Photo Opportunism

The camera – like the wheel, plow, or printing press – is a tool that has fundamentally reshaped the human condition. It is that important. Before the nineteenth century, images appeared to the eye as singular and precious; even prints seemed, at bottom, handmade. The earliest photographs were also regarded as rare – miraculous relics of the actual world. Very soon, however, the camera began to churn out images in relentless profusion; today, it’s hard to imagine Western culture when it did not constantly chase after its own shadow. No feature of life seemed to change more through the influence of photography than fame. It was the seductive promises of the camera that led Fame – once an august old fellow – into the trashy arms of Celebrity. “The hero was distinguished by his achievement; the celebrity by his image or trademark,” wrote Daniel Boorstin in 1961. “The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media. The hero was a big man; the celebrity is a big name.”

Organized by Carole Kismaric and Marvin Heiferman, Fame After Photography – a provocative exhibition that opened last week at the Museum of Modern Art – lays out the history of this relationship between the camera and fame. It includes about 600 works, typically presented as “artifacts”; a Steichen photograph is shown in an old copy of Vanity Fair rather than as a freestanding work of art. From the beginning, the public was infatuated with depictions of the famous; the transformation of fame into celebrity seems to have been nearly instantaneous. By the 1860s, entrepreneurs were mass-producing cartes de visite – small photographic prints that originated as calling cards – of well-known figures. The subjects were not just traditional heroes. Pugilists, criminals, showmen, and oddballs also captured the public fancy: P. T. Barnum was a great early impresario of this new world of celebrity.

As the technical capacities of the camera expanded, so did photography’s theatrical range. Decades before Clinton, the famous, working with photographers, chose to enact private moments for public consumption or to present “spontaneity” to the flash. The press was happy to participate in what were called “pseudo-events.” The rise of tabloid journalism, and then of Hollywood, intensified this trend. Fame became its performance. As any editor or director knew – then as now – a celebrity act sells. Like perfume, images of the famous aroused desire in the human animal, notably a desire to spend. Among other things, the curators present film stills, movie trailers, magazine covers, Wheaties boxes (with the celebrity endorsements), and a wonderful comic clip from I Love Lucy in which Lucy all but swoons when she is seated next to the movie star William Holden. The show touches upon the mania surrounding Lindbergh, Jackie, and Di, examines some contemporary artists who make fame their subject – Warhol, of course, is preeminent – and even explores the Internet’s democratic approach to fame. In order to star in their own lives, many people now create Web pages devoted to their daily doings.

So much ham is on display. Not only is the exhibition crowded with showy pictures, but snatches of sound from movie clips create a background buzz. Ideas are billboarded onto walls. This busy-busy-busy design and aura of jostling juxtaposition (here a president, there a criminal) are themselves typical of the syncopation of modern fame. Although many of the photographs are fun to look at – they are “fabulous,” to use a celebrity sort of word – what’s best about this jumpy show is its air of underlying ambivalence. As their essay makes clear, Kismaric and Heiferman are not passive observers. They do not just mouth a Warholian “wow.” Instead, they quote skeptic after skeptic on the modern way of fame – “Celebrity is a mask,” said John Updike, “that eats into the face” – in order to provoke viewers into a thoughtful response to celebrity culture.

How should one regard the face of fame? An attitude of preening superiority is much too easy a position to take (and often narcissistic in its own right), for there is a kind of playfulness – like the genius of a parade – to the unending flow of celebrity. The movie still of Gary Cooper, which is reproduced here, was taken by a photographer named Clarence Sinclair Bull. And is it just bull? No, it’s a delightful summation of a certain masculine ideal; that cocky cigarette echoes the classical purity of a Greek column. Still, only a particularly blithe ostrich could remain undisturbed by what fame and photography have conspired to make of modern society. Celebrity culture has an uncanny power. It seems to steal into the secret places of the heart, creating an addicting illusion of intimacy, community, and success for those without much of the real thing. Its exaggerations diminish. Its frantic emphasis upon novelty heightens fear of age. (Nothing is quite so dead as the “now” once it becomes “then.”) It empties the world of privacy, drawing everything inside to the surface, into the momentary mirror glint of celebrity. Warhol devised the most telling face of fame – wan, bleached out, with a camera hanging from the neck.

Celebrity culture grows more and more pervasive – even as it becomes, with the Internet, more ephemeral. Politics is Hollywood, Hollywood politics. Spin rules. The press long ago surrendered to the image of fame. For the most part, journalism is now – except in its higher precincts – a form of sausage-making in which slices of celebrity are delivered to a fickle public. (There is better and worse sausage to be had, but it is still sausage-making.) Words themselves seem overcome, often serving as little more than captions to photographs. Articles are everywhere shorter and pictures bigger; most editors prefer a profile of an artist to a discussion of art. As fame yields to celebrity, so does art to artist, character to personality, and memory to nostalgia. While walking through this exhibit, I kept thinking of the opening of Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer, in which the narrator comes upon the same William Holden who threw Lucy into a tizzy. The narrator watches and studies Holden, enjoying the halo around the movie star as he walks down the street. What he admires, however, is the gesture of an awkward young man who gives Holden a light – and refuses to make a big deal of it. The young man has kept his distance.

Photo Opportunism