How did you first meet Michael Jackson?
The first time I met him was in a recording studio. I was sent by Soul magazine to photograph Stevie Wonder recording that single that criticized [then president] Richard Nixon called "You Haven't Done Nothin'" The Jacksons were doing back-up singing. I saw this kid with this huge afro, sort of hanging out in the corner of the studio, looking over Stevie Wonder's shoulder. I didn't even recognize him. I started taking pictures because it was just a waif-like image. That's when I realized, "Hey, that guy with the big fro and the ill-fitting pants. That's Michael Jackson." He was just studying the master. His full attention was on Stevie, what he was doing at the mixing board, the instructions he was giving the engineers. Everything. His brothers were not that engaged with the technical aspects of the recording process. They were singing, they were goofing around. But Michael, he was at school.
Did you get to know him then?
Not at all. That was pretty much a one and done, and then I would photograph him at various award shows and events. I was a music and entertainment photographer. It wasn't until I got out of art school in '79 that I was hired by CBS records to shoot Gladys Knight. I did a good job and then I got a call from her manager to shoot the Jacksons at "American Bandstand" and "Soul Train." He liked the way I worked with Gladys, and he wanted someone of their generation to work with the Jacksons. That's when I first met him. He was so mobbed by other people backstage that I learned a lesson early in the entertainment business. You don't try to get near the people who have all "the juice." There were so many high-profile record executives around him I knew to keep my distance. In the pecking order, an entertainment photographer is pretty low. I was mostly hanging out with Jackie and Tito and Randy, talking about movies and cars and stuff like that. The next day I was at "Soul Train" - this is when they presented Michael with his gold Off the Wall Album - and again I was staying away from Michael because there was such a buzz of activity around him. A week later at the big LA Forum arena, where they were performing and I was hired again to shoot the concert, I'm backstage, and Michael comes up to me and he goes, [in Michael Jackson voice], "Hi. Don't you like me?" I was like, "Excuse me?" I got really nervous. I thought I'd done something wrong and was going to get fired. In the entertainment business, you have no idea that you've done anything wrong, you just get fired. No one tells you how you fucked up. I said, "What do you mean, Michael?" and he said "You never talk to me. And I see you talking to Tito and Randy and Jackie and Marlon, but you never talk to me." And I said. "Michael, I never talk to you because you're so busy. I see that you're a very busy man, and I don't want to get in your way. It has nothing to do with you. I think you're fine." He said, "Really? You're sure?" I said, "Michael, I really respect you. I'm just giving you space." He said, "You're sure, though." And I said, "Absolutely." And then he walked away.
I flipped out. I'd never had a mega-star come to me and ask me "Do you like me?" I shot the concert and then I got a call a week later. I was told to come to Disneyland to shoot Michael. I photographed him at Disneyland and then he told me to put away my camera and to go on the rides with him and hang out. Three days after the Disney shoot, his manager called and asked "What's up with you and Michael?" In Hollywood an open-ended question like that can mean anything. I go, "Nothing's up. Didn't you like the photographs?" "The photographs are great," he said. "Michael just told me that I'm only to hire you to photograph him from now on." That was the start of it. I asked him if Michael gave any indication as to why he hired me, and his manager said, "He likes you because you don't talk much."
Was there a side of him you got to know that you feel most people don't understand?
To me there were two Michaels. He was this very fierce, immensely creative, single-focused performer. That is the Michael on stage or in the studio. That persona was distinctly different than the one that was off microphone. When he didn't have a mike in his hand or there wasn't a camera rolling, he was very quiet, very demure and really like a fun-loving man-child. But then when when you entered a conversation about business, he was almost like the performer again. That's when a little bit of that Joe Jackson came out because he was a very, very savvy businessman. Some might have been surprised in negotiating with him or his surrogates because he ran a very tight ship when it came to negotiating deals. Then as soon as the business talk was over, he'd be back to his very sincere, playful childlike demeanor.
Towards the end of his life it became apparent to everyone that he was a very troubled person. Did you see any aspect of that when you knew him?
What I saw was this life that was difficult. Disneyworld would open up at one in the morning just for him when we were in Florida. They would put the rides on and he'd be the only one there. Part of the fun is enjoying the community, being around people. It's more fun to watch a movie in the movie theater because there's something that happens when there are other people and there's laughter all around you and the spirit is being shared. He was not able to have those moments. He had to do it privately. When he'd go out swimming at a hotel, he'd have to go after midnight so he wouldn't get mobbed at the pool. His brothers could go in the daytime, but he couldn't. He lived an unusually solitary, almost monk-like life because of his fame. I remember going to Disneyland with him, and he wore a disguise of Groucho Marx glasses, you know the plastic nose and mustache and black-rimmed glasses. And it was a white nose. That with a baseball cap! But he was so certain no one was going to notice. I kept my mouth shut because he was so happy he was going to go to Disneyland in the daytime. And then of course we were running our asses off in about 45 seconds. Literally, we caused a stampede. We ducked into a shop and they locked the doors to keep people out. When one is denied this experience of community, I think it's going to create pressures later in life.
When all the allegations about his molesting children were in the news, did you have strong feelings as to whether or not you believed he was guilty?
I thought it was absolutely impossible. He wouldn't step on an ant. I'd seen him around so many kids. I just didn't buy it. I hadn't spoken to him in 20 years and anyone can change, I suppose. I just couldn't imagine it.
His face and image changed so much, especially after you stopped photographing him. It must have been strange for you to watch.
I first noticed it early on when I looked at some photos of him I'd taken in the early 70s. His nose had changed. I'm not critical of any of these sorts of decisions. I'm a great believer that one is the master of one's own body and whatever one chooses to do to one's body is one's own business.
You said you stopped photographing him around the time of the "Beat It" video. Did something happen?
Was there a falling out?
Yeah. I'm still pondering it. I'm going to examine it in the book that I'm writing. There was a parting of the ways.
Can you elaborate at all?
I think I saw him differently than he saw himself.
Did you ever try to reestablish contact with him?
Can you think of one particular occasion, something he said or did, that sort of sums up Michael as you knew him?
There was something he did that made me realize how brilliant he was and how much I had underestimated his genius as far as public relations and image-making are concerned. I was photographing him, I think for Time magazine. We were in his private theater at his house, and I told him to put his feet up on the chair in front of him. He had mismatched socks on. I said, "Michael, your socks are mismatched." I was about to tell the stylist to go get another pair. He was like, "No, Todd, take the picture." I said, "But don't you see your socks are mismatched? People are gonna talk." And he just said, "I know." That's when I thought: Oh my God, the brother is totally on top of it. He was being mentored by Katherine Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Jane Fonda. The people that were mentoring him about Hollywood and image-construction were masters: how to stay in the press, how to keep people talking. I'd seen him as being a bit naive before that. I'd always assumed I knew so much about fashion and image-creation as a photographer. Then I realized: No, this guy really knows a lot about image construction.
Todd Gray's installation "The Gray Room," which includes photographs of Michael Jackson, will open at the Hagedorn Gallery on July 6. There will be an artist reception on July 13 from 5:30 - 8 p.m. at which time Gray will sign his book of Jackson photographs "Before He Was King" and perform pieces from his one-man show "Calliban in the Mirror." For more information, visit the Hagedorn.
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