California State University, Long Beach
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Art Professor Photographed The King of Pop in the Early Years

Published: November 3, 2009

Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” was a hit film about a teenager who became a music writer for Rolling Stone. It’s a familiar story to Art’s Todd Gray, who became a rock photographer when he was only 17 and eventually worked with the legendary King of Pop to create his new book, Michael Jackson: Before He Was King.

The young and vibrant Michael Jackson is on display in the new title from Chronicle Books with a first printing of 50,000. Gray began shooting Jackson in 1974 and worked as his personal photographer from 1979-83. Along the way, Gray received his BFA from the California Institute of the Arts in 1979 and his MFA there in 1989. The book presents more than 100 photos.

“Back then,” Gray said, “He was a really joyful person, full of life and so creative. This was a period before all the affectation started. It’s poignant.”

Gray reminisced about a career that included shooting the Rolling Stones’ legendary “Exile on Main Street’ tour in the early 1970s as he awaited the book’s arrival. “I was published in Life magazine in 1972 when I was 17 because of that tour,” he recalled. “I was in love with the music and I continued to shoot album covers, events and portraits.”

After his first graduation from Cal Arts in 1979, Gray was assigned to photograph Gladys Knight and the Pips, whose management also handled the Jacksons. The work turned out well enough for Gray to be hired by the Jacksons to cover their appearance on the “Soul Train” and “American Bandstand” television shows.

“At first, I stayed away from Michael,” recalled Gray, who joined CSULB in 1997. “He seemed quiet and removed. But I kept my distance and hung with the other Jacksons. In my third week, I was hired to shoot at the Forum. It was while I was there that Michael approached me and asked in a light, whispery voice, ‘Don’t you like me?’’’ Gray replied that he saw Jackson was always busy and he only wanted to give him his space. The encounter led to Jackson asking for Gray as a personal photographer.

“I asked management, ‘why me?’” Gray said. “They said they got an order to hire me and that it was a surprise to everyone. Then they told me Michael liked me because I didn’t talk too much.”

From 1979-83, from “Off the Wall” to “Thriller,” Gray found himself on call for any event to photograph.

“The more I photographed Michael, the more he trusted me,” he recalled. “We shot formal portraits and on-the-road photos. We shot live.”

Gray learned a lot about life in those years on the road. “You go to a public event, you go to a hotel then you go to an airport. Then you go to a public event, you go to a hotel and you go to an airport,” he said. “That rhythm was hard to keep up with but I got to see Michael on a daily basis.”

Being a member of the Jackson inner circle had its hazards. Gray recalls taking a few shots of a sleeping Jackson who leaped out of bed with a smile and vowed revenge. The opportunity came days later when Jackson asked Gray a little too casually to join the audience for a photo.

Gray did as he was asked and found himself standing amid hundreds of young fans crammed against the stage. “All of a sudden, Michael dropped to his knees right in front of me and began to tell these girls up front how lonely he was,” Gray remembered.


“These women began climbing right over me in a screaming onslaught. Michael kept egging them on with how lonely he was and wouldn’t anybody touch him? My arms were pinned to my body and I couldn’t raise my camera. All the time, Michael looked at me with this little grin.”

It’s an astute Michael Jackson whom Gray remembers, one who understood how to create an image. “I saw tons of bound collections of glamour photos from the 1930s and 1940s, the golden age of Hollywood portraiture,” he said. “Michael asked me if I could photograph him like that and I said I could.”

Gray selected the book’s 100-plus photos in order to tell a story. “The reader can see that story from the first photos I ever made of Michael. I felt the photos had to satisfy two needs, one to have a certain visual presence and the other to have a certain narrative quality. Looking at the photos creates one experience and reading the captions fleshes out that experience.”

Gray’s work is included in the collections of the University of Parma in Italy, the National Gallery of Canada, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA and the University of Connecticut.

Gray takes an immense pleasure in “Michael Jackson: Before He Was King.” He feels the time is right for such a book. “It took a year to prepare and what I like best about it after all that time is its spirit and emotional quality,” Gray said. “There is a warmth and lack of self-consciousness here. There is the palpable sense of a playful genius and I am really happy to be able to get that across. This is the unguarded Michael Jackson.”

But even with years of face-to-face experience with Jackson, the singer remains a mystery to Gray. “Though he was in his early 20s when I knew him, sometimes he seemed closer to 12,” he recalled. “I could never figure that out. In the end, Jackson was an enigma and a persistent riddle I was never able to solve.”