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Storyteller | Bobby Holland

This is a picture Michael Jackson never wanted to pose for – you can see it in his eyes.

But Los Angeles-based portrait photographer Bobby Holland knew he had to capture the moment. Jackson, the biggest pop star of his era, had just picked up 5 prestigious Billboard Magazine awards for his groundbreaking 1979 ‘Off the Wall’ album. Explains Bobby: “I was shooting a group photo session with Michael and his brothers, ‘The Jacksons’.

© Bobby Holland /
Michael Jackson 

At the end of the shoot Michael’s dad Joe asked me to make a picture of Michael with his awards – but Michael really wasn’t up for it because he didn’t want his brothers to think he was showing off.” Bobby Holland has never been fazed by celebrity. He has invested four decades of his life photographing music stars, actors and politicians – alongside shooting major advertising campaigns for giant names like General Motors, Chrysler Corporation, Ford Motor Company and Coca-Cola – oh, and don’t forget the President of Gabon.

Some of those captured by the Holland lens became lifelong friends. Luminaries like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Barry White, Bobby Womack, Little Richard, Denzel Washington, Sidney Poitier, Quincy Jones, Don King and Richard Pryor have all been seduced by the legendary Holland skill and charisma.

Gary Moore 1981
Gary Moore

It has been said the impact of digital technology is creating ever bigger brands and ever bigger superstars – but Bobby Holland has done his bit to enhance the profiles and reputations of some of the world’s most prominent showbiz personalities – and he’s done it largely with old-school analogue photo-equipment.

Raised in a tenement block in Rhode Island, New England, he first connected with photography thanks to a friendly neighbour with a camera and a darkroom. Then, armed with his Kodak Brownie Hawkeye he just began photographing everything.


“I thought I had high technology” he smiles. Bobby later moved to LA and quickly got himself noticed at SOUL Magazine. “It was my big break. I was received as a young, up-and-coming photographer,” he says. “I had a steely determination and I was completely obsessed with all things photographic. People go to Hollywood to make their names. And so did I.”

The ‘magical’ world of medium format capture presented itself to Bobby when he started work as a photo-assistant.

“One of my great inspirations around that time was the outstanding Life Magazine and Sports Illustrated photographer, John Zimmerman. He was my mentor. It was John who taught me about business and how to put together a production. He told me: ‘Bobby, we don’t take pictures. We make pictures.’ Grammy-nominated photographer and film-maker, Bobby went on to make pictures of a pantheon of all-time greats, before launching his own film production company, Cymarron West Inc.

He says: “When I was working with SOUL Magazine I used to attend scores of concerts and take candid shots both on stage and backstage…and that evolved into commissioned studio portrait sessions. Naturally, it was a bit nerve-wracking the first time that it was just me and a superstar in a studio session, but I learnt the importance of extensive planning and pre-production before the subject ever walks in.

Sometimes there was real pressure. On occasions you know you’ve only got perhaps 20 minutes to get the shots you need. And that is when I have to cut to the chase, delete the technical issues and zone in on the personal interaction… so the sitter forgets the time issues and gives me exactly what I want from the shoot.”

Bobby always employs his interpersonal skills to ‘break the ice’ before a photo-session.

Stevie Wonder, Los Angeles, 1986.Stevie Wonder

“Before I handled my first session with Stevie Wonder I discovered that he and I shared the same star signs (Taurus) so I knew we would have similar personality characteristics. People don’t realise that Stevie is a real jokester. He plays practical jokes all the time and he is also extremely animated. He loves to have fun and always wants to be a part of what is going on.”

But celebrities have egos…..and occasionally that can prove challenging. Says Bobby: “Most people are terrific and go out of their way to be helpful, but sometimes you’ll be faced with someone who you just sense is going to be difficult. Perhaps they had a rough day…..they’ve had a row with their record company, or whatever. But I just let them vent. I want them to be a part of what I am doing, so they get to see what my own challenges are.”

On one occasion Warner Bros Records needed an urgent set of pictures of the Irish rock band, Thin Lizzy. But the group had a notorious reputation at that time for acting ‘a little wild’ and intimidating photographers. Recalls Bobby: “Warner Bros were getting anxious because no photographer had yet been able to finish a shoot with Thin Lizzy. I told the publicist that there was no way the band would be trashing the new studio that I had just built.”

“I was expecting these wild men to appear but I had Al Green music playing when they turned up. They loved it and we all got on just fine. I got all the images Warner Bros needed.”

Thin Lizzy

Bobby got to know the entire Jackson clan very well…shooting at the family home so frequently it seemed like he lived there.

He says: “Michael was a very special individual. He was quite reserved but, unlike Stevie Wonder, he was always early. You just knew he was going to do great things. I would have all my ideas locked in before our shoot-sessions and he would just give you everything. When it was time for him to step in front of the lens he could really turn it on and show everyone exactly why he was dubbed The King of Pop. The biggest problem I had was keeping up with him.

Marvin Gaye was special too; quiet and laid back…he was more like a jazz singer to me, charismatic, deep and introspective. He was a very cool guy.” Renowned boxing promoter Don King was another ‘larger-than-life’ character too. “Don would just enter a room and suck up all the oxygen. He just took over” notes Bobby. “These guys fully understood the power of their image.”

‘Hasselblad and me’

It was 1975 when Bobby Holland first picked up a Hasselblad. “Hasselblad was the industry standard for any serious professional” he asserts. “It just offered so much – the amazing image quality and size, and of course the superb optics. The big thing for me was to be able to slap a Polaroid back on my 500 camera – that just assured you of what you were getting, so you could relax. I had a 500CM and then the motorised version – and I had 120 and 220 backs. The system was so modular; it was just perfect. The thing was that when you showed up with a Hasselblad people just knew you were the real deal.”

Barry White

Bobby confesses he was reluctant to move to digital. “How we worked then was just so ingrained in us. It was mechanical and analogue and we were used to it. I know digital has come an awful long way since its inception and I love and appreciate both the old way and the new way. But I think some of us still hope that one day a client may wander in and ask for their work to be shot on film!”

Now Bobby – whose mantra is ‘Don’t be at the airport when your ship comes in’, has a brand new plan. ‘I know about the brand new H6D launch” he says, “and I want to use one to go back and re-photograph some of these entertainment industry icons I shot 20, 30 or even 40 years ago. This time, instead of using the old 500CM I want to shoot with this sensational new camera. For me the ultimate pleasure would be to shoot Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder on this exciting new Hasselblad system.” He adds: “Hasselblad cameras have been my trusted companions on the majority of the really magical things I’ve had the pleasure of working on. They are simply my tool of choice.”

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