Editor’s note: This story was originally published on February 16, 2012. Whitney Houston died February 11, 2012, at the age of 48.
Photographer Jack Mitchell described the February 1982 shoot he had with an 18-year-old Whitney Houston as “a routine thing.”
“All she had was the clothes she had worn to high school that day,” Mitchell said. The images, which never ran, were originally taken for After Dark, an entertainment magazine that Mitchell described as ahead of its time.
Someone who managed Whitney’s mom, gospel singer Cissy Houston, had arranged the shoot and was running late. Whitney asked if she could do her homework, and Mitchell said he didn’t mind. “I have never had that happen, and never since,” he said.
Houston didn’t come with an entourage. “I’m sure she couldn’t spell it,” Mitchell joked.
“She had no makeup man, no hair man.” He couldn’t believe it. He was used to photographing stars that were “highly glazed like Donna Summer.”
He described the pop star whose career would soar as “an innocent, sweet, pleasant schoolgirl with very good manners.” But he says at times the shoot was a difficult, “uphill situation” because Houston was neither camera-ready nor savvy.
“She responded well to direction,” he said. “I certainly didn’t see that stardom; it was not written all over her face. She didn’t have the glitz she had later in her career. But what do you expect of a high school student?
“The pictures I made of her were not her subsequent polished image. Mine were just simple images.”
Mitchell took 13 rolls of film on his medium-format camera, and the session lasted roughly two hours. He suspects these were some of the first photographs Houston had sat for professionally. They were taken at a time when she was singing in the church choir and taking the stage occasionally with her mother.
Because he seldom kept in touch with the stars he photographed, Mitchell was not sure what Houston thought of his photos, but he knew she saw the contact sheets.
The negatives sat in his files for about 30 years until he heard about the entertainer’s death and decided to release them.
“Whitney’s death was a waste of a life and talent,” he said. “She had a lot to live for. She had a big soul.”