Another interesting and insightful article.
The $150 story to keep his mother from seeing a photo of him smoking a cigar
in the Sixties
is obviously wrong. Typo?
Sunday June 26, 2005
Veteran, Memphis-based musician Jim Dickinson likes to tell the story of the time Johnny Cash showed him a short film of the young Elvis Presley relaxing in Las Vegas: 'Elvis is wearing a gold suit and he has a Vegas showgirl under each arm, a bottle of champagne in each hand, and a big cigar sticking out of his mouth, drunk as a coot. Johnny said that Elvis offered him a small fortune for it, he was so scared his mom would hear about it.'
According to Dickinson, Elvis the original rock'n'roll bad boy was also Elvis the fearful mummy's boy. 'In the Sixties, it was a known fact in Memphis that if you had a photograph of Elvis smoking a cigar, which he liked to do, he'd give you $150 for it. Bam! Just to keep his mother from seeing it.'
Forty years later, I am looking at a series of images of Elvis at play backstage at the Moulin Rouge nightclub in Munich that would surely cause his mom to turn in her grave. There are no cigars or champagne in evidence, but Elvis looks bad to the bone canoodling with two jaded-looking strippers who are all over him like a cheap suit.
His unforgiving biographer, Albert Goldman, would later describe the same photographs thus: 'He allows himself to be taken with every ugly hussy in torn net-stockings and sleazy sateen leotard. As the dancers and hookers of this upholstered sewer entwine themselves about him, flashing manic grins, Elvis offers himself up like a lifesize dummy.'
The photographs of Elvis and the strippers were taken in 1959 by Rudolph Paulini, the Moulin Rouge's in-house snapper, who promised they would never be seen outside the club. Unbelievably, that promise held for 20 years and, while the original snapshots faded and curled beneath the glass of the Moulin Rouge noticeboard, Elvis grew up and grew prematurely old, shedding his younger, wilder image to become the first totally stage-managed pop star. Paulini's graphic images, harsh and unforgiving in their delineation of excess and dissoluteness, are perhaps the last, and certainly the rawest, purveyors of Elvis the unreconstituted Southern wild boy, untrammelled and untamed.
But they are purveyors, too, of Elvis's innocence and trusting nature, and of a long-gone time when the contract between snapper and star was often based on trust as much as mutual benefit, a time when the now all-pervasive power of the PR machine was still in its uncertain infancy. In this instance, Elvis trusted Paulini to be true to his word and, in doing so, defied for a brief moment his all-controlling manager, 'Colonel' Tom Parker, who, three years before, had instigated a draconian policy of
image-control, denying all but the most servile photographers access to his suddenly world-famous charge.
'These snapshots of Presley in a sleazy club in southern Germany were a million miles away from the colonel's artfully constructed image,' writes curator Robin Muir in The World's Most Photographed, the catalogue of the National Portrait Gallery's imminent show of the same name. 'It was perhaps a glimpse of an all-American hero that Middle America was not yet ready for.'
Fifty years later, we live in a time when the snapshot rather than the posed portrait is the defining image of celebrity. The process of absolute control instigated by Parker in the Fifties, and insisted upon today by the phalanx of agents, PR consultants and managers that surround every celebrity, has, paradoxically, created a guerrilla industry specialising in the taking and disseminating of snatched images, often captured on the run or from several hundred yards away.
The hounding of celebrities is now an international pastime that sells celebrity-based magazines in their millions, the issue of their privacy an increasingly vexed one. These days, the earnings of the world's top paparazzi easily exceed the fees paid to the world's most famous portrait photographers. Indeed, with the recent deaths of both Richard Avedon and Herb Ritts, portrait photography as we know it may be in decline.
'A photograph taken in a professional studio where the actor is posing doesn't mean a thing to the public, because it's not real,' says celebrity photographer Adriano Bartoloni, quoted in Peter Howe's suitably scurrilous new book, Paparazzi
For Bartoloni, the constant flood of celebrity photographs into all areas of the print media is like a kind of visual gossip. 'By showing photographs of these people day by day, readers become familiar with them, almost as if they know them very well, and they like to talk about them and share information about them.'
And, while the likes of Vanity Fair still collude in the illusion that contemporary Hollywood stardom is an elect calling akin to old-style royalty, a rash of newer, less reverential magazines such as Heat revels in presenting evidence to the contrary, that celebrities are just as scrawny/overweight/badly dressed as you or me, and just as prone to tantrums, tears and hangovers.
For all these reasons, many of the images included in the exhibition, The World's Most Photographed, which will run in tandem with a 10-part BBC2 documentary series, seem positively quaint. Here, for instance, is Gandhi at prayer beside his symbolic spinning wheel, every inch the secular saint. Here is Garbo, translucent and almost opaque in her shimmering beauty, and Monroe at her most impossibly voluptuous and yet touched by what would turn out to be a terminal fragility.
All seem redolent of an already distant era, not actually that long ago, when photography not only reflected, but informed history, when a single image could confer power and status and enshrine a public figure's reputation for posterity.
Yet for every iconic image we now take for granted, there are numerous less well-known ones that show the same subject in a more relaxed or uninhibited moment, which, though less dramatic, is just as revealing. According to Sandy Nairne, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, the purpose of the show and the TV series is 'to bring overlooked photographic portraits to public attention, and to demonstrate one way in which photography and modern history are now inseparable'.
One of the most striking images in the book is the still provocative portrait of Muhammad Ali, newly stripped of his world heavyweight crown because of his refusal to be drafted to Vietnam, posing as Saint Sebastian. It was taken by Carl Fischer for the cover of the September 1968 issue of American Esquire. Fischer had recently seen and been struck by Castagno's Renaissance painting, The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, in which the saint's blood-stained torso is pierced by arrows. When Ali arrived in the studio, technicians had already created arrows tipped with fake blood and worked out how each one could be held in place by invisible micro-filament wires.
'Back then, we tried to keep our ideas to ourselves right up until the moment of the shoot,' says Fischer, who sensed that the boxer had become the ultimate symbol of protest against the war, a martyr for a just cause. 'That way, the subject had less time to think about the possible ramifications. Ali was different, though. He had a mind of his own. He immediately said, "That's a Christian idea and I'm a Muslim." Ali insisted on ringing the headquarters of the Black Muslims before he agreed. I think they saw immediately that it would bring them more publicity, so they gave it their blessing.'
Like many veteran photographers, Fischer talks passionately about the brief golden age when access to your subject was a given, when, as he puts it: 'You didn't have an army of go-betweens trying to protect the star from a great idea.' He insists that something has been lost in the interim and that, these days, it is difficult, if not impossible, to imbue a portrait with real symbolic power without recourse to post-production tools like Photoshop.
'I once got Lieutenant Calley, who was responsible for the Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam, to pose in a room full of Oriental children. Talk about symbolism! Could you imagine trying to make that kind of provocative statement now about the war in Iraq? Politicians and entertainers and even sportsmen are so protected now by minders, managers and by the mountain of contractual paperwork a magazine has to sign before a shoot, it actually works against spontaneity and ideas. Plus, today's magazine covers carry so much information that the image is swamped. The age of the clean, hard-hitting photograph that stood alone is long gone'.
To prove his point, Fischer has redesigned the Ali cover on his website as it might look in today's Esquire, which is overcrowded, fussy, diminished by the sheer weight of words around it. 'Today,' he says, sounding genuinely bemused, 'we are living in a time when celebrity has become such a powerful influence in our lives, whether we want it or not. You tell me, what is the fascination with photographs of celebrities looking ordinary, out walking the dog, eating, or running in the park in a sloppy T-shirt? It's inane, but that's where we live right now.'
As you leaf though the pages of The World's Most Photographed, you sense how different things once were, how complicit both subject and photographer were in the shaping of certain careers, the establishing of certain myths. The young and thrusting photojournalist, Dennis Stock, a member of the elite Magnum agency, trailed the fledgling Hollywood star, James Dean, for two months in 1955 on an assig nment for Life magazine. As Muir notes: 'Dean was acutely aware that close friendships with photographers would be vital to his career... as important as the directors of his three key movies.'
Stock caught Dean at his most intense and brooding, but also at his most offbeat. At one point, the young star climbed into an empty, silk-lined casket in a funeral parlour in his hometown of Fairmount , Indiana, but Stock considered the images too tasteless to submit to Life. Three months later, Dean was killed at the wheel of his Porsche Spyder, the immediate aftermath captured in grimy detail by Sanford Roth, a friend of Dean and former photographer, whose professional instincts outweighed his ethical ones. Stock's surreal funeral-parlour portraits, though, remained unseen for more than 30 years.
Trust and betrayal have been the intertwined subtexts of every celebrity photoshoot since the pioneering war photographer Roger Fenton unsuccessfully posed Queen Victoria and her family for the first royal photoshoot in the gardens of Buckingham Palace on 22 May 1854. (She blinked, then turned away, but later became the most photographed woman of her age.)
A century and a half later, Diana, Princess of Wales would die from injuries sustained when the Mercedes she was travelling in crashed in a Paris underpass, having been pursued by a trail of paparazzi. Revealingly, Diana, the most photographed icon of recent times, does not feature in The World's Most Photographed
'We have tried to find images that defined the person,' elaborates Muir, 'but also the images that, for one reason or another, slipped from view. Diana, like the Beckhams or Madonna, rose to fame at a time when everything was seen, every movement documented. You simply couldn't find enough previously unseen images of Diana to justify her inclusion. For better or worse, she lived her life in the camera's lens, and the camera loved her. In that way, she was like Monroe.'
Perhaps the two most contrasting figures on display in The World's Most Photographed are Monroe and Greta Garbo, one painfully ill at ease with the revealing power of the lens, the other consummately at ease under the camera's gaze. According to her biographer, Donald Spoto, Monroe sought refuge in the faux intimacy of the photoshoot, and felt reassured by the presence of photographers at the very moments when her personal life was unravelling.
Perhaps because of her collusion in the celebrity-making process, Monroe remains enshrined in our imaginations as both a sensual and a sacrificial icon, exuding what is still the most powerful aura of sexuality and star presence ever bestowed by the camera.
Garbo, though, remains elusive and almost opaque. Her actual beauty, which caused the first and most aristocratic celebrity photographer, Cecil Beaton, to clutch the back of a chair to steady himself in her presence, seems even more unreal and somehow out of reach with every shot. She sensed early on that fame was a prison house, but failed to realise that, by refusing it, her aura grew.
Any contemporary celebrity driven to distraction by the unwanted attentions of the paparazzi should familiarise themselves with the shocking image of the old and bewigged Garbo, her beauty gone, her gaze that of a cornered animal, as she defiantly confronts the intrusive lens of freelance photographer Ted Leyson, her relentless tormentor throughout her old age. This is photography as a form of stalking: obsessive, relentless and cruel to the point of pathological. A week later, Garbo was dead, aged 84, her simple wish to be left alone not so much ignored as defiled by this last, awful image of her.
'Muslims believe that a photograph takes away some part of their spirit,' says Carl Fischer, 'and I have come to believe that they are right. I feel uncomfortable looking at any photograph that has been snatched, where permission has not been granted. It's intrusive and, ultimately, it diminishes the viewer as well as the subject.'
It is difficult to look at Leyson's snatched last photograph of Garbo without agreeing with Fischer's view that it diminishes not just her, but us. And yet we gaze in appalled fascination, and seem unable, for the moment, to turn away. 'A photograph is a secret about a secret,' said Diane Arbus, whose subjects were freaks and outsiders, 'The more it tells you, the less you know.'
Perhaps that is why we keep looking, but, in our insatiable need to see everything, we seem to have lost the power of discernment and good taste; simple things, once taken for granted, and now surrendered without a second thought.