The famous are different from you and me--they look as if they expect to be photographed by strangers.
"That guy over by the elevator," you say. "He looks like he's somebody."
"He just looks like he's somebody," your date says.
"Then why were those people taking pictures of him?"
"I don't know. Maybe he's on a show I don't watch," your date says.
"That doesn't mean he's a nobody," you say.
"It doesn't mean he's a somebody, either."
"You got your pocket camera?"
The famous have the crisp grace of people walking onstage. They have eyes that wait for something and look for nothing. They seem to be suppressing smiles. Their faces are as gymnastic as an upper-middle-class British accent, right down to an affected stutter of shyness or agoraphobia. They seem to either bask or suffer in the sunlight of attention--either way, they look as if they expect to be photographed.
They know that if you're not staring at them, you're not staring at them on purpose. They never stare at you--they're wary as women on American sidewalks, never catching anyone's eye lest they seem to demand recognition, which you may deny them out of modesty, perversity or one-upmanship. They seem to strive for celebrity and anonymity at the same time in the manner of that ultimate exemplar of American celebrity, the Lone Ranger.
This look and this sort of fame would not exist without photography, a point made confidently by a happily vulgar show at the Museum of Modern Art. Guest-curated by Marvin Heiferman and Carole Kismaric, it explodes on the curved walls like a 1960s pop-hip, sensory-overload extravaganza inspired by Marshall McLuhan. Very un-MoMA--no high-church rectilinear modernism for this show.
Here are photographs of: Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Tom Thumb; Bob Hope on a Dixie Cup lid; Eleanor Roosevelt advertising Simmons mattresses in 1928; the Ronettes; Sylvester Stallone with his fist under the chin of Donald Trump, a big-guy shot we thought had died when Toots Shor's closed; Abraham Lincoln, the first presidential candidate to advertise himself with photographs by the thousands; Gary Cooper, beautiful with an unlit cigarette (why unlit?); O.J. Simpson in a mug shot as handsome as the passport photos of F. Scott Fitzgerald and actress Marilyn Miller (they all knew how to be photographed--they were famous); the desperately beautiful Greta Garbo; Monica Lewinsky looking tired and worldly as she stands before a huge studio camera, waiting to look perky, innocent and a little sad, as usual; Queens housewife Ruth Snyder, who would be forgotten if it weren't for the Daily News photograph of her electrocution; Friedrich Nietzsche and Frederick Douglass back when people believed that they should strike public poses in front of the camera, fiercely noble instead of pseudo-intimate, languishing on a couch like Jean Harlow with a nipple pressing against her dress, or grinning over his shoulder like Clark Gable.
Here are: baseball cards, posters, publicity stills, advertisements, newspaper photographs (or "art," as newspaper people say), a Marilyn Monroe necktie, a Joe DiMaggio Wheaties box, Natalie Woods's diary in a movie magazine, Michael Jordan batteries, and film and television clips.
Here's a clip of George Bernard Shaw strolling up a curved gravel path--photography's classic, can't-miss, winding-road composition. He ignores the camera--why do we all know that you should never look into a camera if you're walking toward it, whether you're famous or not? He then defies decorum by blowing his nose several times, vigorously, thereby attaining pseudo-intimacy with the viewer, an intimacy he toys with by giving a lecture on how to pose for the camera.
"It's not always as necessary for me to look as genial as I do now," he points out. "I shall put on the terrifying look, the Mussolini look." He covers his face with his hands, then spreads them like a curtain to reveal a profound frown, while pointing out that Mussolini has to look like that all the time, as opposed to Shaw, who can and does pose any way he pleases.
Like other famous people, Shaw understands that even--or especially--in his relationship with the camera, he is different from you and me. He manipulates his face and probably the photographer, the setting and the lighting to best imprint himself, not on film but in our minds. For the famous, photography is a technology they can use to their advantage (fame, money) in the medium of our psyches.
For the rest of us, photography is a technology that threatens to destroy the ideal we have of ourselves. Hence camera shyness and the sense that the camera is stealing our spirit. We fear that the photograph will be imprinted in our minds.
Do I really look like that? Why didn't somebody tell me my hair was a mess? Why are my eyes always closed in pictures?
When your photograph does happen to come back as the template of the secret you, the dream you--the wry downturn at the corner of your smile, your hair rising from your scalp as thick as DeKalb hybrid wheat--you know deep down that it's a lie. But please, no, let it be true.
"I like to think that I look like that on my better days," you say to your wife.
"You have moments like that," she says, after a thoughtful pause. "Sometimes right after you've tied your necktie."
Yes--possibly at the moment when you're imagining being looked at, even photographed at the annual company dinner.
(An aside: A simple solution to camera shyness, used with success by the author: Decide that all pictures of you are good because they are pictures of you.)
If you were famous, you'd probably just evaluate the pose and the lighting, and make a mental note to avoid that photographer again, the one who keeps looking for an expression of existential bewilderment, in the manner of Richard Avedon in Rolling Stone.
Avedon photographed a whole magazineful of celebrities, and almost all of them have the grim, suspicious and bewildered faces of people wondering just how long it's going to be before the shutter clicks. (What a satisfying noise that is, that liquid sliding finality that means something is either over or just beginning in your relationship with either your public or your dreams of yourself.)
Avedon persuaded viewers that he'd X-rayed the public persona of Hubert Humphrey and revealed the cancerous truth of a disappointed, bitter man. You can make anybody look like this if you wait long enough to take the picture. It's a trick. All Avedon did was to catch Humphrey in the pose that Avedon liked, rather than the one Humphrey liked. It was still a pose.
And why this exhausted pose? Because in Avedon's biggest years, the mark of truth was suffering, angst, futility, plaintiveness and so on. He shows us the illusion of truth, a pernicious undertaking. Walker Evans, a truth seeker, disliked photographing the famous. He understood that fame and photography were a vulgar, volatile and shallow combination. A famous face is "a cliche," he said.
Also, the power of a picture of a celebrity comes not from the photograph or the celebrity, but from us. We believe that President Kennedy's charisma and Madonna's protean charm are inherent in them. Instead, they're inherent in us, and only the power to elicit them belongs to the Kennedys of the world.
A bald and peckish Australian named Clive James is famous in England for his books and television shows. I saw him at a news conference once. He possessed the careful demeanor of the expectation of being photographed. There was something off-kilter, though, as if he'd overdressed a bit or had walked into the wrong news conference. The problem was that he was in America.
As he has said: "I'm a complete unknown in the U.S. I'm facing terminal anonymity. It feels insanely strange and abnormal. It feels like something has gone wrong. Elton John told me he almost went crazy in China--a thousand million people who didn't know who he was. He couldn't cope with China."
Fame is not something that travels with someone like type O blood or carry-on luggage. In other words, it's something that we confer. It exists in our creation of a face and persona in our minds.
Since the camera arrived around 1840, the face has become the blazon by which we know the famous. Before then, most people didn't know what their rulers looked like except from coins. Paintings and statues were seen mostly by the elite. Engravings of paintings circulated among 18th century people, but even then the famous and the ordinary were divided in appearance not by faces but by entourages and clothing. Kings wore crowns, queens wore tiaras, dukes wore silver buckles on their shoes. In ordinary clothes, Henry VIII would have been a nobody in the English countryside. Sumptuary laws forbade the lowers to dress like the uppers.
With the camera, the face and figure became the mark of fame. Until the 1870s, the subjects of daguerreotypes and other processes posed as if they were posing for portraits. (Lincoln was one of the first to understand that photography demanded an illusion of intimacy.) With faster film and subjects' savvy, ease replaced stiffness as a virtue, personality replaced character and, among politicians, charm gained ground on issues and ideology.
Also, the photograph gave us a piece of celebrities, a relic like the finger bone of a saint. You're looking at the actual chemistry altered by the actual light that bounced off Rita Hayworth like a million pool balls. What you're looking at is the final, dropping ball in a myriad-ball combination. Click, click, click, thump, and she's rocking in the leather netting of your brain.
By the 1930s, Vanity Fair would satirize the phony candor and intimacy of celebrity photographs. The piece was called "With Knife and Fork Through Celebrity-Land," and it's on display here, with some of the great ones hoisting chow toward hungry mouths: Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt, Jack Dempsey and Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, among others.
The camera not only erased the difference between public and private life, it erased it between fame and celebrity--fame being a reputation for achievement, celebrity being a reputation for being famous. It created fame as a consumer item. Elizabeth Taylor once said, "I am my own commodity," which is to say she is celebrated not for achievement or fame but simply for being Elizabeth Taylor, a figure whose essence is startlingly obscure considering all the publicity about her divorces and illnesses. It's this commodity status that Martha Stewart and Ralph Lauren strive for--mysterious and intimate at the same time, beyond achievement or media glitter.
There are lessons to be learned here: Martin Van Buren may have been president of the United States, but he might as well have run a bottle factory in Schoharie, N.Y., for all that his photograph reveals. Most photographs reveal nothing about achievement or character anyway, despite all the rubbish written to the contrary and a belief in face-reading that makes as much sense as phrenology. You don't learn from the face; you learn from the pose. What is this guy trying to tell you with his lifted brows and jutting chin?
(It's interesting to note that the physical freaks here don't care much about the way their faces look--they know you want to look only at their deformities.)
But all photographs of the famous are photographs of deformities of one sort or another. How hard they work to subliminally distort their faces into an ideal you'll install in your sad little soul. And how little fame it takes to start the posing and distorting.
A 1950s yearbook from Lewisville (Tex.) High School shows "the most handsome boy," Wayne Pennington, and "the most beautiful girl," Janice Dunne.
Like so many campus celebrities, they have acquired--almost against their will, it seems--the look of the famous, as if they expect to be recognized and photographed. Were they changed forever? Were those the best years of their lives? When they get off hotel lobby elevators nowadays, do people say, "That looks like somebody who's somebody"?