Remember when you could meet someone professionally for the first time, be impressed with their work, and plant one on ‘em, right on the kisser, without worrying about bringing a potentially lethal virus home?
Ah, the good ol’ days!
This writer has spent the better part of 29 years being jealous of late night talk show host Arsenio Hall for the snogging that went down between him and superstar Diana Ross, on the air, at the end of a great interview in 1991.
I thought it then, and I think it now: it shoulda been ME.
According to photographer Albert Watson, Hall wasn’t the only business associate of Ross’ who was rewarded with a full-on kiss after a job well done!
In 1992, Ross contacted Watson about shooting photos for an album commemorating Ross’ 30th anniversary in show business, her Forever, Diana box set.
“We quoted her a price for the album cover, and Diana immediately said ‘That’s ridiculous,’” Watson recalled by phone. “My wife told her it was our standard fee, but Diana insisted it was too high. Normally, we’d have been dealing with an art director from the record company or something, but she was pretty hands on. Diana told us our fee was nonsense. It was quite confrontational.”
“Six months later, Rolling Stone magazine called me and asked me to photograph her,” Watson continued, “and I told them that it wouldn’t be a problem for me, but it might be a problem for her! Diana ultimately came in, and I would say during that first meeting that she was cool and polite. She was wearing a very loose fitting tank top. For a woman her size, it should have been an extra small, and that tank top was a lot larger than that.”
“I told her that I’d always thought of ‘Diana Ross’ as being very sexy, but that the tank top didn’t work,” Watson continued. “She said ‘Interesting. Let me see if I can fix that,’ and she turned away from me. She tied the tank top into a knot, under her bust, so it was tight on her. Then, I set the light high on her, so it made her look a little more erotic. I snapped a quick Polaroid, and I knew I’d captured it.”
Upon seeing the photo, Ross clearly agreed.
“Diana did a double take on that Polaroid, holding it closer, then further away,” Watson said. “She then said ‘Wow,’ turned around to face me, took my face in her hands, and kissed me on the mouth!”
“I have NEVER had a reaction like that from ANY of the people I’ve shot!”
After thanking Watson in her own special way — the photographer said Ross walked upstairs from the studio into his office, asked for Watson’s wife, and said she wanted to book me for a two-day photoshoot.
“Diana Ross was and is fabulous looking,” Watson said. “And she had a great body. That shoot was very easy — it was fabulous. Then, I got to know her really well. We became kind of good, chatty friends. I just really liked her.”
Clearly, Ross liked Watson, too! And she clearly loved the photos he shot — 27 years later, Ross is still using some of them in her promotional materials!
“I like the shot that we did for Rolling Stone, but I think my favorite shot [of hers] was the one where she was in cut off Levi’s. I can’t remember the name of the album, but she’s crouching down, kinda sitting on her heels, and her hair is huge.”
That shot was chosen for the cover of Diana Extended, a companion commemorative remix album Ross released in 1994. The diva is scheduled to release a new remix project, Supertonic: Mixes, digitally on May 29. A CD version is scheduled to follow on July 24.
One of the elements that makes Watson’s photos of Ross stand out, for this writer, is the use of shadow. It almost serves as a second subject in his images of the supreme diva.
“Somebody once said that I like black and white photography because it’s a step away from reality, which it is,” Watson said. “99.99% of the human race sees in color. So when you shoot something or someone in black and white, it removes that element and makes the experience a little bit surreal. It gives you the opportunity to look at something or someone a little bit differently. And a big part of my technique was to discover the direction of the light, and then to remove the light, so the shadows become more important.”
“I had a lot of success shooting many of the African Americans I’ve shot in black and white,” the Scottish Watson continued. “I’ve shot many — Jay Z, Beyoncé, John Lee Hooker, lots of them — and Diana even noticed and commented on that when she came to my studio the first time.”
“I love the way I can make the lighting work with African Americans. I have to be careful when I talk about it — I’ve done a few interviews, and when I read the articles, I thought that the writers didn’t really capture what I meant. I’ve always been a gigantic fan of the exoticness of African Americans.”
As Watson talked about his work and friendship with Ross, it was clear that the photographer was as smitten with her as her legions of fans have remained for almost sixty years.
“I was a HUGE fan of Diana Ross,” Watson exclaimed. “She was and is fabulous looking, and she had a great body, and a GREAT voice. AND she has charisma. And she has talent! So you put all of that in a box, you’re ready to go!”
Even with all of Ross’ attributes, Watson insisted that it was his honest approach to the legend, and all of his subjects, that has driven his success behind the camera.
“You have to be careful with big celebrities not to be overly subservient,” Watson implored. “You can’t be over the top. If you are, you’re fake. You have to be honest. If you don’t like Diana Ross, if you don’t like her music, if you don’t like how she is, as a photographer, you shouldn’t shoot her. If I’m shooting a homeless person, or I’m shooting Diana Ross, I approach them with the same honesty.”
As Watson and I wrapped up, I broke one of my cardinal rules: I asked him a question to which I already knew the answer. Watson’s still boyish ebullience about Ross had given it away almost immediately:
Would Watson take a call from Ross if she had a hankering to update those 27 year old photos?
“Of course,” Watson said. “I would do it in a second. If she came along and wanted to be photographed next week, I would make it happen.”
“If you speak with Diana, please say hello for me — and tell her she’s on Spotify with me all of the time!”
Will do, Mr. Watson. I hope Ross likes this story. And if she does, maybe, just maybe, she’ll thank me with a big ‘ol kiss the next time she and I are hanging out.
A writer can dream, can’t he?