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

Irish Examiner - Magazine - - Contents -

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.

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