IN A CULTURE WHERE IMAGE IS EVERYTHING, THESE photos depict people who seem to be nothing but. Yet while Warhol was criticized in the art world for indiscriminately embracing the cult of celebrity, his portraits strike a subversive note. Unlike the work of Annie Leibovitz or Herb Ritts, whose glamorous photos are high-toned ads for celebrity life, Warhol's mechanical eye shows us what is left when the cloying effects of that kind of salesmanship wear off -- the underlying coolness and vacuity, the flat and banal surface of celebrity. In other words, his portraits evoke the essential entropy of image culture -- the slow falling apart of all values that don't lend themselves to photographic reproduction.
Warhol may also have intuitively appreciated celebrity portraiture as part of a larger culture of photographic surveillance -- at least one could deduce this from his pronouncement that his favorite photographer was paparazzo and Jackie-stalker Ron Galella (who appears in the Getty show in an appropriately Weegee-like black-and-white snapshot). Curiously, Nadar played a key early role in developing this culture. As a balloonist, he took the world's first aerial photographs, in 1858, inaugurating the practice of high-altitude surveillance -- precursor to today's satellite spy cameras. Indeed, the French government once offered Nadar 50,000 francs to photograph troop movements during its war with Italy in 1859, and though he refused that assignment, he did take aerial pictures of troop movements during the 1870 Franco-Prussian War -- by which time photographic surveillance had already developed into an industry.
In the century separating Nadar and Warhol, photographic surveillance of celebrities has profoundly altered our conception of fame. Not only did photography make the famous and notorious more widely visible, but it also made possible new kinds of celebrities, including people who are famous simply because they look good in photographs, and others who are famous simply for taking their pictures. Social theorists have claimed that photography democratized fame by giving us intimate access to images of the famous, but Warhol's machinelike portraits remind us that this most populist of media lends itself to the production of secular idols whom -- in an exercise that is democracy's flip side -- we continue to worship with unthinking devotion.
NADAR/WARHOL: Paris/New York At the J. Paul Getty Museum
1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood
Through October 10