for hip-hop ran deep, dating back to DJ Quik’s debut single, “Born and Raised in Compton.” 

Em and Mannion’s tag-team expanded to over two continents. Not only did they shoot photos for MMLP in Amsterdam but also Detroit. From the pizza shop that Eminem used to work at to even his old childhood home where he sat on the steps for the album’s classic cover art, nothing was off-limits.

“It was great,” recalls Mannion of the shoot in from of Em’s old house. “It was him in his element and delivering his journey. You know, the humble nature of him and his process of getting to be this megastar, which is rooted so clearly in talent. His talent and his relentless drive was it. “

Mannion spoke to Billboard about the 20th anniversary of The Marshall Mathers LP, where the album cover ranks in his collection and Em’s dedication to delivering the best shots. 

What does the number 20 mean for you having been involved in the Marshall Mathers LP?

It’s really hard to put into words how important this album is for the world, for Eminem (and) for me. There’s an endless amount of stories. We shot in Amsterdam and Detroit. Originally, this album was meant to be called Amsterdam. I was like, “We have to go to Amsterdam. We have to all get on a plane and go there. That’s the only way we’re doing this album.” He happened to be performing out there and said, “This is going to sync up perfectly.”

We did a phenomenal session out there — really poured out hearts into it. Then, I think there was a realization that he wanted to present this trifecta of who he was: Slim Shady, Marshall Mathers and Eminem. This is how genius this guy is. He’s thinking farther down the road to be able to craft these versions of himself. Slim Shady was the gimmick to get everyone’s attention, which was still rooted in something phenomenal.

Then, he was like, “Let me tell you about my journey. Let me allow myself to be vulnerable within the space and deliver ‘me’ and how I really got here [with] my struggles, my pain,” and I think that’s when everybody really connected with him on a different level. It wasn’t just this pop phenomenon that he was rooted in reverence for the culture. He obviously felt like he had to prove himself probably more than the next MC just because he was from Detroit and a white boy. He had something to prove and he was clinical on the album, delivering masterpiece after masterpiece.

When it was time to dig into who Marshall Mathers was, we had to do another session in Detroit. So we flew to Detroit to kind of continue [the shoot]. It kind of became this nice balance of Amsterdam and all of these lax drugs laws and all of these experimental moments that he was pursuing at that time to kind of ground himself. We shot outside the pizza shop that he used to work at with people that he still knew from there.

I remember you said in a past interview that you shot him in his boxers and trench coat in the freezing cold towards the end of the shoot.

It’s dedication. I was with him entirely, pushing and wanting more, but he one-upped me in this session. We did that and I was like, “OK. He’s going to be tired.” He’s in boxer shorts, combat boots and a trench coat being the fullness of the character that he was presenting as this Amsterdam version of Em. He pushed it and I was like, “Man, this is incredible. What we achieved out here was beyond comprehension. I can’t wait for when we get back to see the session and go through it.”

He was like, “Man, I was thinking I want to do one more shot. Can we go back to the hotel? I want to be in my hotel room writing to my daughter.” Usually, I’m the one begging rappers to go a little bit farther because I want to give them the world, but it flipped on me. It wasn’t begrudgingly that I went there to that place. I was like, “I’m with this. Thank you.” It made another really phenomenal image that we got to share with the world because of that effort.

In 2012, you listed the Marshall Mathers LP as your second favorite album cover that you worked on behind Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt. Are you still going with that 1-2 combo in 2020?

The full session that I did for Eminem — the fact that it’s two shoots and two concepts — I don’t know. It might have moved into the top spot. Eminem was certainly my first album cover that has such a sweet spot and obviously Jay’s run was next level, but man, it might be a tie for first. I might have to give it a tie in 2020.

What was the process of having Eminem shoot outside of his house for the album cover? 

It was great. It was really him in his element and really delivering his journey. You know, the humble nature of him and his process of getting to be this megastar, which is really rooted so clearly in talent. His talent and his relentless drive was it.

Nobody was really living in that house. It was just funky and crap in the backyard, but it was nice to see him walk these footsteps. He kind of went into a different mental place. He showed up a little bit late because we were losing light, but it was the last shot that we needed to do. I went back to create this day’s work of footage and he showed up. I said, “Come on, man. Let’s get right into it because we’re going to lose light.” He kind of just sat down and focused. It was relatively quick, but I still shot maybe 20-30 rolls of film, even in a 20-30 minute moment ’cause I was shooting pieces almost like a little puzzle thing that I was going to put together.

It’s an image that I loved and I really fought for to be the cover. There were like, “Nah, it’s kind of too artsy.” I was like, “OK.” [Laughs]. Then, I went right into the airport. I flew in the morning, we knocked some stuff out in the afternoon and I was the next day because deadlines were happening and I needed to go back and design it.

Which songs from the album stuck with you the most?

I remember going to a concert. I think Redman was performing. It was in Detroit and we were in a limo and [Eminem] played me the whole album. It was just us, probably just drinking and on our way to his concert. I remember him hanging off this balcony and he’s holding his belt loop. Like he had a belt on and I’m like, “This motherf—er is going to fall off of here.” He was so hyped. He loves music. I was like, “Let me not let this dude fall from the balcony into the crowd and have this be it.”

Really, the entirety of the album, the sequence of the album, I remember more in this moment than an individual track. I would have to look at it, but I just remember that drive where we had an opportunity to listen to the album. It was divine shit. This is one that is going to stand as a complete thought because there’s nothing to really skip over.

If you can pick one word that best encapsulates this album 20 years later, what word would that be?

As a word that became a word that sticks for all of his fans, like the people that go a little too hard because of the love that they have for him, I would probably say Stan. It was a word he crafted to mean something else. Like a fan of the extreme level. Obviously, Stans can go over the edge a little bit, but I’d say when you’re a Stan for something, you’re just an ultra super-fan and I’m certainly that of him, his work and his drive. It’s great to see this project age 20 years and to still have the same meaning and the same feeling that he intended for it to have from the onset.