Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Queen Latifah

Queen Latifah, Baltimore, May 1990

I LOVE TO TRAVEL. We didn't do much of it when I was growing up, so any opportunity to go somewhere different - a day trip on a bus to a small town, a couple of days away on business, a week in a new country - becomes a highlight in my year. My first few years working for NOW magazine coincided with what was probably the last boom time in publishing, and with budgets to send photographers on cover shoots, I ended up on a plane at least once every few months.

One of my first ever cover shoot trips for NOW took me to Baltimore to shoot Dana Elaine Owens, aka Queen Latifah, a nineteen year old rapper from New Jersey who had just released her first album on Tommy Boy, one of hip hop's iconic labels. She was playing a concert at a black fraternity event at the University of Maryland, so I was given a plane ticket, a hotel reservation and a per diem and told by James, the paper's music editor, to go directly to the main campus of the U of M without stopping at my hotel, as time was of the essence.

Queen Latifah, Baltimore, May 1990

There are several campuses for the University of Maryland, but in an age before Google this wasn't easy information to acquire, so I gave the cab driver instructions to take me to the main campus at College Park, and watched Baltimore recede behind me on the long car trip that took me down a tree-lined parkway and closer to Washington D.C., where I discovered that there was no black frat concert happening there.

I'd used up nearly the whole of my cash on hand and per diem, so I had to persuade another cabbie to take me back to my hotel, where the concierge advanced me money to pay the driver while we called NOW's financial controller at his home to get him to wire money to the hotel. We also discovered that the fraternity concert was actually happening at the U of M's nearby Baltimore campus. I had been in crisis mode for several hours now and I still didn't have my portrait; this is how things got done in the age before e-mail, web searches and cell phones.

Queen Latifah, Baltimore, May 1990

I arrived at the University of Maryland's Baltimore campus and the arena where the frats were already putting on step-dancing performances; "stepping" wasn't anything new, but it was getting a lot of media coverage back then thanks to the "Greek Sings" that black frats were sponsoring. I found Latifah in her dressing room on the balcony of the arena, a bland, fluorescent-lit white room where I set up using the single-flash-into-an-umbrella setup that I relied upon for cover shoots in my early years at NOW.

I shot my rolls of colour slide into the strict cover template NOW forced on photographers, carefully angling the light to blow out as much of the wall behind Latifah as it could. She was at pains to avoid typical rap poses and hand gestures, preferring to signal a wary thoughtfulness by glancing off to the side and playing with her glasses. The teal of her jacket should be enough to date this picture to the turn of the '90s if you lived through the era.

Queen Latifah has gone on to have a long career, crossing over from music to movies and TV, and transforming herself into a jazz and R&B singer along the way. She's released a fragrance and written an autobiography and held her own onscreen with Steve Martin in a hit comedy film. Last year she played one of her idols, Bessie Smith, in an HBO biopic.

When I returned from my Balitmore trip there was apparently an acrimonious editorial meeting where the music editor tried to blame the University of Maryland snafu on me, but Irene, the photo editor, and several other staff came to my defense; if he'd managed to sway everyone at that meeting, there's a good chance that my career at NOW would have come to an end right there. It didn't, and I'd end up traveling with my cameras a lot more over the next few years.


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