Thinking of some of the most iconic singers of the 20th century many names come immediately to mind: Luther Vandross and Marvin Gaye, just to name two. The list could go on and on, as do the memories we associate with the music they brought into our lives. I still can’t listen to soul music from the ’70s or ’80s without thinking fondly of the summers I spent as a child in Delaware in the bosom of my mother’s family. That rich R&B music is the soundtrack to a time in my life when I was, among other things, happy. Whenever I hear those voices, I am transported to that summertime place.
Whitney Houston is among these rare legends with the power to transport us. Born in 1963 in Newark, New Jersey, Whitney Elizabeth Houston’s beauty, astonishing talent, and often controversial public image set fire to the music industry, fixing her place in the pantheon of pop culture and the hearts of her fans.
Like many of the artistic geniuses who have inspired us, Whitney’s life ended tragically, the later chapters of her biography threatening to eclipse what was a brilliant career. It is with this complex and bittersweet understanding of Whitney Houston — as both a profoundly gifted artist and a misunderstood public figure — that one approaches the beautiful, new 191-page photo essay published by Atria Books, Whitney: Tribute To An Icon.
Curated by renowned photographer Randee St. Nicholas, the collection opens with a letter from Clive Davis describing his first encounter with the enigmatic singer as a teenager, performing with her mother at a small club in Manhattan, followed by a tribute penned by St. Nicholas herself.
“I have always been drawn to the idea of capturing iconic people who remain somewhat mysterious to the public, and being let in to reveal what lies beneath their image,” St. Nicholas explained to theGrio as her inspiration behind the book.
What comes after her opener is a rapturous photographic journey that takes the viewer from the video set of “I Want to Dance With Somebody,” with Whitney in a powerful stance resembling a beautiful, black Amazon princess, to harshly lit backstage images from the year 2000. Here we see Whitney in prayer, shoeless in a white dress, surrounded by cigarette butts and a box crate, her strappy heels sadly slumped nearby.
Interestingly, the images do not tell a linear tale. They jump from the 1980s to the 2000s and back seemingly arbitrarily. This affords the viewer the full range of Whitney’s dynamic personality, while capturing her many faces without the distracting associations of time and place. In this way, Whitney: Tribute to an Icon gives us Houston as the coquette, the child, the clown, or the diva without affixing any one version of the singer to specific points in her exhaustively-repeated narrative arc.
“You could not know her [Whitney] and not absolutely adore her,” St. Nicholas said of the singer’s many sides. The tome’s composition suggests that all these voices lived within Whitney at every given moment.
Chatting by phone with the esteemed St. Nicholas (whose career has spanned decades, bringing her in contact with some of the biggest stars of our time), it was very clear that Houston held a special place in her heart, prompting the sincere, heartfelt process that brought the book into reality.