Johnny Nuñez, “So Good” [Feature From the May 2012 Issue]
**THIS STORY APPEARS IN ITS ENTIRETY IN THE MAY 2012 ISSUE OF XXL.
WORDS JAYSON RODRIGUEZ (@jayhovawitness) IMAGES SWIZZ BEATZ AND LEXI LAMBROS
Johnny Nuñez isn’t used to being in front of the camera. The famed rap photojournalist, who has shot flicks of every hip-hop and R&B heavyweight, plus celebrities like President Obama and the First Lady, Oprah Winfrey, Mick Jagger, Sting, Michael Jordan, LeBron James and many more, is spending a mid-March afternoon in the photo studio at XXL’s Manhattan offices getting his picture taken. The special occasion? In honor of his 15 years in the business, Nuñez has asked friend and frequent subject Swizz Beatz, who also happens to be a photographer, to take pictures for Nuñez’s story and sit in on the interview. “Let me get some movement,” Swizz shouts, enjoying the opportunity to trade places with his buddy. “Open your arms like you love life.” Nuñez, always affable (and talkative), is struggling to adjust. But if there’s one thing the Venezuelan and Trinidadian visual artist has learned in his life, it’s how to adapt.
Born 40 years ago in New York, Nuñez was adopted by a strict Puerto Rican family and raised in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. He lived an idyllic childhood, and by the time he turned 18, he decided to attend Suffolk County Community College to study pharmacology. But a lack of funds forced Nuñez to leave school, and he soon found himself homeless, living in his car and then later on friends’ couches. As a devout Christian, Nuñez believed in the power of divine intervention—and whether it was through God’s blessing or his own charisma, a photographer friend took him in, introduced him to photography and gave him $500. Shortly thereafter, he launched his first venture, a line of hip-hop greeting cards, and began to work his way into the music industry snapping shots. Fifteen years later, Nuñez has carved a spot for himself as hip- hop’s go-to paparazzo, visually documenting the music and the culture along the way. He has created relationships with artists and had access to special hip-hop moments and events that most photographers, journalists and hip-hop heads would only dream of, all while politicking his own successful business deals along the way. A philanthropist at heart, the powerful photog has also spent a chunk of his time over the years working with organizations he believes in, including Visions and Children’s Trust Heart Gallery.
Here, Nuñez and Swizz chat after their photo shoot about capturing moments in photo, Nuñez’s creative process and his impact on and success in hip-hop.
Do you remember the first time you guys met?
JOHNNY NUÑEZ: I think it was maybe on the set of an Eve video. I remember listening to the beats before I even got into photography and was like, That’s Swizz Beatz, oh shit. In my head, instant groupie. I thought he was gonna be a bigger dude and right away started shooting him.
SWIZZ BEATZ: I think it was probably on [Eve’s] “Love Is Blind,” where we shot in the park, because that was like the first video [where] we allowed photography. We was new. If it wasn’t somebody we didn’t know already, they weren’t allowed on the set. I don’t think we really met, he was just doing his job and we met by him doing his job and a quick handshake. I wasn’t getting into the craft, I wasn’t even into photography at that time, so I was focusing and excited to be doing the video.
So Swizz, what’s Johnny like in action, when he’s trying to get the shot?
SWIZZ: My thing with Johnny was that he was always so quick. I call him the pop-up king. I can be somewhere way left field and Johnny will come out, say, “Stand right there,” and then bring somebody out to pair you up with. You can tell he respects his craft and respects people’s privacy. A lot of photographers come at the wrong time; they don’t know how to be discreet—they’re just annoying. Most of the artists want you to get the picture; it’s just how you get the picture. If I’m in a conversation, something personal or something that’s major to business, I don’t want no flash popping off. If you catch that, pop-pop-pop, you caught that. But a lot of photographers don’t have that. They were hired for the event so they can shoot the event. There’s a line with that, with artists and photographers, and artists only let a couple in. Johnny is the number-one person let in ’cause of how he’s moving. He’s very respectful to your family, and if there’s something that you don’t like—“Nah, don’t let that one go”— there’s not even a second conversation.
NUÑEZ: When you look at a photograph, you’re not just looking at, Oh, that’s a nice photograph. You’re looking at a moment the photographer wanted you to see. Just like an artist or producer like Swizz, when he makes these beats—they are timeless. When I’m long gone and he’s long gone, his beats will still be playing and people will sample his shit and he’ll be recognized for [being the] Duke Ellington of his era or the Andy Warhol and Basquiat of his time. His music transcends, from not only photography to music, to actual art. Those elements are like earth, wind and fire; they are all part of this circle of life. It’s a constant balance in life. If you’re good at photography, you are probably good at making beats, and if you are good at making beats, you are probably good at photography. If you’re good at photography, you’re probably good at dancing. For all you know we’re probably gonna see him doing Dancing with the Stars in a few months [laughs], because its all related. I could see that.
Do you have any favorite photos of Johnny’s?
SWIZZ: It’s like picking a favorite Basquiat. It’s hard. You have a favorite one every other couple of months. He has so much work, I really want to just sit down and see what the portfolio looks like now, ’cause people don’t realize how fast time moves. It’s like a database. You can go back in your catalog and be like, Man, what was I dressing like? What did I have on? Where was this and what was I going through? There’s also an educational process for the artist or [the subject], ’cause you can look at that photo now and you can laugh at how you was dressed and how vulnerable you was to the streets. You laughing at how you ended up in this music industry, from just having fun to being taken seriously and leading into [being] a serious businessperson as well. All of those moments are captured. That’s why the respect is amazing in photography.
Now, being into photography yourself, what do you think when you see Johnny’s photos?
SWIZZ: I’m a sucker for art and the stories that these photos tell that can never be told again—the actual stance and pose will never be the same. Even if you staged it, it would be slightly off. It’s just something we might overlook now with these photos because we can pinpoint how, what, when, where, why at that time, but give it 20 years. You’ll be digging for those. I think Johnny can do the most amazing exhibit, and when he does do his exhibit I want to be one of the major supporters, because he supported us for all these years and made us look good for all these years, and it’s only right to come together and make him look good as well. Especially with his charitable causes as well.
It’s almost overwhelming to think of Johnny’s archive. He’s working at all the events, big and small. He’s been around for some of hip-hop’s biggest moments as well as celebrity moments in general, and been the one up close to capture the photos.
SWIZZ: What’s crazy is he knows better than the artist about those moments. I know 50 [gestures to photo of 50 Cent] is gonna remember that moment, but Johnny can tell you right off the bat, “You was in such-and-such, and remember this and remember you did that?”
NUÑEZ: They were quoting old-school lyrics in that one. I introduced Lenny [Kravitz] to 50 in this shot because they had never met. 50 was more nervous to meet Kravitz. [Lenny] was like, Just don’t rob me. Like the way Swizz makes beats, I mimic with photographs. I challenge myself to make different photographs happen. I told Kanye [gestures to photo of Kanye West with KRS-One and Rakim], “Come over here.” He was like, “Nah, Johnny, not right now, I’m rehearsing.” I’m like, “Trust me, you want this shot.” Later on, Kanye was bowing down.
Johnny, some folks might not be familiar with your name, but they’ve seen your work.
NUÑEZ: I’m the first photographer to ever be in a video game as himself, in Def Jam Icon Pt. 2. It was my hangtag that was the hangtag for Kimora Lee Simmons’ Baby Phat. I’m the first photographer that I knew to have collaborations with New Era baseball caps, to have collaborations with New Balance sneakers, and now [I’m] doing a sort of collaboration with Reebok. First to create hip-hop greeting cards. One of the first photographers I know to get shouted out in rap songs. Personal photographer to LeBron James, Jay-Z, Michael Jordan, Russell Simmons, Kimora Lee Simmons, Oprah Winfrey, Heidi Klum. I’ve worked with Michelle and Barack Obama. Personal photographer for Nas, Drake, Lil Wayne, Birdman. There’s not one artist I haven’t been a personal photographer for, for a major event. Now I’m teaching underprivileged children in Harlem and the Bronx to do photography. Visions, it’s a charity that’s helping people who are visually impaired. The other one is the Children’s Trust Heart Gallery. The chapter I’m with is based out of Miami, and we help foster kids by photographing them and doing a big exhibit of them, inviting people who are looking to potentially adopt. We’ve had a few adoptions, and that’s worth more to me than money, ’cause I was adopted myself. And the blind are very important to me because I make a living off of what I see. I thank God and know where my blessings come from, and that’s why I love giving, because not only are you doing God’s work, but God sees everything and He’s the true architect and He will bless you if you bless others. So I just want to be a vessel of His word, as imperfect as I am.