Tuesday, February 10, 2015


Whitney Houston, Toronto, Oct. 1990

PAPARAZZI ARE TO OTHER PHOTOGRAPHERS WHAT VULTURES ARE TO EAGLES. Or at least that's how "legitimate" photographers imagine the relationship. I had, until the '90s, spent very little time around paparazzi, but that decade would put me next to them - in scrums, on red carpets and in press holding rooms at the film festival - more than I enjoyed. The thing is, I'm not sure a disinterested outsider would have been able to tell the difference between me and a self-identified paparazzo from a few feet away.

When Whitney Houston came to town promoting I'm Your Baby Tonight, NOW assigned me to shoot a press event. It wasn't the sort of thing that NOW normally covered, but they can be forgiven for being tempted since Houston was probably the most famous woman in the world at that point next to Princess Diana.

It wasn't the sort of thing I normally did, either, but I was vaguely curious about how her handlers would manage a photo op with someone so in demand, and how other photographers - and I knew there would be a lot of other photographers - would get something worth printing. It was probably the first time I found myself behind a rope with paparazzi, as well as a thicket of wire service and newspaper photographers.

And like I said, I would challenge any civilian to tell them apart.

Whitney Houston, Toronto, Oct. 1990

I arrived early at a banquet hall in the Harbour Castle Hilton to find a white riser set up at the far end of the room, with a curtain behind it and a chair set on it at an angle. There were already a few photographers there with their Nikons and Canons and a range of cannon-like telephoto lenses, all staring with some confusion at the rope barrier that had been set up just in front of the riser.

I was pleasantly surprised. With a prime spot in the centre of the scrum I'd only be a few feet away from Houston when she sat down. It was just a little farther away than usually was from my portrait subjects; I could probably do the whole thing with my 50mm, maybe even the 35mm. I put my telephoto lens back in the bag.

But then I noticed that the rest of the photographers were milling around, looking at the rope anxiously and talking among themselves, with the paps - not a term they were using for themselves much yet; that would come a bit later - looking most distressed. And then without a word a couple of them began pulling the security rope back, first a foot or two, and then with other photographers helping, they dragged it back halfway down the room, creating a yards-wide moat between us and our subject.

Whitney Houston, Toronto, Oct. 1990

It felt like everyone around me had gone mad. I looked around, appealing to the few photographers I knew, but they simply shrugged; some kind of majority consensus had been reached and it meant making sure that none of us would have a better chance at a good shot than anyone else.

I appealed to the PR people handling the event, but they shrugged and said that this was obviously what the majority of the shooters in the room wanted. With a heavy heart I reached into my bag for my telephoto.

Robert Capa was famously supposed to have said that "if your photographs aren't good enough, you're not close enough," but that rule apparently didn't apply in this room, where it was more like "If you're too close, your photograph might be too good." For not the first time I was reminded that enforced mediocrity is one of the less attractive by-products of a democracy.

Whitney Houston, Toronto, Oct. 1990

Houston was late, and looked a bit surprised to see the chair on the dais separated from the scrum by yards of carpet. Before she even sat down I realized why most of the photographers - and the paps in particular - wanted to put some room between themselves and their subject.

The shouts and bellowing began while she walked to the chair and became a din as soon as she sat down and looked our way - calls to "Look over here!" and "This way, Whitney!" and "Give us a smile!" and "You look great!" Combined with the strobing flashes and the jostling it made for an imposing spectacle, and I could see why anyone might want to be separated from it by at least a couple of yards of air.

Houston, an old pro at this by now, responded by shouting back at the photographers, goading them back when their pleading for a look or a pose became more strident. I realized I wasn't going to get much more with the telephoto and switched to my 50mm, just to get a record of how far away from Houston we were, and how isolated and object-like our subject appeared from behind the security rope.

Whitney Houston, Toronto, Oct. 1990

It was all over quite quickly, and I couldn't be certain I'd gotten anything. Houston got up as the flashes kept popping, waved and walked away smiling - to "I Will Always Love You" and The Bodyguard and Waiting to Exhale and Bobby Brown and all the rest of what would be a much shorter story than anyone in the room imagined.

Whitney Houston died in a bathtub in the Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 11, 2012.


1 comment:

  1. What a truly gorgeous subject Whitney Houston was and despite the hullabaloo with all the paps, lights and shouting, you've really captured her sense of class, fun and that mega watt smile. Great shots!