Maybe Not "The Greatest"…But It's Certainly A Beauty

scott christopher photo
Photo (c) Scott Christopher

While I’m busy preparing my next, longer and unfortunately darker pieces (as there isn’t exactly a lot of  cheery MJ news at the moment) I thought I might fill in the gap with a couple of shorter and more lighthearted pieces-one, an interesting side story that surfaced recently in The Huffington Post, and the other, a short look at a rare but very interesting poem by Michael.

Let’s start with this Huffington Post piece on “The Greatest MJ” photo. This was a 1990 photo by Scott Christopher that was unveiled for the first time last Friday, on June 14th, 2013, at the AMFM Fest at Coachella Valley.

You can read the full story behind the photo here:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gordy-grundy/exclusive-the-greatest-mi_b_3445019.html

I think that calling this “The Greatest MJ Photo” is a bit of hyperbole. To call it the “greatest” would have to mean successfully beating out over four decades’ worth of masterpieces, including all of Todd Gray’s gorgeous beauties (sorry, Scott Christopher, that ain’t gonna happen), Annie Leibovitz, Lynn Goldsmith, and a whole host of talented shutterbugs who have contributed to our gallery of MJ Beauty and Appreciation.

Lynn Goldsmith’s story of how she captured some of MJ’s most candidly and sensual, youthful moments on film was told in her 1981 Plum TV interview:

Photographer Lynn Goldsmith worked for Michael for 8 years. Of this photoshoot with Michael Lynn says “We were in his hotel and it’s about 7’o clock, and that’s when the sun was setting and I said ‘You know Michael, up on the roof there’s m…agic light’ so he said ‘Magic light!’ so I said ‘Yeah, you wanna go up there?’ so he said ‘Yeah’ so we snuck out and and we went up to the roof and it was something that he did, Michael started taking his clothes off on the roof which I thought I would get into big trouble for, I mean, he didn’t completely undress but even just taking his shirt off, this is not, you know, a body builder and so you never really knew what he was thinking and that made photographing him very exciting, for me.”

~Lynn Goldsmith Plum TV Interview. 1981 Boston.

"Michael Started Taking His Clothes Off On The Roof"-Lynn Goldsmith
“Michael Started Taking His Clothes Off On The Roof”-Lynn Goldsmith

And that isn’t even including our wealth of outstanding concert photos that have forever captured the magic of Michael Jackson in performance. Of those, there are far too many to even begin to credit all of the individuals responsible.

BUT…

Casting aside all exaggeration and hype, what we have left is certainly a charming, unique, and interesting photo that captures Michael in a wonderfully candid moment, and at the height of one of my favorite MJ eras.

Michael During The Dangerous Era. He Perfected An Image That Was Adorable, Quirky, And Fun...What's Not To Love?
Michael During The Dangerous Era. He Perfected An Image That Was Adorable, Quirky, And Fun…What’s Not To Love?

What is it exactly that I love so much about Michael during the Dangerous era? I’ve never been able to exactly put a finger on it, but for sure, there was something about that whole whimsical, quirky persona (complete with the ever-present array of goofy hats) that I just loved. This was the era of Michael as the man-child sprite. It was the incarnate of “Magical Child,” the persona of two of Michael’s most well known poems. And I loved it for the same reasons I am drawn to all of those quirky, eccentric, and childlike characters that Johnny Depp plays so well (Edward Scissorhands, Sam from Benny and Joon, etc).  It’s an image that isn’t supposed to be sexy-at least, not in the usual, brawny, chest-pounding kind of way. But yet it is. Irresistibly so.

This Photo Exemplifies, For Me, Everything That I Love About Michael During The Dangerous Era-At Least, During His Candid, Offstage Moments
This Photo Exemplifies, For Me, Everything That I Love About Michael During The Dangerous Era-At Least, During His Candid, Offstage Moments, When He Wasn’t Prancing Around In Gold Leotards, LOL.

Perhaps only Michael Jackson (and Johnny Depp) could make Peter Pan or The Mad Hatter sexy. But Christopher’s photo works on an artistic level for precisely the same reason that these Life magazine photos of Michael at his piano worked so well in ’93.

piano2

piano3

It’s that same sort of quixotic combination of the childlike, goofy persona with the intense, passionate artistry of the adult-in short, the eccentric and waiflike genius. But perhaps with one major difference.

Whereas the Neverland shots were posed, and seemingly part of Michael’s carefully calculated plan to project this image, the photo that Scott Christopher captured that day was (going by his story, which I have no reason to doubt) a completely candid and spontaneous moment.  Is it the only photo we have of Michael captured in such a moment of  candid inspiration? No.  We certainly have others; many just as good. But what this image manages to capture so beautifully is the unique juxtaposition of two African-American icons-Louis Armstrong and Michael Jackson-each trailblazers of their own time and generation, seemingly working in harmony and concert.  Additionally, these were two men who each faced their own unique challenges as African-American artists of their own generations-and rose above them. No matter how talented any photographer may be, there are certain moments that can only occur with a bit of divine intervention. This was one of them.

chaplinBut Michael is not just in a moment of inspiration here. He is also captured in a moment of spontaneous play-the kind of spontaneous play that we know, eventually, led to brilliant compositions. It reminds me of that famous scene where Charlie Chaplin suddenly gets the bright idea that if you stick forks into ordinary dinner buns, you can create a dance.

Michael Jackson was the greatest inheritor of that Chaplinesque whimsy, charm-and spontaneous genius that only the most unbidden moments could capture. Michael may not have been creating a Gold Rush dance here out of dinner rolls. But, who knows, he may well have been gleaning his first ideas for some of those great Dangerous classics.

Scott Christopher certainly has every right to be proud of this one. Whatever candid moments those other photogs may have had, this was his moment, and his opportunity to capture a rare and beautiful Michael Jackson moment.

And he did just that. So while it may be far from the “greatest MJ photo ever” I will forgive The Huffington Post hype and simply say thank you, Scott Christopher, for giving us yet one more beautiful image of our beautiful Michael to cherish.

5 thoughts on “Maybe Not "The Greatest"…But It's Certainly A Beauty”

  1. It’s an interesting photo, to be sure! (I don’t know why they have to use that hyperbole–“the greatest”–either). And it’s an odd juxtaposition, a study in contrasts on many levels.

    We see a grown man leaning over a little “kiddie” table, trying out a “kiddie” instrument that presumably doesn’t take much skill to play, juxtaposed with an image of another musical instrument—a trumpet—that requires the height of mastery and skill to play. Then, too, the photo of Louis Armstrong is in black-and-white, while the photo as a whole is in color, and one xylophone is rainbow-colored. Plus, we know that the very recognizable Jackson is a master at his “instrument”—his voice—as much as Armstrong is at his own.

    Michael’s and Armstrong’s heads are just about level with each other. Here again, we have two separate historical periods and historical personages—both musicians—drawn into the same space. The idea of fame and music and brought together, but Michael is in a setting (without knowing anything, I’d say it was a gallery space that also functioned as a children’s playroom) that’s not a stage or studio, or where a “famous” person is likely to be captured on film. The setting, as well as the pose, are informal.

    It may be that the photographer told Michael to reach out and play the xylophone in that moment. I can’t be sure… but it doesn’t matter.

    I’ve collected some 35,000 photos of Michael over the last four years, and I always think I’ve seen everything…. but I’m really grateful when new ones come to light. I really love the one that appeared last year in connection with the Bad 25 reissue…. it’s a production still from “Leave Me Alone” where the theme of playfulness through scale is also at work. It shows Michael lying on his back on that table, with his left arm raised, a spiral slide winding around his arm, and a small model of a roller coaster making a sort of “bridge” across his torso. (I’m fascinated by the animation technique used in that film, anyway.)

    As for Lynn Goldsmith—how lucky can a photographer get? I love this series of photos (for my money, this is a period when Michael is at his sexiest, though I know you probably don’t agree, Raven.) I had half a mind to extend the story and write a bit of fan fiction about that photo shoot…. a scenario where photography isn’t the ONLY activity taking place (!)

    I’m reminded of a song that was written by Carol King and Gerry Goffin and recorded, most famously, by the Drifters; but it was covered by a lot of musicians, including the Jackson 5.

    Up on the Roof

    When this old world starts getting me down
    And people are just too much for me to face
    I climb way up to the top of the stars
    And all my cares just drift right into space

    On the roof it’s peaceful as can be
    And there the world below can’t bother me
    Let me tell you now

    When I come home feeling tired and beat
    I go up where the air is fresh and sweet
    I get away from the hustling crowds
    And all that rat race noise down in the street

    On the roof’s the only place I know
    Where you just have to wish to make it so
    Up on the roof

    At night the stars put on a show for free
    And darling you can share it all with me
    I keep-a tellin’ you

    Right smack dab in the middle of town
    I found a Paradise that’s trouble-proof
    And if this world starts getting you down
    There’s room enough for two up on the roof …

    1. Those are interesting observations. It’s even more interesting in light of the fact that this was a completely informal and spontaneous moment. But then with Michael, very few things were truly “accidental.” He was always thinking with an artist’s mind and with an artist’s intuition, and for sure, he was aware of the Louis Armstrong photo beside him. Even if he didn’t plan the photo op, I’m willing to bet that on some level, he was consciously aware of those juxtapositions.

      As for Lynn Goldsmith’s pics, actually, just as I said, I find them very sensual and beautiful. Michael was sexy in all eras (well, okay, all adult eras, lol). I have a bit of a weakness for Dangerous era because there was just something about that overall quirky, whimsical image he began to project during that time (though it has its roots even in the Bad era) that melts my heart. But my goodness, choosing a favorite era is truly difficult. He was always gorgeous, whether youthful or mature.

  2. It is a great pic, but there are so many great photos of MJ that this is not the one and only. MJ had so many different “eras” that you would have to pick the top photo from each era to get a taste of them all.

  3. GORDY – THANK YOU FOR YOUR VERY KIND SUPPORT OF MY PHOTOGRAPH THAT I CREATED OF MICHAEL JACKSON. IS IT, QUITE LIKELY, THE GREATEST ART PHOTOGRAPH OF MICHAEL JACKSON EVER CREATED? THE ANSWER IS …. YES!!!!!! THIS IS WHY. A GREAT PHOTOGRAPH, LIKE GREAT VERSE, MUST HAVE THE VISUAL ADJECTIVES TO “MAKE IT GREAT”. A) THIS PHOTOGRAPH WAS ENTIRELY UNPOSED, I WAS SHALLOW BREATHING, CAMERA UP WITH AN EXTENDED FLASH, I WAS PERFECTLY STILL, EVERYTHING FRAMED IN EXCEPT THE APPROPRIATE ARM ANGLE. B) MJ’S POSTURE IS RELAXED, PASSIONATE, AND FREEING. I OBSERVED HIM TRAVELING INTO HIS HEART OF HEARTS MUSICAL WORLD. I WAS AWARE THAT EVEN THE SLIGHTEST FLINCH ON MY PART AND THIS AMAZING MOMENT WOULD VANISH C) LOUIS ARMSTRONG PLAYING HIS HORN, TAKES THIS PHOTOGRAPH FROM BEING A GREAT IMAGE, TO BECOMING A HISTORICAL MASTERPIECE. D) THE XYLOPHONES BRING A PROFOUND CURIOSITY TO MY WORK. E) MJ’S EYES PARALLEL LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S EYES IN THE POSTER. THIS WAS THE THIRD XYLOPHONE THAT HE PLAYED ON THE TABLE AND WHILE HE WAS TAPPING THE MALLET, THE VARIOUS NOTES JUST TOOK HIM INTO A PLACE FEW OUTSIDERS COULD EVER WITNESS, AND POSSIBLY NEVER PHOTOGRAPH, BECAUSE I AM QUITE SURE HE HAD FORGOTTEN I WAS IN THE ROOM. THE RESULT IS PURE ART AND I AM PROUD TO HAVE CREATED IT. THERE WAS NOTHING SPONTANEOUS ABOUT MY RESULT. I KNEW EXACTLY WHAT I WAS COMPOSING. THE MOMENT JUST KEPT BUILDING AND I WAS ROLLING THE DICE. WAIT, WAIT, WAIT, CLICK, GRAND SLAM!!!!!!!

    1. Well, Scott, I will just say again that it is an amazing photo and you have every right to be proud of it. The circumstances make it unique. Photography is an amazing art form. I was referring to it as “spontaneous” in the sense that Michael didn’t actively pose for the shot. But, of course, the photographer is always the calculative one behind the subject. I suppose it’s the idea of making something so expertly planned-taking advantage of the moment and the details presented-that makes it “seem” spontaneous. That is what creates the magic.

      Given that there are so many outstanding photos of Michael-whether it is some of his most breathtaking concert photos, or those beautiful, artistic poses by the sea that we have in Dancing The Dream, or the many sensual photos that celebrate his beauty, you will certainly have no shortage of opinions on what constitutes the “greatest MJ photo.”

      But I love yours.

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