What would celebrities be without the constant documentation of their daily lives? Sure, we’d see them in movies and on television, but it’s arguable that you’re not truly famous until a swarm of paparazzi is following your every move.
With assistance from undergraduate students of the Byrne Seminar “Celebrity and Photography,” Zimmerli Art Museum is showcasing that very relationship now through Dec. 30 in the "Celebrity Culture" exhibition. Organized by Donna Gustafson, curator of American Art and Mellon Director for Academic Programs, the gallery demonstrates how photography has been used as a vehicle for celebrity from the moment of its invention in the 19th century.
As you walk through the exhibit and see the countless photographs of celebrities throughout different time periods and decades, the codependent relationship between photographers and the famous is evident. The exhibit displays a plethora of timelessly beautiful photographs of celebrities that range from the early 1900s all the way up to present day — think of it as the Zimmerli's curated Hall of Fame.
The aura of old Hollywood illustrated in the exhibit is instantly captivating. Almost all the photographs are black and white and images incorporate older hairstyles and clothes that we all associate with old Hollywood. Although images are older, they have a classic quality about them that today’s abundant and sometimes awkward tabloid paparazzi shots lack.
The exhibit showcases not only the morbidly fascinating quality of celebrities and their presence within our society, but also gives credit to the names of those who were behind the lens. The early photographers and paparazzi of the 20th century captured images using a glamorous, artistic style that remains a blueprint in the world of photography.
One renowned photographer featured in the exhibition is George Hurrell, sometimes referred to as the master of Hollywood glamour photography. Hurrell revolutionized Hollywood portraiture between 1925 and 1950 through his ability to capture and create the elegance, allure and iconic quality of his subjects. In many of his images, elegant artifice renders them almost as living sculptures.
Photographic portraits are a way to emphasize what makes an otherwise regular person a celebrity. Through famous photographs, the exhibition successfully depicts celebrities as glamourous, iconic and magical. Hurrell’s portrait of actress Hedy Lamarr embodies these quintessential celebrity qualities. Without editing out the flyaways of her hair and other rendered flaws, there is enough to Lamarr in the photo to humanize her, but enough beauty, poise and glamour to differentiate her as an icon.
As celebrities lived more private lives during his career, photographer Philippe Halsman was passionate about capturing the mystery of his subjects. Actresses and models often seem like untouchable, unrelatable entities, a facade that Halsman aimed to break through his art.
“Every face I see seems to hide – and sometimes fleetingly to reveal – the mystery of another human being. Capturing this revelation became the goal and passion of my life,” Halsman said.
On a screen that displays a slideshow of newer images of celebrities many of us have seen in magazines, it’s easy to point out the contrast between recent celebrity shots and those taken by photographers like Halsman and Hurrell. During the old Hollywood era, more attention was paid to depicting the subject appear incredibly poised, elegant and mysterious. Today, although we never forget that celebrities live a completely different life than us, the lines have become blurred with social media and more photographers aim to portray celebrities in an unflattering light.
The exhibit also sheds light on the evolving definition of fame. In the golden age of Hollywood, celebrity sightings via photography were scarce and anticipate. On social media, we instantly have access to the newest photos of celebrities, oftentimes ones that they take and post themselves. Social media also allows us to define our own celebrity: With enough likes and followers, everyday people can become social media stars or “Instagram influencers.”
Overall, “Celebrity Culture” is a chronological history of the celebrity portrait and a must-see for those who have a fascination with stardom. The art of celebrity photos is still here, but different. Throughout the years, celebrity snapshots have changed, but the awe factor of celebrities and their photos remain.