Focus on the Famous

In 1994, Detroit photographer Monica Morgan was debating whether or not to go to South Africa to photograph the fall of apartheid and the country's first all-race elections.

"As a child I was always interested in South Africa," she says. "I just couldn't believe in my lifetime there was still slavery."

But Morgan couldn't find a sponsor and worried about the cost, including $1,500 in airfare.

Then one night over dinner a friend made things clear: "If you really wanted to go, you would," her friend told her. Morgan realized she was right and took out a loan to cover the trip, a decision that changed her life.

She learned to take risks, she says, recalling how she watched people register to vote outside her hotel. Suddenly a bomb went off and she saw how people went about their business. "This was part of their life," she says. "I touched a cross around my neck that my grandmother had given me. I hesitated for a moment then I ran toward the bomb. And my images ran on the AP newswire." One image — of a woman wrapped in a towel, her face covered in blood, searching for a child — ran on the front page of the Detroit News. "I learned you can never give up."

Morgan, a lifelong Detroiter with a studio at River Place, has been running a successful photography business and traveling the world ever since. In just the past month, she was in Paris, and she heads to Darfur in western Sudan in mid-April. With clients that include DaimlerChrysler, General Motors, HBO, Ebony and Jet magazines, she does everything from corporate work to photojournalism. Her subjects range from rappers like Obie Trice to politicians like John Kerry and iconic figures like Rosa Parks. And she's now represented by WireImage, which provides images to media. "They didn't respond to me four years ago," she says. But Morgan, who was Parks' longtime official photographer, was signed to a three-year contract during Parks' 2005 funeral.

Going everywhere, doing everything

Morgan looks like a photo subject herself one gray March day at the Skyline Club in Southfield. Dressed in all black with her hair elegantly slicked back showing off crystal earrings, she appears somewhat shy as she shows off work samples from her 20 years in the business. There are note cards with Nelson Mandela dancing; the original edition of a glossy hardcover book called "Who's Who in Black Detroit," for which she was the official photographer; and a photo album of snapshots showing her with her famous subjects. This impressive collection is a who's who of world leaders, celebrities and icons: Mohammed Ali, Muammar Gaddafi, George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, Ray Charles, Patti LaBelle, Martha Reeves and Coleman Young III, to name a few.

Morgan, who is 43, single and jokes she's married to her career, didn't always aspire to be a photographer. "I wanted to be an actress," she says of the dream dashed when her mother, who died when Morgan was 19, said she wasn't going to feed her for the rest of her life.

After graduating with honors from Cass Technical High School in 1981, Morgan, who was raised by her grandmother — her "best friend," who died a couple of years ago — decided to make documentary films. She majored in communications at Wayne State University, where she had a full academic scholarship. Throughout college she had internships at WDIV (The Sonya Show, Mort Crim's Free-4-All and The Saturday Night Music Machine) and was "The Cosmic Angel," a gospel radio DJ, for WQBH.

All that wasn't enough to land a producing job in 1985, so she ended up as a public relations coordinator for the Detroit Public Schools' adult education. "I didn't even know the definition of PR," she says. Not that it stopped her. Neither did the fact that taking photos was part of the job, says Morgan, who never thought to follow in the footsteps of her grandfather, who passed away in 1992. He was a quality control inspector for Ford Motor Company who did photography on the side.

Morgan's only training was a five-minute lesson on a used Olympus camera she'd bought from a photographer and teacher at adult education. She threw in her own "theatrical skills" to fake her way through the job. "I'd say, 'that's the angle right there,' " she says. Soon her photos were in newsletters and on billboards.

While doing public relations for Domino's Pizza a couple years later, she realized she liked the photographer's lifestyle: "They came to work, did their job and left. I wanted to do that." Meanwhile, she was shooting photos and writing a column for The Michigan Chronicle in the evenings. "I went everywhere and did everything," she says.

At one event, a Stevie Wonder concert at the Fox Theater, she met her mentor, Harold Robinson, the first African-American photographer hired by the Detroit News to cover the 1967 riot. "He took me under his wing," she says. "I didn't have the equipment to shoot up close and he let me use his lenses." Another time she needed Robinson's advice for an assignment for the City of Detroit. They wanted aerial shots from a police helicopter during a park concert. "He said just put the camera on infinity and shoot. It worked. And I got paid." Robinson mentored her until his death two years ago. "He gave me the confidence I needed to keep me going," Morgan says.

She indeed kept going, launching her business out of her home in 1987 and getting her first studio, in the Lafayette Lofts downtown, in 1990. Soon Morgan gained a life-changing friend: Rosa Parks. They met when Parks was working for Congressman John Conyers. How did Morgan become her official photographer? "It just happened," she says. Morgan later took the portrait of Parks for her book Quiet Strength and cherishes the inscription Parks wrote to her: "To Monica, A dear friend and a great photographer."

Morgan says, "That was more touching than anything."

Dedicated to Detroit

Morgan may be a jetsetter but she is dedicated to Detroit.  "I love Detroit. I never thought of leaving the city," she says. "I've had so many opportunities as a result of being (here). People take the time to talk to you. It's so diverse."

Now after 20 years in the business, Morgan wants to give back as a mentor. One protégé, Nichole Williams, 29, of Inkster, met Morgan when she took her photography class at Wayne County Community College a few years ago. "She's affected me a lot," says Williams, a professional photographer who assisted Morgan on Detroit's Hip Hop Summit and other assignments. "She teaches by example. We've stayed up all night to get (a project) to a client for a deadline."

She says Morgan is also just fun to work with. At a recent photo shoot with Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his mother at the Manoogian Mansion for a national magazine, Morgan brought music. "(She brought) Motown and old school," says Williams. "His really young sons knew the music. Everyone was singing and dancing. It loosened him up."

As Morgan looks ahead, she hopes to one day create a school for kids in Detroit, teaching business skills and self-esteem with the focal point of photography. "It's so much more than picking up a camera and pushing a button," she says. "You've got the ability to communicate with people from all walks of life. I'm shy. But I'm not shy with a camera."

Ellen Piligian is a Detroit-area freelance writer. This is her first piece for Model D.

Photographs of Monica Morgan Copyright Dave Krieger

Rosa Parks and John Kerry Photographs Copyright Monica Morgan

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.