It’s a remarkable thing really, to be granted permission to photograph someone. For me there was no better way of doing that than via black and white film. No better way of revealing what may be happening under the surface, peeling away the layers.
My shoot with Diana is a great example of how a portrait shoot can turn so horribly wrong, but end up so horribly right. I had occasion to shoot Diana Ross for an English newspaper magazine in December 1994. They’d been trying to get her to agree to an interview and photos for some time, but she was good at dodging and weaving. They’d pinned her down finally, and it was to happen in Tokyo. She was in town for - of all things - an Amway event where she’d perform to an audience of 40,000 at Tokyo Dome. She kept dodging. She cancelled our scheduled shoot at her hotel suite, and with only one night remaining, a shoot was planned following her final night in town following the concert. I was allocated a room backstage where I set up backdrop and lighting, and another where I could wait with my assistant Yuki and leave my gear. Diana's very genial UK PR man briefed us indicating that she was expecting the photo shot but to not photograph her hands, she didn't want her hands shown in detail. At 51 years of age, hands tend to show age.
Staff were to address her as Miss Ross. Hmmm, OK. All good. During the show I took shots of her performance from stage side, and the affable personal security guy, an ex British commando, informed me that she usually does a 20 minute encore, so we’d safely have 30 minutes to be ready for her shoot. Easy, I sauntered off with Yuki backstage, all I needed to do was load film into my cameras, I’d have plenty of time. I’d just sat down in our room when the door burst open, it was the Brit security guy. “Miss Ross is ready!” The door closed. Diana true to form and unpredictable. No encore. I hadn’t even loaded the film. Yuki had become catatonic. My now quivering hands did their best to load colour in one camera, and a roll of Tri-X in the other. I bolted out the door, pulling Yuki with me. We only had to walk 50 metres. There she stood in front of my red hand-painted backdrop with entourage. Queen Bee.
It wasn't so much me greeting her - there was no hand shake - as me attending her. She appeared in control, but strangely nervous. Having just walked off stage she still wore heavily layered stage make-up, which for photographs, made her feel totally vulnerable. In dodging and weaving our photo shoot she’d lead herself into a corner: she was obliged to honour the shoot, this was her last opportunity, but I could sense her insecurity at being exposed. Still shell-shocked and fumbling for exposure settings I set about shooting. I was operating on auto pilot. Unable to maintain the star facade, at one point she covered her face with her hands. Instinctively I shot one frame, and continued but it was over before I knew, may be 2 minutes.
Though I didn’t realise, in a way I had been presented a gift. Despite minimal shoot time, and no chance at a pre-shoot ice breaker chat, thanks to her insecurity she’d shed layers of onion skin before me. I’d got a total of little more than a dozen frames … 10 colour, 6 B&W. Nothing. Then she was off, I thanked her, she thanked me. I didn’t even get to see what I’d shot, the film had to go back with the journalist the next day to London. It was published a few weeks later. A cover pic. The caption “What’s Diana Hiding?”, the image black and white, Diana covering her face with her hands.