July 9th marked the worldwide launch of JAY Z’s 12th studio album, Magna Carta… Holy Grail. To commemorate the album’s launch, Life+Times spoke with Ari Marcopoulos, the photographer who helped capture the album art and conceived the aesthetic and design for the cover. Here, he tells us about the collaborative nature and why seeing his photographs in Times Square was his all time “pinch me” moment.
Life+Times: Since the album art has been released, things must be pretty crazy. What have you been up to since the album art was unveiled?
Ari Marcopoulos: I have just been doing the same thing as always. I did get a lot reaction from friends that are very excited about the fact that I worked on the album. The one thing I did do is put up a website for the first time. I figured this was a good time to do so with all the attention on my work. So, I wanted to put something out there that represents more of my stuff.
L+T: Tell me a little bit about the collaborative nature behind selecting the album art. How did it go down?
AM: I met with Jay at the studio where he rapped parts of the lyrics of all the songs to me and we had a dialogue about the different subjects he addresses on the album. From there together with Willo, the creative director on the project, we talked about what kind of imagery could work. I wanted to come up with something to add to the album…and not just illustrate it. So, we talked about images and I spent around a week photographing different images. From there, we went into the editing process, along with Willo and Brian Roettinger, the Art Director. In the end, what you are getting is Jay’s album and a photo book. Together, they interact with each other.
L+T: You used an image of a black and white photograph of a pair of classical nude marble statues. What is it about this image that you find so applicable to accompany the cover of Magna Carta… Holy Grail?
AM: I feel the main theme of the album is duality. How there are always two sides to things. Jay talks about how those that love you can hurt you most or on the track Ocean he talks about the pleasures the ocean gives you and how at the same time slaves were brought across the ocean. So the sculpture represented a connection between man and woman, but the woman is turned away so there is a certain tension – but there is also love. I took most all the photos in New York and this Florentine sculpture I photographed at the MET, which to me, is a classic New York place to visit. If you are a real New Yorker you also might know that you can pay what you wish for entry. So you can get into this great museum for a nickel.
L+T: You also took a selection of images during the recording process. What was this like – from a photographic POV.
AM: I am used to photographing on the fly as things are happening. Also I have worked in the studio environment before with the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy for example. The most exciting thing for me was really to see Jay at work and witness his methods. It was amazing to see that he doesn’t write down the lyrics, everything comes straight form the brain into the mic and onto the recording.
L+T: I want to know a little bit about your career history, starting with your time assisting Andy Warhol. What did you learn from him?
AM: I just printed his black and white photographs for two years. He took lots of photos and I printed 70 images a day for two years. So I saw an amazing amount of images and also lived his life partially through his photographs. What I learned from him was that everything is worth paying attention to visually. It was an amazing experience and I was very lucky to get the job at such a young age.
L+T: You’re known for choosing grittier, more natural looking subjects to photograph. How much of your work is inspired by art?
AM: I feel like my work is art and my art is my life or my life is my art. I cannot tell anymore what comes first. I am of course inspired by other art and I have learned from seeing art, but not just visual art, also literature, movies, music and as I said before, life.
L+T: What was it like seeing your work in large-scale format in Times Square? I imagine it must have been quite a trip.
AM: When I heard about it, I went up there to check it out. For me, it was the first time to have my work up on Times Square. And even though it was part of an ad campaign, the images were purely mine and I didn’t have to compromise myself in any way. So it was amazing to see the images – hardcore black and white images amongst a sea of color.
Magna Carta… Holy Grail is now available worldwide. Click here to get it on iTunes.