Harrison Funk remembers being captivated by Michael Jackson's eyes. “Michael had the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever photographed," he told me recently. "They were large. They were expressive. They were deep. I don't mean that physically. It was a picture into his soul. I think Michael, he knew in every picture what he wanted to convey. Even when he was completely natural he could convey a message to the camera."
In the early 1980s Funk began shooting Michael and continued on and off until his death five years ago on June 25, 2009. Funk was in his twenties when he made his first shot of Michael, before the singer launched his solo career. He had been invited to a party at New York City's Tavern on the Green, and at one point during the night he found himself shooting pictures of Michael and the rest of the Jackson family backstage. Shortly afterward, Funk got a call from Michael's publicist, inviting him to Los Angeles. Without promise of a job or even reimbursement, Funk got on the plane.
He remembers the day that he and Michael connected—really connected—for the first time. Tito Jackson's kids were playing in a softball game, and while a couple of the brothers hung out on the sidelines, Michael sat by himself in a parked car down the block. When he saw Funk approach, Michael told him to get in and the two sat talking about “everything in the world, and baseball.”
Funk chronicled Jackson's career, starting with the Jacksons' Victory Tour in 1984 and Michael's first solo tour, Bad (1987-89). “He taught me so much about observing, seeing the moment and capturing the moment," Funk said. "He taught me so much about perfection and Michael was a perfectionist. He wanted everything to be just so, even when it was spontaneous, it was just so. That was part of his brilliance, the ability to make that happen without any effort."
Access and trust are key to making documentary images, especially with publicity-conscious celebrities. “I was just myself," Funk said. "There was no pretense. I am who I am. I was open, and they knew that no picture would leave my hands without approval. And it got to the point to the middle of the tour where I was able to approve images. They trusted me."
Funk remembers vividly the day he photographed Jesse Jackson and Michael Jackson. Jesse was running for president, and he was planning to attend an NAACP convention near a location where Michael would be performing. The candidate asked for a meeting with the pop star to talk about how few black workers Michael had on his crew.
Funk and Jesse Jackson's personal photographer, Bruce Talamon, sat on the floor shooting as the two Jacksons talked, and suddenly Jesse turned and dismissed his photographer. “’Alright, photo op's over.' Michael turns to me and says, ‘Harrison, stay.’” Turning back to Jesse, Michael said, 'My photographer shoots everything.'”
Musicians started restricting photographic access in the 80s, Funk remembers. “They didn't want to be photographed snorting a pound of coke." But Michael Jackson and his family were different, and to them, Funk was a friend. They welcomed him onto the tour and into their lives.
“He liked to play practical jokes, and he liked to have fun. He was a big kid. There was one food fight where I wore a bucket of shrimp...after they poured it all over me,” Funk said.
This week, in Los Angeles, is Michael week, Funk said, and he’s been documenting the gathering crowds who considered Michael Jackson a prophet. Funk still grieves for his friend, but quietly, away from the fans who gather to pay tribute.