Michael Jackson has touched the life of millions of his fans and his tragic death left us with his music to remember him by. But Photographer, TODD GRAY has recently provided fans with photos to remember the late singer with as well with his new book, Michael Jackson: Before He Was King that’s due out just in time for the holidays on November 6th, Gray had the chance to get up close and personal with Michael in the early days of his solo career success, being hired on as Michael’s personal photographer. He’s seen Michael do performances, interactions with his fans, and even photographed him in his solitude and with his family. Michael Jackson: Before He Was King comes out just in time as the motion picture movie, This Is It debuts. Gray gave BE-NEW YORK a glimpse into the man before he became the King of Pop and informed us while catching up with him on promotional tour for the new book, what it was like working with Michael for nearly seven years and convey Michael’s emotions through the art of photography plus much more about Michael we may not have ever known.
BE-NEW YORK: What can Michael Jackson’s fans expect from your book, Michael Jackson: Before He Was King?
TODD GRAY: A really intimate portrait that shows Michael in many situations where he’s unguarded and he’s just being himself. There’s fantastic performance shots, when I was on the road with him, I photographed him performing several times over many different years. But also, with him at his home and things like that, the photos reflect the relationship that I had with him. There’s really a missed warmth – an emotional warmth to the photographs.
BE-NY: Your time spent being Michael’s personal photographer was from 1974 to 1983, correct?
TODD GRAY: The first time I photographed him was in 1974 as a freelancer actually. I photographed him and the brothers a few times in the seventies as a freelancer. But then in 1979, that’s when he requested that I work as his personal photographer, and that ran from 1979 to 1983. So that’s when I was really close to him.
BE-NY: During that time period when you worked with Michael, did you ever think in your mind that Michael Jackson would stratosphere into the icon and legend that he is know remembered as?
TODD GRAY: To the flight and extent of accomplishments of fame that he acclaimed, no that did not enter my mind. I could not have even imagined it. I was completely impressed and amazed of his talent, and I just thought, “Oh my God, this is like the most talented cat that I’ve ever seen,” and I’ve photographed a lot of performers. But I had no idea that his talent would be recognized and embraced around the world to the extent that it was.
BE-NY: How was it working and being around Michael during the time you served as his personal photographer?
TODD GRAY: Well he was really easy going because I’ve shot over a hundred album covers. And I’ve worked with a lot of artists who didn’t have ten percent of the fame or talent, (laughs) so I would get so much attitude – not from Michael – but from some of these other musicians I’ve worked with. It was really a pleasure working with Michael because he would actually take direction from me and he really trusted me. So a lot of times when I photographed him, it was more like a collaboration where I’d say, “Hey Michael, why don’t you do this kind of a picture,” and he’d say “you know well…” he agreed or he would give his interpretation. Case and point, this one session he said, “You know what, I want my eyes… I want to come across with this kind of sadness,” that he wanted in one of these photographs. He said that he wanted to show how he was feeling inside and he wanted to do that through his eyes. So we talked about how we can do this, we looked at some photo books where we saw portraits of children and other people to get an idea of how he might present himself to the camera. We were really active. What’s funny is, sometimes the record company would ask me to, “Aye man, photograph Michael more macho and tough because you know, we don’t want to see him as a child figure. We want to see him as more of a mature adult.” I would photograph him in stronger light, more contrasting or harsher light sort of hardening his features, without him knowing. Because I couldn’t say, “Hey Michael, I got to toughen’ you up,” I would never ever say that! But the funny thing is Michael was just himself and he is this really special creature, this really special human who is just part child, and that was thing that got me was just trying to figure him out because as a photographer part of my job is to get a clue as to who you are and then try to reflect that in the photographs. I literally tried to understand Michael, but it was really difficult because on stage he is the most machismo, the most sexual, the most dynamic performer. And then off stage he’s really quiet, he’s really introverted, and he’s really shy. So here I am trying to convey the image that he has on stage with the person off stage. It’s like another personality, and I could never resolve it and never understand it. It always blew my mind after performing and riding in the limousine and back to the hotel I’d go, “Whoa Michael that was amazing,” and he’d go (imitating Michael’s voice) “Oh thanks, you think so?” (Laughs) I mean this really quiet voice would come out where on stage I just seen Superman; you know and I always got the Clark Kent!
BE-NY: You were also on the set of the video shoot for Beat It, correct?
TODD GRAY: Yes.
BE-NY: What was it like being on the set of one of the most all time favorite video for a lot of Michael Jackson fans, as well as a video that is often looked back upon in his long music career catalog as a solo artist?
TODD GRAY: I got to say it was tense. It was tense when you first arrived on the set because there were a lot of police there. A lot of police that weren’t in uniform – there were a decent amount in uniform but there were a lot that were not in uniform but you knew that these cats were officers and you knew they were packing. The reason being there were serious gangsters on that set! I mean East Side gangs, South Side gangs… there were Latino gangs, Black gangs representing in full force wearing colors. (Laughs) So it was like, I work in Hollywood but I am not from Hollywood, so for me I was going “Whoa, what’s going to happen here?” And when I found out, everybody was pretty chill. Michael would circulate, and between takes Michael would talk to these gang bangers and these people; and once they got around Michael they were like little kids. They were frontin’, they just stopped frontin’ as soon as they got next to Michael. That was a trip, because they just knew him. Another thing was I had been on a couple of other videos like Can You Feel It, when they made that video with the Jackson brothers; and it was on a Hollywood set. I think a lot of the other video shots were usually on sets in a Hollywood studio. This one was in the nitty gritty funky part of Downtown in a really funky hardcore location. It wreaked and the smell wreaked, and so in part I felt it was a completely different experience. Part of it also was the authenticity of those locations and the tension on the set I think it really created a really nice creative energy. But with Michael you could feel it was more intense. He set off the tension that was on the set. You knew that if these cats bumped into each other tomorrow, they were going to call each other out but on the set there was truce.
E-NY: As a photographer, who has done a lot of album covers, why is it important for the album cover to be the finishing touch to finalizing the project?
TODD GRAY: I mean really if you haven’t heard the music or you’ve only heard one cut, the photo is the first encounter you have of the music, the photo on the album cover. It’s going to give you the vibe, it’s going to give you the personality, it’s the first message that you receive off the product. When you’re walking in a store or you’re browsing online and you see that photograph – that’s before you hear the music – that’s the first indication of what you’re going to get. Is that picture going to seduce you? Is that picture going to draw you in? Is that picture going to make you more curious? Is that picture going to make you go “WOW!” Is it going to make you emote, are you going to respond emotionally? Depending on your emotional response to that photograph of what is to come once you hear the music. The photo’s got to emote. It’s got to pull some kind of emotional lever and that’s where I do my work. That’s actually important.
BE-NY: Of all of the Michael Jackson album covers that have been done, which one would you say is your personal favorite?
TODD GRAY: I would have to say in frank, my personal favorite is the HIStory Volume 2 and it has his shoes on point because that’s my photo! (Laughs) But if I discount that one, I would say its Off The Wall.
BE-NY: Off The Wall?
TODD GRAY: Yeah because he’s playful and I believe his white socks are showing. It’s just… that’s him! A lot of the other ones… I don’t feel… and Thriller that him too with that little tiger. But that photo to me is so opposite of what’s in store. That’s such a soft sweet photograph of him. Thriller is a heavy hitter, and to me it doesn’t represent the music as well. Where Off The Wall that photo is so playful and its interesting that tuxedo wasn’t the right size it made it sort of hip, and then you go into the album and it’s such a wonderful album.
BE-NY: How did you initially get your start in Photography?
TODD GRAY: I took Photography in high school and then I just started showing up – I loved music – so I was going to concerts and everything since I was sixteen years old and I would just bring my camera and start snapping photographs at concerts. I also went to art school and got a degree in Photography.
BE-NY: Is there a technique or strategy you use to obtaining that one performance shot when you go out on jobs?
TODD GRAY: It’s difficult if you’re not real familiar with the artist or haven’t seen their performance. I was on the road with The Jacksons’ so I have seen Michael perform every other night and I was really familiar. Performances are pretty much the same with light variation. Once you’re familiar with the performance, you can choose your spot at different points because you know what’s going to unfold. You know that their going to do this kind of mood or have this kind of attitude at this part of the stage, so you can prepare yourself and position yourself to take the best advantage of the situation. Now having said that, the most famous photographs I have done of Michael is the one with his shoes on point – a close up shot – it’s just above the ankles, his shoes just above the ankles. That photograph, it took me three weeks on the road to get that photograph because Michael would hit that pose at different points of the stage when he felt it. So I would talk to him and go “Michael, man,” – this is another thing – I pre-visualize the photograph. You have to see a picture in your head. After seeing Michael perform, you know which is the most iconic, you know which symbolizes him more and how individually new he is, is when he goes on point, when he goes on point with his shoes. That was in my head so I decided I’m going to capture that shot and I didn’t want it with his whole body, I only wanted the shoe. And I wanted you to feel the impact of the weight where as the show hit the floor, it was really important. That was in my head and I was going after a shot. If you’re shooting a performer you want to see what’s their signature move? What really distills and boils down their style? Then you want to say okay, what is the best position for me to capture that signature move? I pre-visualized it and had it in my head. I wanted to make a photograph that was really symbolic.
BE-NY: What’s one thing that you remember the most about working with Michael?
TODD GRAY: I think how genuinely sensitive he is. He was extremely, extremely sensitive and extremely aware. Michael really was a ‘man child.” He definitely was in touch with his inner-child. He was twenty-one when I was working with him, but you could easily switch that twenty-one to twelve! That’s how he enjoyed his life like a twelve year-old. That’s like with a camera shot, he was aware what was going on and remembers what you said and so you really had no special intellect. Where although he was enjoying life like a twelve year-old, he had a sharp mind and a good memory and he could switch to a very savvy adult really quickly and toss you answers and straighten you out. To answer your question, I think it was sensitivity; he was the most sensitive person. We would look at these photographs – and he would always come to tears looking at these photographs – it was of a person in distress or a person hurt; his emotions… he had really delicate emotions.
BE-NY: Michael Jackson: Before He Was King hits bookstores and online November 6th. Why is this book a ‘must have’ purchase?
TODD GRAY: I’m really proud of this book because it celebrates Michael, I think, where he was closer to the community, in my view. When I was photographing him about seventy to eighty percent of everyone in the hall was Black and I was like, “WOW.” I haven’t experienced things like that and it was just wonderful coming out of the Black community… we were in love. And to be at a Jacksons’ concert back then, it was just so much Black love being showered. That’s why the first photograph of the book is that of an audience in Washington D.C. just showering him with love. To feel that vibe that was going on back then, to feel that vibe that was going on in our community – and the vibe has changed.
Michael Jackson: Before He Was King is in bookstores and available online November 6th. BE sure to support the very talented photographer Todd Gray and add it to your collection of memorabilia to the late and great King of Pop, Michael Jackson! Special thanks to Jaunita Stephens of JS Media for always taking care of us at BE Mag & TPOAM!