I didn't catch the Grammy Awards show earlier this month, but when I caught up with the results, I was pleased to see that the lovely British singer Ellie Goulding had been nominated for her first such award. Ellie is no stranger to awards; she's been collecting them for years now. But as I watched her Grammy performance -- a duet with another "up and comer," Californian soul singer Andra Day -- I was struck by an experience photographers often encounter: that of watching one of your former subjects evolve into the next stage of their existence.
For some, this means the newborn you saw first in an incubator at the hospital (or even on a farm!) take his or her first steps, grow and lose some teeth, and morph into an adult. For others it's a watching the twists and turns of someone's career trajectory. It can also mean the bittersweet time spent sifting through your negatives or digital archives when a person has transitioned from life here on this earth to that next stage of their existence in the universe, whatever that means to you. Call it witnessing or voyeurism, any way you slice it, one of the great experiences of being a photographer is the privilege of perhaps getting to witness these metamorphoses at a wee bit closer distance than the average person. And, for me, that is one of the great luxuries of this avocation.
Ellie Goulding most certainly does not remember me. I was hired to photograph her for a "day in the life" feature years ago for Billboard Magazine Online, during her first big U.S. tour, as the supporting act for Bruno Mars, a guy who also fared pretty well at this year's Grammy Awards. The tour was coming through Pittsburgh and the then-photo editor was an old friend of mine, Kate Glicksberg, whom I met through the local music scene and later in the darkroom at Pittsburgh Filmmakers back in the mid-90's. It was just a lucky connection, facilitated by Facebook (for all its pros and cons, opportunities like this definitely fall into the plus category.) I hopped into the tour bus, was paid to snoop around a bit with a video crew, and make some images of Ellie while she did an exclusive acoustic performance for Billboard Online.
29 years old now, then she would have been 25 or 26, and her self-possession was immediately apparent. I'd boned up on her videos prior to the assignment (I admit, I'm more of a grizzled old rock & roller, more prone to garage bands in dive bars than to the pop music chart, so I had some homework to do for this job.) She had a unique, ethereal, quavering vocal style atop more EDM sounding tracks and an obvious visual panache. She was fit and into fashion, but there was still a very appealing "normalcy" to her. She seemed very real, like someone you'd bump into while having a pint in a pub, pleasant but very much in her own mind. At least, that was my impression and I left with a sense of awe and respect for this young woman who was carving out a path for herself in the world. I don't pretend do know Ellie, as I wouldn't expect her to remember anything at all about me. Our paths crossed in the context of our work and that was that.
Still, it was a cool experience. And it's even cooler to see her come into her own, to watch her style and looks evolve into a polished and sophisticated demeanor, to say nothing of her music, which has also taken on a depth that was just nascent back in 2013. I get to do that with a lot of people and, unlike all of us, it never seems to get old. Last weekend at my studio, I photographed a beautiful 12 year old girl who is interested in pursuing work as a model (maybe a peek at that down the road here on the blog.) She had that same sort of self-possession and burgeoning confidence. I can't wait to see where she ends up.
Watch Ellie & Andra's Grammy performance here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J_doPxVGrMk