‘National Portrait Gallery, Glossy 2’, review in Photofile 77, 2006 p67
National Portrait Gallery
25 November 2005 — 9 April 2006
Nobody can resist the allure of the celebrity for long. Even if we refuse to waste our own money on the slippery wad of a glossy magazine, we can’t resist sliding one out of the pile at the hairdressers, or having a quick flip at a friend’s place. Although it is as old as the mass media itself, celebrity culture has never been as complex, or as pervasive, as it is now. Celebrities may exist in a world far above that of you or I, but their planet has always been a democratic one where every inhabitant is equally endowed with the same intangible divinity, whether they have earned it through a long career involving spectacular achievement, or by simply being a model who goes to parties a lot. Now, however, access to this world seems at least potentially available to all of us. Fantasies of instant celebrity are regularly actualised in reality TV shows, and the pages of glossy magazines now await not just the precociously talented, the obscenely wealthy, or the hereditarily endowed, but also those who have accidentally found themselves in the news, and who have been able to parley their momentary fame into longer term celebrity status. But the increased porosity of the world of the celebrity comes at the price of a higher speed of celebrity turnover, as more faces come and go in a crueller and crueller economy of public admiration, envy and disdain — an economy of extravagant production and consumption the only raw material of which is the hapless celebrity themself.
With its characteristic nose for a good show, the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) has identified the rise in the importance of the celebrity as a defining part of our national culture, and the key role that the magazine photographer plays in it as something needing extended examination. Glossy 2 not only follows on from Glossy 1, of 1999, but also another important exhibition of 2002, POL: Portrait of a Generation, which examined in depth the seminal seventies magazine POL. The NPG has always teemed with celebrities — celebrity astronauts, celebrity chefs, pop stars and models — just as it has always moved quickly to honour celebrity photographers, such as Lewis Morey, who other institutions were slower to pick up on. But the NPG is smart enough to know that celebrity photographs aren’t ‘portraits’ in the traditional sense of the word, they don’t plumb the depths of an individual’s personality, or record the marks their lifetime of achievement has inscribed into the lineaments of their face. They are staged-managed confections, fictional tableaus created by teams of stylists to be consumed and discarded on a weekly or monthly cycle. But collectively, the NPG argues, they form an accurate historical portrait, not so much of the celebrities, but of us — our desires, our obsessions, and our sense of whom we would like to be.
This version of Glossy introduces the work of seven new Australian magazine photographers, some of who trained in Australia and now work overseas, and some of who were trained overseas but are working in Australia. (One interesting question this show raises is whether there is such a thing as a definable ‘Australian photography’ any more.) The show has eschewed the temptation to display the magazine pages for which these images were shot in the first place, which with their graphic layout, editorial content and varying print quality would have added interest to the installation. Instead, in order to focus attention on the individual styles of the photographers themselves, it has opted for a gallery-style hang. But few of the images themselves are powerful enough to justify such treatment, and many shots, such as US trained Ellen Dahl’s vapid pop portraits, are too slight and boring for a gallery wall.
It is true that each photographer has developed their own distinctive look which the gallery hang emphasises, but this is more a photographic ‘styling’ that involves developing a reliable way for each image to have a visual hook with which to capture the distracted eye of the reader as they flip through pages of the magazine. For instance Daniela Federici, trained in Melbourne but based in New York, digitally endows her images of contemporary beauties such as Natalie Imbruglia, with a monochrome air-brushed surface reminiscent of classic Hollywood glamour photography. On the other hand Ingvar Kenne, trained in Sweden but based in Sydney, frequently uses fill-flash or oblique afternoon lighting to deep-etch his subjects, such as a narcissistic Angus Young, against their square-format background. While the Sydney Morning Herald photographer Sahlan Hayes embeds his subjects, such as the regal Smokey Dawson waltzing with his wife, into satisfyingly complex backgrounds. Whereas Ben Baker, based in New York, is able to construct the impression that his subjects have been photojournalistically grabbed off the street, even though we know there are squads of publicists and press agents poised just off camera.
Few photographs in this show, however, have much sustaining power beyond their initial visual conceit. The show isn’t nearly as good as Glossy 1. Nothing comes close, for instance, to the power of Polly Borland’s fantastic shot of an alluring, but startled looking Monica Lewinski, which was the highlight of the 1999 show.
To continue the NPG’s commitment to examining celebrity culture they should consider next not a Glossy 3, but a Trashy 1. The paparazzi’s grubby, blurry shots of scurrying celebrities, which we guiltily flick through not at the hairdressers, but in the supermarket checkout line, are just as vital a part of the brutal celebrity economy as the art-directed publicity portrait. And Australia is host to its fair share of international paps, such as the notorious Jamie Fawcett, against whom our Nic was forced to seek an Apprehended Violence Order last year. A show devoted to the compelling, schadenfreudenish allure of this photography would indeed be interesting.
Martyn Jolly is head of Photomedia at the Australian National University School of Art. His book Faces of the Living Dead: The Belief in Spirit Photography will be published this year.