“I always want to do music that inspires or influences another generation.” – Michael Jackson.

This quote, on the back of the book “Michael Jackson – A Celebration”, tells us so much about the person depicted within.

Published by the National Portrait Gallery London in support of its temporary exhibition “Michael Jackson: On the Wall” (June 28 -21 October 2018) this little photo book is a good souvenir of the career of the pop culture phenomenon celebrated in the exhibition.

The artists whose works have been brought together for the occasion have all been impacted by Jackson one way or another.  Some, like David LaChapelle, have made their admiration for the King of Pop well-known in recent years.  Kehinde Wiley, who painted a monumental equestrian portrait of Michael, spoke with him about the style of the work that Wiley would eventually produce after the icon’s death, which reflects Jackson’s love of Rubens (see top right).

While some of the other artists whose work features in the collection may have some curious views of Jackson, the few depicted in this little book are reverential.  The rest of it is packed full of actual photographs of Michael – as a child, a young star on the rise, and finally, as the superstar he became.

There are far too few of the last category for my liking.  Michael in his thirties was an extremely beautiful individual, transcending stereotypes of race and gender, and photos from this period of his life, when he toured the world with his “Dangerous” and “HIStory” world tours should have commanded far more of the book than they do.  This is the iconic, international Michael – the Michael without his brothers, without Quincy Jones, and pushing his artistic boundaries to new heights.

35118976_10212241513968180_3305123281555685376_nBut we do, thank God, have “This Is It” and the Ebony photo shoot represented in the final pages, rounding out the life and career of an icon whose fame (and face) have endured beyond his lifetime.  Such artists as Jackson are extremely rare, and only a few others have been accorded similar posthumous fame.  All of them, like Jackson, have been unique individuals, instantly recognisable, their work rising head and shoulders above the noise emanating from an industry that boasts a new so-called ‘super star’ every month – or every week.

In truth, real superstars, like Jackson, Bowie, Lennon and the like, are extremely rare; this is one of the reasons why they remain so cherished – and so celebrated – long after their passing.

That Jackson was unique was recognised early in his life, when the likes of Ed Sullivan said in 1969: “Those youngsters [the Jackson 5] are amazing – and the little fella in front is incredible.”  Berry Gordy tells us that “As a kid Michael was always beyond his years, he was an innovator, he was a genius at what he did.  He had a knowingness about him.”

There are also quotes from people like his idol Fred Astaire who features in a series of photos of Michael with some of his famous friends, including Elizabeth Taylor and Nelson Mandela.

Quotes from Michael himself come predominantly from his 1988 biography “Moonwalk” and are well-chosen to reflect his approach to his work, what drove him, what moved him.   Other MJ quotes featured in the book come from interviews Michael gave, and, together with those from his biography and his mentors and friends, serve to make this little book both a mini biography and a photographic tribute.

The last quote, bar one, coming from Elizabeth Taylor following Michael’s death, provides a fitting eulogy to his life and their enduring friendship.

However, there is one very important aspect of Michael Jackson’s life the book doesn’t touch on – his humanitarian largess.  We are given quotes about how he wanted to touch and move people with his art, to use it to make their lives happier.  But of the support he gave in cash and kind to many causes and individuals, and his Guinness World Record for supporting more charities than any other popular artist, there is no mention.

Fans won’t learn anything new about their icon from this book, or find any new images, but despite my couple of reservations, as indicated above, I think most will enjoy this handsome little volume for what it DOES contain, while some of us will regret what has been omitted.

Kerry Hennigan
July 2018

Photographs of book “Michael Jackson – a Celebration” were taken by the author.  Photo montage at top composed of author’s photograph and portrait of Michael Jackson by Kehinde Wiley.  No copyright infringement is intended in this not-for-profit, educational exercise.