THE LONG READ: Celebrity, Vanity & Mythology
Edited in 2020 from an introductory essay by Laura Grace Simpkins, September 2018
Photography has always been a process defined by its fluctuations, possibly more so than any other means of artistic expression. In little over 150 years photography has journeyed from nineteenth-century calotypes and ferrotypes to twenty-first century digital DSLR cameras and has recently embraced our mobile phones. In doing so, photography has gone from being in the palm of the expert to the hands of the masses.
Whilst an image such as that of Alfred Hitchcock taken by renowned fashion photographer Norman Parkinson in 1956, might concisely encapsulate ‘observation’, it is becoming increasingly clear that who we look at and how we look at them changes with time, as much as the medium in question. From the cult of the celebrity, identified by photographers working in the 1950s and 60s to the modern-era of the Instagram meme, photography has become increasingly invasive, penetrating and unforgiving.
Parkinson’s work pre-empts the proverbial explosion of fashion and celebrity photography in the twentieth century, correspondent with the rise in consumerism and advertising in the post-war years. The cultural interest in acquiring ‘things’ anticipated a collective interest in the objectification of the public individual, and by extension, their lives. Such a postulation is articulated by today’s obsession with social media and reality television.
Figures at the centre of media interest have always enjoyed a cult status throughout the years, but with the appetite for the commodification of a life, the desire to survey and stalk those in the public eye developed from the 1960s onwards. With few laws to hinder the paparazzi, the existence of the private space was relegated to a place in the past. From Mick Rock’s explosive 70s rock n’ roll photography we notice how public figures attempted to control and ultimately deflect constant surveillance via the twofold mechanism of humour and theatricality.
When the public acclimatised to, and became weary of, images of celebrities, photographers turned to making the mundane intriguing. The large-format polaroids of Neal Slavin, a world respected photographer and film director, demonstrate that you do not have to capture a famous face to make a glamorous picture. Instead Slavin uses humorous group stagings to satisfy the viewer’s socialised taste for the theatrical.
Britons, Slavin’s series commissioned by the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television and published in 1986, encourages viewing collections of people – artists, lifeguards and nuns – as representative of one identity. His image of Stonehenge is pertinent to our proximity to this world-famous monument. Through his strategic design of thirteen security team members, Slavin is able to explore the paradox of taking ‘iconic’ images of anonymous people. Through the meteorological drama; Caravaggio-esque, chiaroscuro light; tone and the aforementioned experimental composition, Slavin has created some of the most ambitious and thought-provoking works of any of our photographers, without us knowing, or indeed caring about, any of the subjects.
Now, of course, image sharing apps such as Instagram have revolutionised the distribution of fine art photography. The skill of the modern photograph lies behind the camera and after an image has been taken, demanding an enquiry into what a finished photograph actually is, and what it looks like. All adjustments can occur in post-production, with photographers no longer needing to manually learn about aperture, shutter-speed or white balancing. Even composition can be cropped into place on a computer. The laptop has become the new darkroom.
But the legacy set out by Roland Barthes in his remarkable Camera Lucida (1980), that great portraitists are excellent story-tellers, remains and the taken image is still one of the most powerful, immediate and telling methods of human communication.
Top Photo: Norman Parkinson ‘Alfred Hitchcock’, 1956