Ricardo Gomes, Madonna's Second Set of Eyes

Ricardo Gomes, Madonna's Second Set of Eyes

Jul 08, 2024

“No photography was permitted” during Madonna’s surprise appearance at Ladyland 2024’s Vogue House Ball in Brooklyn. That is, unless your name was Ricardo Gomes, the Queen of Pop’s go-to photographer and all-around creative confidant.

The Portuguese director has been capturing Madonna, whom he refers to simply as “M,” for several years now — sometimes officially, like for her single artwork, magazine editorials or music videos, and other times more candidly, like at parties or backstage with all her famous friends.

Gomes just got off Madonna’s Celebration World Tour — which he worked closely on, documenting every show, directing stage videos and providing real-time feedback. “I'm kind of like her eyes in the audience,” he says, explaining his critical, but undefined role that’s difficult to attain and not for the faint of heart.

Below, PAPER caught up with Gomes to talk all things Celebration and reflect on our 2022 cover shoot that doubled as a private party with some of New York’s coolest club kids.

What’s your creative relationship with Madonna and how involved were you in the Celebration Tour production?

At this point, I oversee, give my opinion and give notes if I see something. Me and M[adonna] went to a few different types of shows before we started rehearsing [for Celebration], looking for inspiration and researching. Then we started having meetings, and it was all a conversation and an exchange of ideas. But she is the main creative of the show. It's really her vision and what she wanted to do.

When you’d watch the show back, what elements of yourself would you see reflected?

The second act of the show, which is the ’90s, Erotica, until the end and gets kind of “Bad Girl”-ish. That's really where my vision came to life because I directed the videos, and was very involved for the whole show on the camera work and the live video. There were a lot of people involved in this show, it's a whole village.

It’s probably the biggest show, in terms of production, that I've ever been to in my life. You’re in such a unique position with Madonna because there’s a lot of trust and you’ve built a very close relationship. How did you get to that place with her?

I don't really know, it was so organic. Everyone talks to me about it, the people that are really close to her and the people that have been working with her for so long. They respect me a lot because they're like, “You managed to create your own position with her and no one has ever managed to do that.” People would always come and go for specific projects. I came in to help her promote her last album, create visuals and photos for press or for Instagram.

It was very hard in the beginning to direct her because she didn't know me. I was supposed to come for three months to work with her until she started rehearsing for the previous tour and she just kept me on. I was like, “Maybe I'm gonna go home after rehearsals and I'm not going on tour,” but then I ended up going on tour. We figured out a way to keep working [through COVID], and to stay creative and communicate, and then I moved to LA with her and we just kept working.

I kept bringing her projects and ideas and introducing her to new people, and that's how it happened. She likes to just keep going and stay connected with what's happening in the moment. There is no one else around her that really does that to the level that she likes, bringing things the way I bring them to her. I keep it very real and very straight. Very much like, “This is cool, you should do it.” Of course, sometimes the idea changes and it becomes her idea, but at least I start something with her.

Living in this world, I would imagine it's difficult to be exposed to new ideas or talent all the time. How do you stay connected and inspired, while still being in Madonna’s circle touring the world?

During tour is a little hard. I managed to do other projects, at the same time, smaller projects. I don't know how, but I managed. We've been on the road for so long and rehearsals started last year in February. I try to watch movies, sometimes. When I'm in different cities, I walk around. That's what keeps me inspired. I go out, I see people and I try to have a little bit of a life outside of the touring world. I don't just wake up at 1 PM and go to the venue. I’d rather sleep a little less, wake up earlier, and go out and then go to the show later. On the days without a show, I either work on other projects, meet people or stay active. That's how I keep going.

What do you do during the show?

Every night, I’m on the barricades around the stage. I kind of follow her, looking at different things. I'm looking at hair, sometimes the skirt gets shortened. Sometimes this gets added, this gets removed. I report feedback. After I look at the screens, sometimes we change something on lighting. I'm just really connected to the show. I'm kind of like her eyes in the audience, if she was in the audience.

That's probably why you and Madonna get along so well. Having worked with you both, you're extremely particular and such perfectionists. Have you ever just enjoyed the show with a drink?

To be honest, I haven't sat down and watched the show for fun. I’m either following the show or following M[adonna] on stage, photographing her or photographing the show details. And after the show, we go into the editing of the show. I've been living on this show for a while, it's intense.

You've been doing more directing work. Is that what you’re interested in moving more into, music videos?

I love photography, but video is a completely different world. It's so much more real time and I'm starting to relate to it more and more. Before working with M[adonna], I was really into photography and that's all I wanted to do. I thought that video was not for me, but the longer I work with her I see myself more involved with video. I'm starting to look at other artists’ work and I'm like, “I wish they would have done it this way,” you know? I feel very involved.

Obviously, you've done so much with Madonna. Is there like a dream project in the music space that you could see yourself working on at some point?

Working with artists is very complicated. You’re not able to do everything you want to do, that's the problem. Of course, there are other artists I would love to work with, but I'm not dreaming about working with any other artists. If it happens, it's great. I'm not really pushing for it to happen. I love documentaries and I love campaigns, that's what I want to go towards. Working a little bit more in the fashion world, and outside of music and show business.

You’ll probably need time to recalibrate creatively and decide what’s next after such a busy tour.

I don't want to take a long break, I'm fine.

What's been the most memorable place to visit on this tour?

Middle America, I don't understand. Some are a little bit fascinated by it. Nothing really made me feel like I had to go back there.

I’m from Minnesota–

Going to Prince’s house was fun. He would never go out and didn't like to travel, so he would just invite people to his home like M[adonna] and her dancers. Europe is always fun, like when we went out shopping in Paris, it was cute. We walked a little bit and the car would pick us up somewhere and we’d walk somewhere else. My birthday in Cleveland was not cute, it was just a random place. We ended up going bowling, which is something that I would never do. The West Coast was fun, Vegas was crazy. It's basically like: wake up, explore, maybe go to the show, maybe there's an after thing, and then it's repeat repeat, repeat. Touring with M[adonna] is very particular. She's very dedicated to work and her family, so that's all she does on tour: work and family. She doesn't party, she doesn't drink. There is no sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. So I kind of live that way too, I don't drink or do anything crazy.

Did you ever anticipate having as many crazy experiences as you've had since beginning this work?

No, I never get starstruck. So I never anticipate anything, I just go with it. I'm just happy to be there and I'm grateful that it happened.

I wonder if it's because you've humanized Madonna, one of the most famous and most powerful people in entertainment.

Before working with her I always respected her and her as an artist, but it wasn't the type of music I would listen to. One time she asked me, “Did you come out to my music?” And I was like, “No,” because it's the truth. I love her, but I was just listening to other things. When I was asked to work with her I came in as, “Let me see what this person is about, let me feel the energy in the room, let me see if I can see myself.” She allowed me to be myself and I also allowed myself to be myself, which a lot of people don’t around her because they're afraid.

The first time I worked with her, it was very cold. And when I came back, they became more personal. They allowed me in her dressing room and I started giving my opinion: “Maybe not that t-shirt, maybe that hair.” Literally everyone that was there, like the glam team, they were looking at me like, “Who the fuck is this person that just arrived?” I was like, “If it doesn't work out and I’m not asked to work again, it's fine.” I'm not gonna change my personality, just because it’s Madonna, Beyoncé or Rihanna. I read the room, as well, I don't just go in and start talking. If I'm welcomed and the artist is asking questions, and if everyone's being afraid of answering, I will talk.

That is the worst when you're in a room with talent and everyone's walking on eggshells. Why does that dynamic suddenly exist, when one person walks in and everyone's afraid?

That happens here. But I've been in other rooms with other people where it also happens. I've also felt that it's sometimes better to stay quiet and just do my job. I've worked with people that I didn't like to work with, I have worked with very sweet and warm people, and I've worked with very rude people where I haven't even shared one photo online because I hated them so much. That's how it is. To me, photography is so personal and it's my baby. It's what I've wanted to do since I was 17. I don't give a fuck if if I go into a room and I shoot someone that's really rude to me and I don't want to share it. I won't share it, even if it's good for my career. Something else will come.

I think that's a good way to be. You’re no bullshit, which I appreciate and I'm sure Madonna also appreciates.

I hope so, yeah.

Do you see yourself that way?

I do. Sometimes you need a little bit of bullshit, but most of the time I’m straight to the point and I will tell you what I think. And sometimes it's a problem that I have. I might hurt people a little bit because I tell everyone what I think about in that moment. Sometimes I'm like, “Maybe I should have said something a little bit different.” But then I'm like, “No, I was being real. That's, that's how I feel, that's how I think, so then we can figure it out.”

When I first met you for PAPER’s Madonna cover, I was like, “Whoa, okay I'm processing–”

I feel like you hated me for the first five minutes.

And then I was like, “Okay, I love this.”

I always appreciate that when I work, especially with M[adonna], and a magazine that it's so complex and specific. When I go into a project with her I already know what I'm going to go through, so I try to be very clear. I always try to say the bad things and the good things. Sometimes people are like, “Let’s look at the good side,” but I'm like, “There might not be a good side,” you know? It's just very specific and that's why she is who she is.

I loved our shoot. There was so much spontaneity and it basically became one big party in Brooklyn.

In the beginning, I was a bit freaked out by everything. We had so many people on set, it was actually insane. I don't know how we made that happen. I mean, you made it happen, but I will never forget that shoot because I also met incredible people from New York, cool kids. I really saw a different side of New York and it made me curious. I knew about this side in Europe, but it was a really fun shoot, for sure. And it was one of the first times that I shot without a real shot list. We only had the locations planned and then whatever happened happened in that location, which is crazy. But it worked out.

It’s not like we pre-planned any of that, it all just happened. It was interesting to see firsthand how people light up around Madonna. She is a force, for sure.

Yeah, it was a night. A night in Brooklyn.

What impact do you think the Celebration Tour had and what would you say is its larger message?

Regarding her as a performer, I think it's insane. I feel tired looking at her performing every night. Her energy is crazy. At her age, to still be performing the way she's performing, there’s nobody that does that. And a lot of the new performers, the younger artists or bigger artists that are still younger, I don't know if they would ever be able to do that. So I think that's the main inspiration for every artist: rehearse for so long, almost die, come back to life, go on the road for so long and just be so strong mentally. That’s very inspiring.

Visually, it's a such a minimal show, but still feels huge. It doesn't have many props, it doesn't have 100 chairs, it doesn't have stairs. It's really just a video and a stage. And for such a big pop artist to do that, everything else has to be solid. And I'm actually so happy that she allowed herself to do that. It's way, way stronger, because it's all about her and the dancers. And if that is not good enough, then the show wouldn't be good.

Photography: ROSARIIO