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When romancing the past, we always like to think of a simpler, better time. For me, the late’70s and early ‘80s would be a time of change and self-discovery. As a boy, whether I was sitting in the school library or perched on an idle tractor, magazines were my escape. They were a glimpse into a world that was far from the confinement of the farm. They transported me away, long before traveling outside of Indiana seemed like a possibility.
I remember the photo staring back at me from the glossy magazine page. It was 1982. Cher had left her signature long straight hair and beaded Mackie gowns behind- this was a new decade. Sporting a shag haircut and black leather jacket, she was about to make her Broadway debut in a play directed by film auteur Robert Altman. New York – the era when the city was edgy, dangerous and seemed to hold so many possibilities. At least that’s how it read all the way back in Indiana. The cultural world seemed smaller then. Actors knew painters who knew musicians who knew writers – and they were all accessible. Gays who had been ruthlessly oppressed growing up in the decade of Eisenhower or Nixon were finally free to be open – until AIDS would bring it crashing down.
Just as I did with the liner and sleeve notes in my albums, I’d study the magazine credits carefully. People behind the scenes felt like stars in their own right. They too had talent – the talent and vision to tell the story and assist in creating the magic. Maddy Miller was no stranger to me. I recognized her name from countless magazine covers, book covers, album covers, and in documentary films. Coming from a family of photographers (both her father and her brothers) she would, as a toddler, accompany her photo technician father to Look Magazine. By the time Maddy was in her teens, she also worked for Look – photographing such rising stars as Elton John, James Taylor, and Melanie.
Maddy Miller’s photo of Cher was not a crystal ball for me but it should have been. I didn’t know that just as I was discovering Maddy Miller’s beautiful photo of Cher in Central Park, my life was about to change. Within the month I’d be making my very first visit to New York City; an Indiana farm boy walking through Central Park and meeting Cher. Many decades later New York City – the city I loved – would become my home. Today this beautiful silver gelatin print hangs on the wall in my apartment. I live with it as part of my personal landscape, but sometimes I take a moment to stop and admire and remember. A young man who had worked hard to conform to everyone else’s ideal of the perfect Indiana boy and failed. I created a new identity that brought me happiness and belonging.
I was lucky enough to meet Maddy Miller many decades later. She shared her memories of that time. The intimacy created between a photographer and subject due to simplicity; working with no assistant, no lights. A great time for photographing celebrities in terms of access – no glam squad, no publicist, and little fanfare – just a personal assistant to help. It was perhaps the last hurrah for that magical gateway where photography happened without the huge commercial machine it became. Artists created photographic images that were breathtakingly beautiful and real. Faces were distinct – no stylists were present and each person brought their own individual glamour to a session. Maddy Miller recalled Cher as accommodating, funny, and completely at ease in front of the camera. Shooting her alongside Robert Altman and Sandy Dennis outside the Martin Beck Theater, she captured the energy and the edge. She had just sat in on a rehearsal for Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. With camera in tow, Maddy accompanied Cher to Bergdorf Goodman, where she bought a pair of short red Arche boots, then to a friend’s boutique where she tried some things on for photos. It was important to Cher to include her friend in the magazine story.
Maddy talked about how she always liked (still does) taking her subjects to Central Park. So many possibilities, so much beautiful texture and open space makes it less intimidating for the subject. She was shooting Cher on rocks and with a police barricade. They passed by a bench – that great bench – and Cher said, “Want to see me sit on the bench?” Without pausing, Cher just sat down and Maddy knew that in that moment she had THE photo. She snapped and there it was.
She still gets asked if the image is photo-shopped – an expression she hates. Later, stopping past Gene Simmons apartment (“No pictures” there) she recalls décor from what seemed like an Egyptian fantasy – complete with a giant photograph of Diana Ross, alongside shelves of wigs on stands. Maddy wasn’t sure if they belonged to Cher, Diana, or Gene. Or for that matter, all three of them.
Cher, then 35, was quoted asking herself: Is there life after Flash? For Cher, there certainly was. Her future would include a successful acting career, an Academy Award, and an ongoing life as a highly successful entertainer. As I write this, that professional life has just entered its 5th decade, making Cher someone that matters to at least 3 generations of fans.
Maddy herself became People Magazine’s longtime Photo Editor for Special Issues. Today, she brings a career’s worth of knowledge and experience to her People storytelling style. She believes in informal individual family portraiture that happens in a comfortable non-studio setting. This, she believes, best conveys the personality of her subjects.
When I look at Maddy Miller’s print of Central Park, I’m reminded of an era that many not only mourn, but claim has had a lasing influence on American taste, music, writing, and painting. I also think of the countless times Jeff and I have enjoyed beautiful runs through and around Central Park, never allowing ourselves to ever take any of it for granted. And more than anything I remind myself, all that you hope to achieve can come to you. Work hard. Think hard. Think harder and talk about it. Write it down. Put it out there. Be brave. Love who you are and value being authentic. You’re never too old to Toss Glitter.