Paparazzi Redefined

The expression on Engelbert Humperdinck's face, who brilliantly took his stage name from the 19th-century German composer, is soft and vague, reflective and a bit bored.

There are people whose facial expression attaches itself to the observer and doesn't let go. One of them is Engelbert Humperdinck, pictured here in this fine photograph - which is different from the usual paparazzi images of performing artists - taken by Daniel Cohen in the Old City on December 1. The expression on the face of the British singer, now 75, who was born in India and brilliantly took his stage name from the 19th-century German composer, is soft and vague, reflective and a bit bored. Or maybe this is due to the disparity between his well-groomed leather-jacketed eminence and his mane of hair, now thinned out, dyed and slightly puffed up.

Humperdinck has been working successfully for almost 50 consecutive years. He is loyal to his style and to his work. He puts on a complete show. The latest story about him affords a glimpse of his seriousness and alertness.

Engelbert Humperdinck - Daniel Cohen - 10122011
Daniel Cohen

When he learned that his manager had turned down - without informing him - a request from Gorillaz's Damon Albarn to work with that beloved, innovative and pampered band, he fired him and appointed his son instead. He tells interviewers that he trusts his son to understand the music of Gorillaz if he hears it.

Humperdinck has four children from his long marriage and another daughter whom he acknowledged in 1977 in the wake of a paternity suit. Things happen. His total devotion was to his work, his profession. A nonstop procession of concerts, sometimes 200 in a single year.

All of that is expunged from this photograph, which redefines the essence of paparazzi and reduces its sensationalism, and not only because the subject is not at the peak of his glory. This is simultaneously a full and empty photograph, which places Humperdinck in dreamlike surroundings, immediately identifiable by the glittering chains of beads, the bracelets and the scarves, but also divorced from the pomposity of the official sites of worship. It is lovely in itself, even suggestive.

Humperdinck is wandering amid the colorful, tourist-loving shops of the Old City, and his route is empty of people. He is not stuffing a note into the Western Wall and is not covered by any sort of prayer shawl, as is often the case with visitors who fly in for a lightning performance and always look as though they had been rushed there by force. Nor was he photographed from afar in a cafe, as when a tourist wishes to keep his visit a secret. He is simply not famous enough nowadays to get that kind of visual treatment.

Humperdinck is touring the market a little before the pilgrims stream into Jerusalem and Bethlehem for the Christmas season. There is no trail of people behind him. He is not recognized. His face, which has aged a great deal, looks melancholy, because it always did.

How can we know it's him? We can't. He could be anyone his age who preserves his appearance. But Cohen chose this frame, next to this shop, at which Humperdinck stopped. Paused. What made him pause? Musicians always spot musical instruments. And there are two in this photo.