Architecture has been a kingdom for the playground of men during its long, long intercourse with the human condition. Great men have created its museums and temples, mosques and churches, schools and universities. Until the 20th century, men had a stranglehold on the profession with a vice grip of impenetrable certainty. The so called ‘Nobel’ prize for Architecture, the Pritzker, was awarded only to men until a certain Zaha Hadid smashed through the glass ceiling and won it in 2004. Architecture needed Zaha to save itself from its own, self-created misogyny. It took a toll on her as she was faced with hurdle after hurdle, until her fierce will penetrated the architectural zeitgeist with a blazing creativity that soared and sang with a spirit of courage and unquenchable persistence. It was brilliant and unforgettable and the world of architecture will never be the same again.
I had been booked to photograph Zaha for the second time just a week before she passed away. We were in the car heading to her apartment at the W Hotel in Miami Beach, when I got a phone call from my client at Swarovski telling me that the photo shoot had been cancelled due to Zaha’s bronchitis. I had been at the Perez Art Museum the night before, for the opening of Zaha’s good friend, Michele Oka Doner’s exhibition. Whilst Michele was giving her lecture I saw Zaha sitting behind me and not wanting to disturb the lecture I said to myself…’I’ll wait to say hello until the end of the lecture and anyway I’ll be seeing her tomorrow for the photo shoot’. Zaha departed during the lecture and I never got to see her that night or indeed the next day and now the second chance to spend time with her has gone forever! Below is the story of our first and now only encounter. Below is the story of that first encounter.
During the last 30 years, I’ve had the opportunity of photographing a few celebrities and quite honestly it’s not quite my cup of PG tips! I’d rather be photographing the Glass House at sunrise! However, as much as an architect can be perceived as a celebrity, Zaha Hadid fills that role with a degree of alacrity I found refreshing and honest. I love powerful women (my wife, Cindy being one of them) and I particularly like a woman who speaks her mind clearly and with fortitude. Zaha ticks both of those boxes too. Having not met her before, I was in a state of eager anticipation, mixed with a certain mild anxiety, which I recognized as rather necessary to be enthusiastic, but not debilitating enough to be catastrophic. I also have a wonderful assistant in Chris Correa, which makes a life a lot easier! We are ushered up to her apartment, equipment in tow and upon entering I am met with a stupendous view across South Beach. Zaha is sat at her table that she designed herself, whilst hair and make-up artists are working diligently. There’s a moment when I’m not exactly sure when it’s appropriate to introduce myself. It’s a little bit awkward. Still, I cannot stand there forever and I walk over to greet my newest photographic subject. I’m happy to receive eye contact and I tell her that I’m happy to meet her and that she should take her time getting ready, whilst we set up the lights. The brief is to photograph her amidst her own designs, a sort of environmental design portrait. Luckily the apartment has lots of white ceiling, distinctive Zaha designed furniture and lots of space to shoot. Fast forward to the set up and things are going ok, but there is a certain ‘social distance’ to travel here, before any walls start coming down. It’s time to raid the memory banks and to remember who I know that she knows because in order to shoot a great photograph instead of a good one, I need her to be relaxed. The first name that springs to mind is Michael Wolfson, the terrific designer and cousin to Micky Wolfson. Michael had worked with Zaha when she was first setting up shop in London, so I mention that I know Michael and we enter into a more personal conversation. The door is now ajar, and I release the shutter, which delivers a sharp CLICK. I then remember that Cathy Leff (former director of the Wolfsonian) had mentioned to me many years ago that she knew Zaha. A big beaming smile came across Zaha’s face when I mention her name and the door was flung open.CLICK. CLICK.CLICK. A social familiarity had caused a shift in trust to take place. Zaha then surprised me as the conversation started to flow and she said, “I’m friends with Cathy but do you know the photographer Iran-Issa Khan?.” “Oh yes…..I certainly do and I think her work is Faaaaabulous!“ Zaha is now really laughing because Iran is always saying ‘Faaaaaabulous’ too! And then she gets Iran on the phone and we chat and the door has now disappeared completely and the shutter goes CLICK. CLICK. CLICK. CLICK. CLICK.CLICK…and I have my great photo instead of that merely good one! The photo will appear in the UK version of Vanity Fair this coming month. (November 2015)