It doesn’t happen often that a teen without any music records to her name features in Rolling Stone. Yet Paris Jackson, daughter of the late King of Pop, graces the magazine’s February 2017 cover. Her striking semi-religious portrait reflects the artistic vision of David LaChapelle (1963). Here’s a closer look at some of the symbolism and imagery LaChapelle may have used.
Faith, trust and pixie dust
Meet Paris Jackson: teenage rebel and daughter of the man who moonwalked his way into music history. Since her father’s death in 2009, Jackson has fought her battles, conquered her demons and found her voice. In a substantial interview with Rolling Stone, she recalls life with her father and two brothers at Neverland Ranch.
Obviously, Paris Jackson is not your average teen. Nor does she want to be. According to Rolling Stone, she’s had fifty tattoos inked to her skin, including nine that refer to her father. Yet none of these are visible in LaChapelle’s photoshoot, except for a short tattood text near her collarbone.
This tattoo, a line from J.M. Barrie’s novel Peter Pan – one of her dad’s favourites – reads ‘Faith, trust and pixie dust’. The words seem to reflect the intention with which LaChapelle has photographed the teen. Using references to Eastern Christian iconography, props that recall the work of Jackson’s father, and a bit of glitter to add magic, LaChapelle has created two portraits that are worth a closer look.
LaChapelle’s cover photo portrays Jackson in a Christ-like fashion. Looking directly into the camera, Jackson’s short blond hair is lighted from above, creating a halo that is accentuated by a silver halo in the background. Her blue eyes seem to hold a message, while her right hand is raised in a way that commands attention.
Here, the icon of Christ Pantocrator or Christ ‘ruler of all’, comes to mind. The icon is well-known in the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic tradition. It shows Christ from the waist up, holding the Gospel book in his left hand while raising his right hand in a gesture of teaching and blessing.
LaChapelle’s portrait includes many similar elements. For example, on the traditional icon, Christ’s thumb and ring finger touch to form the letters IC and XC. These letters form a monogram for the name Jesus Christ in Greek: ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ. On the Rolling Stone cover, Jackson does precisely the same. The monogram is absent in her portrait, but her tattoo does the talking instead.
The colours LaChapelle uses are meaningful as well. In iconography, blue traditionally signifies the heavens as well as transcendence, truth and humility, while gold symbolizes the divine. Interestingly, LaChapelle reverses the use of these colours on his cover, dressing Jackson in gold against a blue background.
LaChapelle’s second photograph also appears to be based on Christian iconography. Although the photograph may seem like a seventies disco scene in which Jackson is about to moonwalk, the picture bears similarity to the icon of The Annunciation.
The icon of The Annunciation depicts the biblical moment when the archangel Gabriel visits the Virgin Mary and announces that she will become the mother of Christ. The angel is usually positioned on the left side of the icon, whereas Mary is seated on the right.
The archangel is painted in profile. He stands with his feet apart to emphasize that the message he is about to deliver is urgent. Both arms are raised, with his left hand holding a staff – symbol of his authority as a supreme messenger of God – and his right hand expressing a blessing.
Throughout the ages, the archangel Gabriel has often been depicted as a feminine-looking messenger. LaChapelle’s photo emphasizes the feminine as well, even though Jackson features as a spunky Barbarella version of the heavenly herald. Her platform boots raise her up a few inches as if floating on air; an effect that is further emphasized by the lighted floor tiles and the angle of the camera.
The Virgin Mary, who usually sits or stands near a chair on the right-hand side of the icon, does not feature in LaChapelle’s photograph. Instead, a vintage car seat spray-painted with graffiti hearts invites the Rolling Stone reader to take a seat and listen to what this modern-day messenger has come to announce.
Back to the future
Another feature in LaChapelle’s two photographs are the visual reminders of the iconic King of Pop himself. On the cover, for example, Paris Jackson wears black fingerless gloves, a reminder of her father’s outfit in the Bad video.
The second photograph contains other MJ nuggets. Jackson’s pose, as if about to walk backwards, recalls her father’s famous moonwalk. The red brick wall in the background ressembles the album cover of Off the Wall, which is generally regarded as the King of Pop’s coming-of-age album. Moreover, the lighted floor tiles in the photo are a tribute to his iconic Billie Jean video.
Behind the brick wall, the King of Pop’s Moonwalker silhouette becomes partly visible. This, again, makes for an interesting visual, as the painted hands seem to both bless and protect the teen. It’s Michael Jackson, the father, watching over his daughter from a blue hereafter filled with stars.
Perhaps it’s this ‘absent’ image of Michael Jackson – moonwalker, legendary artist and beloved father – that makes LaChapelle’s surreal photographic art relatable. After all, here’s a teen trying to find her way in the world without the help of her dad, but with all the pros and cons of his legacy hovering in the background.
But she’ll get there, LaChapelle seems to say. With faith, trust and a little pixie dust, Paris Jackson is bound to find her way, “second star to the right, and straight on till morning”.
© Annemarie Latour