In 1982, Bette Marshall accompanied her husband, Paul, an intellectual property attorney who represented high-profile musicians and labels, to the Manhattan nightclub Sweetwater’s, where they planned to catch a performance by the well-known gospel singer Cissy Houston.
“We were told that during the show Cissy was going to introduce one of her young backup singers, who would sing a song,” Marshall writes in the opening pages of her new book. “Perhaps Paul would be able to arrange for some record labels to see her.”
Per Marshall, Cissy sang three songs before making good on the promise to invite that singer to the front for a solo spin in the spotlight. The voice that echoed through the microphone blew them away. “When she finished, the audience was spontaneously on its feet, roaring its approval,” she writes. “It was a revelation.” Cissy then revealed that the young singer was her daughter, Whitney Houston.
Marshall was so taken by the moment that she introduced herself that night to the Houston family, eventually asking Whitney’s father, John Houston, if she could take some portraits of the singer. Marshall, too, was a woman on the verge as she had only recently transitioned from a career in front of the camera (as a model and actress) to one behind it as a photographer. The Houstons agreed and invited Marshall to their New Jersey home for the first of what would be 11 photo sessions.
Those collaborations, and the stories behind the images, inspired Marshall’s new book, Young Whitney, published by Cinergistik. The work features exclusive images from Marshall’s collection and tracks Whitney’s ascent from fresh-faced newcomer to pop star, capturing her in candid moments in her bedroom, watching All My Children, singing inside New Hope Baptist Church, at recording sessions and shooting “The Greatest Love of All” music video.
“I knew there was an incredible voice and that she most likely had a big career in front of her, which is what spurred me on to photograph her in the first place,” Marshall, 82, told THR by phone from her home in Florida. “Having heard her, it was a foregone conclusion that she would be getting somewhere and I thought it would be a good opportunity to be in on the beginning of that. You always see people once they’re a big star but to see the process of getting there, I thought, would be fascinating.”
Asked to pick her favorite image or session, Marshall recalled something her grandmother used to say. “When she was asked which of her six children she loved the most, she held up her hand and said, ‘If I cut off this finger, it hurts just as much as if I cut off this finger.’ That’s the way I feel,” explained Marshall.
Though no fingers were harmed during the course of the interview, she did point to the first photoshoot at the Houstons’ home because she was able to spend all day there, capturing portraits and interactions between Whitney and her mother. (Marshall also loved that her own son, then a film student at NYU, was able to come along and act as her assistant to help “shlep stuff.”)
“I was treated like part of the family when I got there and it was just a warm, casual experience,” she noted. “The other remarkable thing about that whole session was how comfortable she was in front of the camera. She never tried to pose or put on anything, she just behaved as herself. And that enabled me to keep snapping and be a fly on the wall as she behaved quite naturally. She knew she was on camera at the same time, but she never looked like she was posing. She was having a good time.”
Marshall went on to photograph many global celebrities, including like Queen Elizabeth II, Richard Branson, Robert Downey Jr., Jodie Foster, Nelson Mandela, Sarah Jessica Parker, Loretta Lynn and James Earl Jones. Though she’s not lugging around a camera much these days, Marshall is at work on a memoir that will be a more in-depth look her life and career.
The release of Young Whitney is timed to coincide with the 10-year anniversary of Houston’s death on Feb. 11, 2012. A companion documentary, titled Whitney Houston in Focus, is currently in production. It is being directed by Benjamin Alfonsi and produced by Young Whitney publisher Cinergistik. Broadway superstar Audra McDonald is executive producing and narrating the film.
“There have been so many other people who have written about the more difficult times of her life,” Marshall explains, referencing Whitney’s battle with substance abuse. “I knew her before any of that happened, or any that we know of at the time. So I just wanted to share this beautiful girl that I knew and hopefully, the story will help remind people of how beautiful she was, not just in looks but as a person. How special she was, and how natural and unaffected. I hope I’m contributing a little bit of a tribute to who she was and where she came from.”