22
Aug
12

Exhibition: ‘Portraits of Renown: Photography and the Cult of Celebrity’ at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Exhibition dates: 3rd April – 26th August 2012

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On the Nature of Photography

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“To get from the tangible to the intangible (which mature artists in any medium claim as part of their task) a paradox of some kind has frequently been helpful. For the photographer to free himself of the tyranny of the visual facts upon which he is utterly dependent, a paradox is the only possible tool. And the talisman paradox for unique photography is to work “the mirror with a memory” as if it were a mirage, and the camera is a metamorphosing machine, and the photograph as if it were a metaphor…. Once freed of the tyranny of surfaces and textures, substance and form [the photographer] can use the same to pursue poetic truth.”

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Newhall, Beaumont (ed.). The History of Photography. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1982, p.281.

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“Carol Jerrems and I taught at the same secondary school in the 1970’s. In a classroom that was unused at that time, I remember having my portrait taken by her. She held her Pentax to her eye. Carols’ portraits all seemed to have been made where the posing of her subjects was balanced by an incisive naturalness (for want of a better description). As a challenge to myself I tried to look “natural”, but kept in my consciousness that I was having my portrait taken. Minutes passed and neither she nor her camera moved at all.

Then the idea slipped from my mind for just a moment, and I was straightaway bought back by the sound of the shutter. What had changed in my face? – probably nothing, or 1 mm of muscle movement. Had she seen it through the shutter? Or something else – I don’t know.”

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Australian artist Ian Lobb on being photographed by the late Carol Jerrems.

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There is always something that you can’t quite put your finger on in an outstanding portrait, some ineffable other that takes the portrait into another space entirely. I still haven’t worked it out but my thoughts are this: forget about the pose of the person. It would seem to me to be both a self conscious awareness by the sitter of the camera and yet at the same time a knowing transcendence of the visibility of the camera itself. In great portrait photography it is almost as though the conversation between the photographer and the person being photographed elides the camera entirely. Minor White, in his three great mantras, the Three Canons, observes:

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Be still with yourself

Until the object of your attention
Affirms your presence
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Let the Subject generate its own Composition
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When the image mirrors the man
And the man mirrors the subject
Something might take over

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Freed from the tyranny of the visual facts something else emerges.

Celebrities know only too well how to “work” the camera but the most profound portraits, even of celebrities, are in those moments when the photographer sees something else in the person being photographed, some unrecognised other that emerges from the shadows – a look, a twist of the head, the poignancy of the mouth, the vibrancy of the dancer Josephine Baker, the sturdiness of the gaze of Walt Whitman with hands in pockets, the presence of the hands (no, not the gaze!) of Picasso. I remember taking a black and white portrait of my partner Paul holding a wooden finial like a baby among some trees, a most beautiful, revealing photograph. He couldn’t bear to look at it, for it stripped him naked before the lens and showed a side of himself that he had never seen before: vulnerable, youthful, beautiful.

Why do great portrait photographers make so many great portraits? Why can’t this skill be shared or taught? Why can’t Herb Ritts (for example) make a portrait that goes beyond a caricature? Why is it that what can be taught is so banal that it has no value?

In photography, maybe we edit out what is expected and then it seems that photography does something that goes beyond language; it goes beyond function that can be described as a part of speech, metonym or metaphor. When this something else takes over I think it is truly “unrecognised” in the best portraits – and it is fantastic and wonderful.

This is the ultimate understanding of perception and vision – when spirit takes over – the ability to see it in the mind, through the viewfinder and be able to reveal it in the physicality of the print. This, I believe, is the reality of photography itself in its absolute essential form – and here I am deliberately forgetting about post-photography, post-modernism, modernism, pictorialism, ism, ism – and getting down to why I really like photography: the BEYOND the visualisation of a world, the transcendence of time and space that leads, in great photographs, to a recognition of the discontinuous nature of life but in the end, to its ultimate persistence.

This is as close as I have got so far…

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Dr Marcus Bunyan
August 2012

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Many thankx to the J. Paul Getty Museum for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photograph for a larger version of the image.

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Marie Cosindas (American, born 1925)
Andy Warhol
1966
Dye color diffusion [Polaroid ®] print
11.4 x 8.9 cm
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
© Marie Cosindas

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Marie Cosindas (American, born 1925)
Yves St Laurent
1968
Dye color diffusion [Polaroid ®] print
11.4 x 8.9 cm
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
© Marie Cosindas

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Andy Warhol (American, 1928 – 1987)
Grace Jones
1984
Polaroid Polacolor print
9.5 x 7.3 cm
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
© 2011 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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Portraits of Renown surveys some of the visual strategies used by photographers to picture famous individuals from the 1840s to the year 2000. “This exhibition offers a brief visual history of famous people in photographs, drawn entirely from the Museum’s rich holdings in this genre,” says Paul Martineau, curator of the exhibition and associate curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum. “It also provides a broad historical context for the work in the concurrent exhibition ‘Herb Ritts: L.A. Style’, which includes a selection of Ritts’s best celebrity portraits.”

Photography’s remarkable propensity to shape identities has made it the leading vehicle for representing the famous. Soon after photography was invented in the 1830s, it was used to capture the likenesses and accomplishments of great men and women, gradually supplanting other forms of commemoration. In the twentieth century, the proliferation of photography and the transformative power of fame have helped to accelerate the desire for photographs of celebrities in magazines, newspapers, advertisements, and on the Internet. The exhibition is arranged chronologically to help make visible some of the overarching technical and stylistic developments in photography from the first decade of its invention to the end of the twentieth century.

A wide range of historical figures are portrayed in Portraits of Renown. A photograph by Alexander Gardner of President Lincoln documents his visit to the battlefield of Antietam during the Civil War. Captured by Nadar, a portrait of Alexander Dumas, best known for his novels The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, shows the author with an energetic expression, illustrating the lively personality that made his writing so popular. Baron Adolf De Meyer’s portrait of Josephine Baker, an American performer who became an international sensation at the Folies Bergère in Paris, showcases her comedic charm, a trait that proved central to her popularity as a performer. An iconic portrait of the silent screen actress, Gloria Swanson, created by Edward Steichen for Vanity Fair reveals both the intensity of its sitter and the skill of the artist. A picture of Pablo Picasso by his friend Man Ray portrays the master of Cubism with a penetrating gaze.

Yves St. Laurent, Andy Warhol, and Grace Jones are among the contemporary figures included in the exhibition. Fashion designer Yves St. Laurent was photographed by Marie Cosindas using instant color film by Polaroid. The photograph, made the year his first boutique in New York opened, graced the walls of the store for ten years. A Cosindas portrait of Andy Warhol shows the artist wearing dark sunglasses, which partially conceal his face. Warhol, who was fascinated by celebrity, delighted in posing public personalities like Grace Jones for his camera.”

Press release from the J. Paul Getty Museum website

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Man Ray (American, 1890 – 1976)
Pablo Picasso
1934
Gelatin silver print
25.2 x 20 cm
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
© Man Ray Trust ARS-ADAGP

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Baron Adolf De Meyer (American, born France, 1868 – 1946)
Portrait of Josephine Baker
1925
Collotype print
39.1 x 39.7 cm
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

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Mathew B. Brady (American, about 1823 – 1896)
Walt Whitman
about 1870
Albumen silver print
14.6 x 10.3 cm
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

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The J. Paul Getty Museum
1200 Getty Center Drive
Los Angeles, California 90049

Opening hours:
Tues – Friday 10 – 5.30pm
Saturday 10 – 9pm
Sunday 10 – 9pm
Monday closed

The J. Paul Getty Museum website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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