New York

“Fame After Photography”

Blame it on Di. In the wake of the princess’s death by paparazzi, curator of photography Peter Galassi gave Marvin Heiferman and Carol Kismaric—founders of the old-guard, avant-garde New York cultural programming and publishing firm Lookout—free rein to assemble a survey of celebrity photography from the second half of the nineteenth century through the end of the twentieth—from Nadar to nadir. There are no gorgeous prints here, decorously arrayed in the usual Stieglitz/Szarkowski modernist chorus line; instead, the curators give us a riot of reproduction on cheap paper—magazines, newspapers, postcards, and scrapbooks—and on TV and film, all to mixed effect.

With this exhibition, MoMA trepidatiously sticks its big toe into the mass audience pool. Too bad they didn’t jump in the deep end—a topic this big and this good certainly deserves more space and a better exhibition design. The wall colors are too dark, too “classy.” Something a little more Technicolor-Pop would have been more in keeping with the feel of these photos. And we could do without the hedged bet of including a few “fine” artists. With the exception, as always, of Andy Warhol’s work, the star power of the popular pix seriously outsparkles the art that proposes to critique it. All in all, it’s a thoughtful take, but one that feels a little too well-behaved.

Kismaric and Heiferman are probably sick of this kind of remark; everyone’s a critic—or a curator. But this material is so much our area of expertise, so dear to our hearts that we all think we could have done better, and have our quibbles about what was missed (more Dorothy Lamour! less Dinah Shore!). My grumble is the Elvis paraphernalia, all borrowed from Graceland: Everyone in Memphis knows that the best stuff comes from unauthorized sources, the little stores outside the golden gates. And in general, the more arcane, bootlegged, and individualized—that is to say, unique—the objects are, the more compelling. A scrapbook celebrating Tyrone Power (personalized with captions and imagined dialogue) and the various fan letters on display reveal the human investment—ranging from polite admiration to bizarre identification—in these images and their hold on people. Photos of the more obscure, less remarkable celebrities (say, Cheryl Tiegs) have this effect as well. The residue of the recent past, these blank, generic figures matter only inasmuch as they matter to us, as we remember them.

People tend to sort themselves out generationally among the exhibition’s rooms, each stopping at their personal point of maximum social synchronization— be it Clark Gable or Richard Nixon—gazing raptly as if to say, Now that was aura, baby! And indeed, it’s hard to retain any real historical perspective: Many of the immediate differences between 1880 and 1980 are false, imposed by nostalgia and the dignity we assign to old clothing and hair styles. For the attentive viewer, the show teaches transhistorical truths, such as the fact of the longstanding exchange between news and sensation, evident in the tabloid newspapers of the ’20s as much as in today’s National Enquirer.

There are also some engaging shifts to trace here, such as the status of minority celebrities, from their introduction in the ’50s to their mainstream success in the ’90s, a “triumph” mitigated by an attendant homogenization (think Desi Arnaz/Ricky Martin, Eldridge Cleaver/Clarence Thomas). But the farthest-reaching changes are those of degree, in the sheer number of faces reproduced and the number of people looking at them. Both have increased dramatically with advances in reproductive technology, particularly the invention of television. It is the multiple (and multiplying) image, not photographers or even particular celebrities, that makes the deepest impression on the viewer. In a certain sense, curatorial choices as to which faces, which objects, are virtually irrelevant.

And the big question is of course not which celebrities, but why celebrities. Ask a Marxist why we’re so into famous faces, and he’ll tell you because it’s all that the dominant media serves up to us. Ask a psychoanalyst, and she’ll tell you we use them to project and fantasize. Ask me, and I’ll tell you it’s our fear of the anonymity that modern life imposes; so many of our transient lives elude the recognition that used to come with an old neighborhood or a lifelong job. In any case, this celebrity culture is the culture we’ve got, our only coherent mythology, and (lacking real politics or religion) we use it as a vehicle for national and personal discussions about sex (Marilyn, Monica), race (O.J.), money (Donald Trump), illness (Rock Hudson), and death (Diana, both JFKs).

Absent from the exhibition is one quite recent twist in fame and photography: the strange but increasingly common sight of sports heroes and movie stars brandishing cameras at us even as we celebrate them. This reversal, even more than the democracy of the Internet, gives an accurate read of our current position, a version of the blurring between star and audience predicted by Walter Benjamin and Warhol. A photograph of Demi Moore photographing an audience reveals the feigned wish of celebrities to be ordinary, our genuine wish to be special, and the real possibility that this is actually the case.

Katy Siegel is a frequent contributor to Artforum.