The most interesting photography exhibit that no one saw opened on Saturday and closed by Wednesday, its pictures all sold and carried off. Actually, a few people saw it, those who happened to wander into the International Center of Photography Midtown gallery over the weekend and those who happen to figure as regulars on A-lists. “It’s too bad it’s only up for four days,” Edward W. Earle, an ICP curator, said one afternoon as the exhibit was being hung. But it wasn’t too bad, really. There’s something metaphorically just about an exhibit called “The Photography of Celebrity” having a shelf life roughly equivalent to the latest issue of People. It signals a trend of sorts— driven no doubt by the Internet and inspired by boutique evenings in nightclubs— toward the quickie microshow.
Fame isn’t exactly what it used to be, as we’re all aware. Nothing makes the point more clearly than a photo exhibit filled with images of contemporary celebrities who all appear to belong to a bygone age. Despite a knack for regeneration that renders her the Freddy Kruger of pop culture, Madonna as commodity is near the end of her use-by date. That she’s ubiquitous is unquestioned; with no fewer than five images in the ICP exhibit, she’s still the numerical champ. Yet, if the Madonna pictures in the show went a long way toward illustrating the premise of “Fame After Photography”— another smart exhibition that just opened at the Museum of Modern Art— that “photography has changed what fame looks like, how fame is conferred, and what constitutes fame’s value,” they also provided spooky confirmation of Andy Warhol’s pop Buddhist insight that the “big thing is the now.”
Once a celebrity’s now gets “summed up,” Warhol remarked, “we move immediately to another person and another now.” This is always a matter of who’s in control of the moment. The ICP exhibit was a 25th-anniversary benefit for the strapped institution; over 120 photographers donated work to help fund a Charles Gwathmeydesigned reconstruction of the peculiar midtown space. The show’s main corporate sponsor was Condé Nast, and when it comes to celebrity culture, Condé Nast has the zeitgeist in a pretty strong lock. Most of the donated pictures were solicited by a nominating committee composed mainly of editors in chief. But two rooms of “legend” pictures were culled by James Truman and corporate archivist Charles Scheips from the conglomerate’s vast pictorial library. “You can see James’s influence throughout,” said ICP’s Earle. But, just as clearly, you could discern a sharp division between the two batches of pictures that ran deeper than editorial taste or the geography of the space.
One way to distinguish between the two groups of pictures was to draw a Maginot Line called TV. Celebrities born before and after the video age might as well belong to separate races. The former, to paraphrase Norma Desmond, had faces. Or, rather, they had expressions. The reason may be that the pre-TV stars were versed in performing traditions with strong mimetic imperatives. You really had to put an expression across in live theater or vaudeville. Comparing Douglas Kirkland’s photograph of Judy Garland with Fabrizio Ferri’s of Sting is instructive along these lines, since in the Garland close-up, the singer’s fervid expression suggests extremes of feeling almost alarming in their nakedness. Garland’s canned pathos, as others have pointed out, often looks close to lunacy. There’s nothing crazy about Sting in Ferri’s portrait of him seated naked in a lotus position. Both pictures are effectively composed by their subjects, but the Garland shot invites emotional identification, while the picture of Sting provides nothing more revealing than an epic case of self-
enchantment and an agreeable set of pecs.
Besides the five Madonnas, the show had three Umas, two Grace Joneses, two Capotes (including one seminude), one each of Audrey Hepburn, Maria Callas, Julia Roberts, Ernest Hemingway, Cher, Carson McCullers, Kurt Cobain, Samuel Jackson, and Prince Naseem. There were scores of others, of course, snapshots from that wonderful sphere of “Let Me Entertain Me.” And it had a room of images considered especially personal to the celebrities. “The images of celebrity we see are usually chosen by photographers, editors, art directors, publicists,” read a legend at the gallery door, as though somehow today’s stars are being duped into posing for glycerined, glamorized portraits. “What images would the subjects choose to represent themselves?” inquired the caption. “We asked each of the celebrities to nominate a favorite portrait.” A couple chose pictures in which the usual army of unseen stylists is not necessarily detectable (Sandra Bullock’s with a “bare” face and “windblown” hair) and these are genuinely dull. Other stars chose with greater frankness; these pictures may be dull, too, but they’re instructive. Madonna apparently liked best the image of herself spackled to resemble the dictatorial Evita. It’s a boring image, but it does tell us something about the power of unconscious mirrors.
It’s a pity the pictures were sold. Someone should mount the show again, or another show like it, before capital F fame goes the way of the dodo, victim of the 24-hour news feed and a global appetite for information that favors not fame but, oddly, anonymity. If there’s anything the Internet culture has made clear it’s that the time has come to retire Warhol’s dictum. In the future everyone won’t be famous for 15 minutes. Why bother? It takes too much effort. The photographs in the ICP show were charming not as artifacts of photography’s history but as emblems of a celebrity culture that’s nearly outmoded. Even as savvy a media whore as Marilyn Manson appears yearning and dated in Len Irish’s image. The designer glasses and paint and nail varnish don’t read cool or ironic somehow. They already smack of yesterday’s now.