Remembering Diana John Minihan recalls his iconic shot of the future princess
Twenty years after her death, photographer John Minihane recalls the day he took the iconic shot that put Diana in the limelight — plus his other celebrity encounters
It’s still a photograph that commands your attention: a girl holding a child in a Madonna-like pose in a small park in London’s Pimlico in September 1980. The girl was Lady Diana Spencer, 18 years of age, a bubbly teenager who, according to Nigel Dempster in his column in the Daily Mail, was now seeing Prince Charles (having relinquished his relationship with Diana’s older sister Lady Sarah Spencer).
I immediately took a taxi to the kindergarten where she worked in Pimlico, knowing that if Dempster was saying this, it must have some credence as he was, at the time, very closely associated to some members of the royal family. As I started work at six in the morning I was at the crèche before 7am. As I knocked I could hear the laughter of young children. An elderly woman opened the door. I told her that I was from the London Evening Standard and wanted to speak with Lady Diana Spencer. I was quite surprised that I was the only one looking to speak with her.
After a few minutes she came out and could not have been more courteous. I told her I would like to take a photograph of herself with some of the children. She readily agreed, telling me she would have to ask permission from the children’s parents. I was still surprised that I was the only photographer there. When Diana emerged I took her into the small park. It was just after 7am. I looked through the viewfinder of my Nikon F camera with 35mm lens. I could hear my heart beat for the light was illuminating her perfect legs, I knew that I had the picture.
After we said goodbye she went back into the crèche. I had our dispatch rider waiting to take my film back to Fleet Street to be developed and printed. I called the picture desk to tell them that it looked great. The picture editor told me to stay at the crèche until they saw the pictures.
After some time other journalists and photographers arrived knocking on the door with no success. I was asked by some of the photographers would I talk with Diana again and ask would she agree to be photographed as there was now a posse of Fleet Street’s
tabloid press. I agreed to talk with the head teacher Kay Seth-Smith to ask would Lady Diana come out again for the photo call, and that then we would all go away.
That afternoon on September 17, 1980 my photograph was on the front page of London’s Evening Standard. Her life would never be the same again, every day after her picture would appear in the tabloids peeping out from under her wispy fringe. For two weeks I was on the story. I felt she knew the Irish photographer who brought her into the sunlight on that day in September 1980.
It all came to a head when one morning as she left her apartment in South Kensington, she was followed in her car by what seemed like a convoy of photographers on motorbikes, and journalists jumping into taxis. It was surreal.
As Diana parked her car in Berkeley Square she walked through the square and sat on a park bench weeping uncontrollably as photographers’ cameras clicked, making that noise they made before the digital revolution. I took a taxi back to Diana’s apartment with a bunch of flowers. I rang her bell and went across the road knowing she would look out to see who was there. When she saw me alone she came to the door and accepted the flowers. I told her how sorry I was for what happened; my cameras were still on my shoulder but there are times when you have to cherish the moment.
For me Lady Diana Spencer was the human face of the royal family. I knew that her life was going to be surrounded by what I call ‘camera assassins’.
The world has changed since that quiet morning in Pimlico. I don’t blame the so-called paparazzi for the death of Diana, I just feel that 20 years after her death the world’s a darker place. The British public was enchanted by her love for her Prince and her love for children.
London for me, working as a young photographer, was buzzing during the early 1960s. I was drawn irresistibly to the bohemian quarter known as Soho. There, in November 1964, I was invited to photograph a band called The Who, starting a residency at the Marquee Club in Wardour Street. They were four very young lads from Shepherds Bush, and they were explosive on stage. I would spend much time at the Marquee photographing such legends as Rory Gallagher, Jimi Hendrix and the Yardbirds.
I was young enough to find excitement in everything, photographing writers, musicians and artists.
I had wanted to photograph Samuel Beckett since he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969.
Ihad gotten to know fellow Dubliner Francis Bacon and would photograph the artist in Paris and London. Only a few years separate Bacon and Samuel Beckett. The opportunity to photograph Beckett came in the summer of 1980.
A friend who was working at The Hyde Park Hotel in Knightsbridge told me that the writer was staying at the hotel. I wasted no time and visited the hotel to be told there was no such name registered as a guest. I had learned a great deal about Mr Beckett’s reluctance to give interviews or be photographed. I left a letter for Mr Beckett telling the receptionist to make sure that he received it. On calling the hotel the next day I was put through to his room.
He thanked me for the note and expressed a wish to see my photographs of Athy, Co Kildare and a sequence on the Wake of Katy Tyrrell, which I photographed in February 1977. An appointment was made for 9am the next day.
I entered the Hyde Park Hotel with my Nikon F camera and 35mm lens and 20 black and white photographs of Athy, Co. Kildare. I was told to go to room 604. The man who greeted me was a tall smiling athletic figure with striking blue eyes. He was dressed in dark sweater with cord trousers. He studied the pictures very slowly and asked about people in the photographs. I knew that I had photographed a Beckettian Landscape of love, life and death. They were the original thinkers of our time. It was a great privilege to know them to photograph them and to capture some of their essence for posterity.
A pensive shot of Seamus Heaney, left, and above, Samuel Beckett, at Le Petit Cafe in Paris in 1985.
The iconic Jimi Hendrix as seen through the lens of John Minihane.
The Who — in their younger days — backstage at the Marquee Club in London’s Wardour Street.