“If God gave you the talent, you should go for it. But don’t think it’s going to be easy,” Aaliyah Dana Houghton knew, and so she spoke. She sang and danced too, more than a woman, you know. She was, she is, an eternal flame burning in memory of a woman gone too soon. She died as she lived, a shooting star cast across the sky. On January 16, 2014, Aaliyah would be 35, were she not to have died on August 25, 2001, at her prime.
In July of her final year, Eric Johnson photographed Aaliyah for Entertainment Weekly, and since that time, photographs from the shoot that have gone around the globe. Whether gracing the cover of Vibe magazine’s memorial issue or illustrating Aaliyah’s Wikipedia page, the photographs have become so emblematic of that singer’s mystique that they have been remade countless times as murals, paintings, and drawings that are seen everywhere from Instagram to Times Square.
Recently. Johnson went through his negatives from the shoot, revealing a series of portraits the world has never seen. “She was on,” Johnson recalls. The consummate professional, Aaliyah arrived early at the shoot with her mother. Before Johnson’s camera, the triple-threat reveals endless facets of an artist coming into her own.
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Detroit, Aaliyah was a singer, dancer, and actress who first signed to Jive Records at the age of 12. Her uncle Barry Hankerson introduced her to R. Kelly, who became the lead songwriter and producer on her first album, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, which was recorded when she was 14 and went on to sell three million copies.
Aaliyah parted with R. Kelly after rumor of a secret marriage emerged, and went on to sign with Atlantic where she partnered Timbaland and Missy Elliott for “One in a Million,” which went on to sell eight million worldwide. Aaliyah went on to her first Grammy nomination for “Are You That Somebody?” on the Dr. Doolittle soundtrack. Her second came for “Try Again” on the Romeo Must Die soundrack, a film that she both execute produced and starred in, opposite Jet Li.
After completing that film, she began to work on Queen of the Damned while simultaneously recording her third album, Aaliyah, which was released in July 2001. And it was at this time in her life, at her greatest moment, that she stood before Johnson’s lens. Ten years in the game, Aaliyah was at the top. “Everything is worth it. The hard work, the times when you’re tired, the times where you’re a bit sad. In the end, it’s all worth it because it makes me happy. There’s nothing better than loving what you do,” Aaliyah revealed.
Being a star requires an artist to be fully present to the possibility that every situation allows. When she appeared before Johnson’s camera, a chemical reaction began. Frame by frame, Aaliyah reveals as much as she hides, as we see a woman just 22 years old, entering her prime. She is calm, casual, confident, and poised, elegant and alluring, a vision of beauty and grace. She takes us into a world that only she knows, and the result is a stunning array of images, each as evocative as the last. For it is she, Aaliyah, an eternal mystery. Cherchez la femme.