New York

“Still Life: Hollywood Photographs”

Whitney Museum Of American Art At Philip Morris

The lures of Hollywood movies, with their amalgam of stars, events, and luxuriant details, were seemingly insufficient to insure audience appeal. With the aim of cementing seduction, Hollywood studios in the postwar years churned out an endless stream of promotional stills, employing publicity departments and independent agencies to disseminate the images at large. These stills were used for posters, newspaper clips, and magazine reproduction; they displayed professional as well as supposedly intimate moments. Some show rehearsed and overheightened moments taken from feature films, while others are behind-the-scene views of life on the set. All display an exaggerated expression, an unconvincing artificiality that is retrospectively revealing.

“Still Life” contained some 44 of these color photographs, dating from 1940 to 1970. Organized by Diane Keaton and Marvin Heiferman, who edited the accompanying book (Still Life, Callaway Editions), the exhibition was the product of a year of picture research in periodical archives, film studios, publicity files, and collections in California and New York. What it yielded is a vista not over American life, but over the American dream as it informs American life; these pictures tell much about the conjunction of glamour, action, and overstated expression that comprises the coding of postwar aspiration. In one (for The Champagne Murders, 1968) we witness staged deaths as Stephane Audrane lies sprawled upon the floor, while elsewhere a busty Annette Funicello poses with Frankie Avalon on the sands (for Beach Blanket Bingo, 1965). Others show the costume designers at work, or Paulette Goddard being fitted for a fashion spread. And there are numerous versions of the stars at home, at dinner parties, en famille, or, in the case of Ann Blyth (in a 1953 image), moving into her new house, with its pristine refrigerator et al. The forced smile and enforced cleanliness of the scene is as artificial as the synthetic demeanor of Dolores Gray, pictured in her car surrounded by wellcoiffed poodles, or the excessive exuberance with which Betty Hutton and husband Ted Briskin toast each other over dinner in their ranch-house nook. Underlying these pictures, then, is a fake imagery and programmed efficacy which peeks through their suasive power.

As Heiferman notes in his introduction, there is something “wrong” in these images; we see the seamy side of glamour, the loose ends and tacky surfaces of its allure. The photographs appear artificial in their background particulars and exaggerated expressions; they are not lively, lifelike, or convincing, but embalmed moments, frozen tableaux. The emotions displayed here—supposedly down-to-earth or workaday—are a function of makeup, paint, and coiffure. And the importance of these photographs as popular barometers lies in demonstrating the enormous elision made between reality and reverie, the willful, amnesiac erosion of detail that insures their mass appeal. Yet they also point toward later developments, indicating the astute attention to received imagery that informs contemporary artists’ work.

Kate Linker