The beginning of the story that culminates with this collaboration, like most things in the music and arts space, isn’t one that walks the traditional route. It doesn’t begin with a tale about a mutually beneficial business relationship, but it does, like most good things, end with one. The story begins with an all-too-familiar tale of a missing photo credit on social media.
The image in question was an iconic shot of Queens native Nas taken by photographer T. Eric Monroe posted on the Okayplayer Instagram, and he wasn’t going to let his work fall victim to the free-for-all nature of the digital media age. Eric reached out, we adjusted the credit, and thus began a relationship with a man who, unbeknownst to us at the moment, had captured some of the biggest names in our scope of music. Though all his work was striking, there was one image in particular that held our attention: a never-before-seen portrait of D’Angelo and Lauryn Hill.
Since the opening of our Williamsburg, Brooklyn-based venue, Okay Space, Okayplayer and OkayAfrica have spent the last year moving into the art arena with exclusive shows, commissioned exhibits, and a number of cultural activations. Amongst the multitude of mediums explored, Okay Space Co-Founder and Okayplayer President, Dan Petruzzi’s interest was recently piqued in the area of photography, namely, rare fine prints.
And, so it begins with the release of a super-limited edition run of 30 signed and numbered, museum-quality 11” x 14” prints from artist T. Eric Monroe, who has made a living chronicling legends as they were in the making. To commemorate both this photograph’s availability for purchase in our OKP Shop as our first-ever fine art release, and the growth of our relationship, we sat down with the New Jersey native to get the story behind this particular moment in time, and why Gregory Hines will forever be one of the coolest men in entertainment, and to get a bit of advice for new and aspiring photographers.
Okayplayer: Eric, can you walk us through the moments before taking this legendary photo?
Eric Monroe: It was 1996. I don’t remember the exact name of the event, but Lauryn [Hill] was being presented with an award. I don’t recall all the who, what, why and when’s, but I remember it was in Manhattan, New York, and Lauryn was greeting people at the time as they were coming into the venue.
Okayplayer: Who else do you remember being there?
Angie Martinez was there. She came in with Q-Tip and they were all hanging out. At one point, Clive Davis came in, and he and Lauryn were talking. This was prior to him working with Aretha Franklin. A little bit later guys like Malik Yoba from New York Undercover were here. Maxwell walked in. He and D’Angelo talked, so did he and Lauryn.
It was natural that all these guys were in the same place. I knew Lauryn, so I asked her if she would mind taking a picture with D’Angelo. It was no problem for her. It was a beautiful moment. I took two snaps of them. You felt the moment.
OKP: Maxwell and D’Angelo in 1996. These were two neo-soul legends in their prime. What was the vibe between them?
ERIC: When they saw each other they just had love for one another, like they were best friends. It was a soul glow moment, haha. That night was just such a lovely evening.
OKP: What do you think you were witnessing at that time?
ERIC: Back then I really didn’t think about it. I just knew they were two very relevant people within the same space. To have a picture of them together, to have a picture of D’Angelo and Maxwell together, it just made sense. [Picturing] these two together it was like, “Why would they not do an album together?”
You can see the excitement in their eyes. You can see the youthfulness, the love, the genuine respect and admiration they have for one another. They hadn’t yet been beat up by their careers and their successes. Even stuff I shot with other artists, you can see that they were still enjoying their careers.
I have this picture of Ol’ Dirty Bastard that I’ve never shown before. He’s on this rooftop in Lower East Side, sitting on sitting on the ledge of the building, calm sky post-sunset, World Trade Center off to his right, just calm and chill. It’s such a unique ODB picture because it is not him being overly crazy. It is very subtle, but there’s something in his life force that’s visible in that photo. It captures him at such a raw, beautiful moment in his career—at the start of his career —even though he had been out for a while. That’s what I truly love about photography.
OKP: Can you talk a bit about your career and how you got your start?
ERIC: I lived in Jersey, so, from 1992 to 1997 my grind was Monday through Friday. Weekends I would get up in the morning, get my son straight and then come to New York and run the town all day. I’d take the bus or the train in, hit the photo lab and then go in and meet with the magazines and go to the record labels. Sometimes I would get hired to do a music video shoot, run to the subway, go to another shoot, drop my film off and then head back to Jersey. The next day, get up and do it again.
My first pictures were published in skateboard magazines in the music sections. From there I would get access to different shows and meet artists that I’d shoot and then sell the images to magazines. I was always hustling. By ’95, I was working at The Source as a photo editor and I would just be in the streets, getting busy. It was all about positioning one’s self in the right place where opportunities would fall in. I made it a point to be where it was happening.
I used to run with guys like Ernie Paniccioli, who had already built up a strong reputation as a leading hip-hop photographer. Back in the day, there wasn’t a magazine you couldn’t find without his photos in there. So, running around with him, people were calling him all the time because they wanted their artist in the magazines that he had access to. Ernie took me under his wing and we’d hang out, kick it, and shoot the same events. The way he shot it was one way, the way I shot it was completely different, but there are shots where Ernie is in the background of some of my shots and vice versa.
OKP: Having captured so many incredible photos, what is one memorable moment from your career that you can share with us?
ERIC: I was going to this showcase for ONYX, which I arrived early to. I’m in my car in Midtown, Manhattan, and I look across the street to see a Broadway theater presenting a show. It was Jelly’s Last Jam featuring Gregory Hines and Savion Glover.
As the theater is emptying out, I run to the side stage door and see Savion signing autographs and people’s playbills. After that, Gregory comes out and something said to me, get your camera. I got my camera, ran back and asked Mr. Hines if I could get a couple pictures of him. He obliged and I’m snapping photos of him. He then tells me to stop, so I thought I did something wrong. He’s like, ‘Nah, come on,’ and we leave the crowd to go down half a block from the theater and he let me shoot him personally.
I was in shock. I got a bunch of good shots, gave him my card and pager number. ‘Whenever he gets this stuff developed, he’s gonna come back and I want to buy pictures from him,’ he told the stage manager after introducing me to him. His family always wanted pictures of him, but he never had anything different, so I was right on time for him. After that I went and took pictures at the ONYX show, dropped off my film at the photo lab, and then brought it to the photo agency that had hired me and the woman, her name was Julia, was like, ‘How in the bloody fucking hell did you fucking shoot Gregory Hines?’
I explained it and she thought it was ‘fucking amazing.’ It was that work ethic that got me in the door in New York.
OKP: Do you have a favorite shot that you can recall?
ERIC: It depends on the moment because there are so many random moments. I have a shot of Biggie and ‘Pac together, years ago. I always remember looking at the picture, thinking I can’t use this because there’s a giant shadow falling across the both of them. So, for years, I kept putting it in the filing cabinet, just ignoring it and ignoring it.
It wasn’t until one day, something made me pull the slide out and actually look at it in the loop. I’m kicking myself for years because this is Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur with Lil’ Cease and they all have “I’m a bad boy” t-shirts on. I ended up releasing it a couple of years ago in a magazine out of Australia, but it hasn’t blown up fully. Some different websites republished the picture, but it was one of those shots where I looked at it and aesthetically it wasn’t a proper shot.
OKP: Tried and true question to wrap things up and that is: do you have any advice that you are willing to share for anyone who is serious about getting into photography?
ERIC: Seek advice from everyone. I didn’t have a traditional photography background where I went to school for it, or worked under some photographer, or was someone’s assistant. I knew how to take a good picture, but I sped up my education by always asking questions to the guys at the photo labs. They were developing all the premiere photographers.
This one photo lab I used to go to, a guy named Carlos would show me how people do certain shots, would explain the film used and some of the lighting techniques. The notes were great, especially for those who didn’t have a lot of budget to do all that stuff. So, always ask questions, because you don’t know who has a lot of knowledge. Photographers? Some will help you, others will try to hide information from you because they’re scared that you might pick up something and take them out of business.
Also, be open to criticism and don’t be afraid to fail. It’s all learning. Based on how I came into photography, it was all fail and if you would have counted up all the “no’s” then shit, my grade would be an F-plus-plus-plus- plus-plus. At some point, though, those failures became successes and the experience gained is the reward. I didn’t give up, continued to ask questions and was able to work with people who also had a burning desire to do something creative. Just get the ball rolling because once you get it rolling you can grow it from there.