REGRETTABLE THOUGH IT MAY BE, THE SALIENT CULTURAL artifact of our 20th-century democracy is the celebrity, a phenomenon intimately linked to the rise of photography as a mass medium. In the dark ages before the invention of the camera, fame was a question of how many pairs of lips uttered a given name. Nowadays, someone's celebrity quotient can be determined by how frequently their image is reproduced. Visibility has come to define renown.
“Nadar/Warhol: Paris/New York,” an exhibition at the Getty Museum, organized by Gordon Baldwin and Judith Keller, presents photographs of the famous by two artists who, in their respective eras, were themselves synonymous with celebrity, inviting us to speculate on how a century of photography changed our relationship to fame.
While the pairing of Nadar and Warhol initially seems like a somewhat arbitrary conceit, the two have a surprising amount in common. A fixture of the bohemian scene in mid-19th-century Paris, Nadar (born Gaspard Félix Tournachon) was a pioneering photographer who compiled a vast body of portraits of the literary and artistic lights of his day, including Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas and the actress Sarah Bernhardt, while Warhol spent much of the '70s and '80s snapping Polaroids of movie and rock stars, as well as royalty, drag queens and society figures.
Each began his career as a commercial illustrator (Nadar was a caricaturist), and each changed his name (Warhol's family name was Warhola), a gesture belying their self-conscious creations of public personas. Each was a master of self-promotion and produced numerous self-portraits, including images of themselves in costume. (Warhol, of course, was arguably always in costume with his trademark silver wig.) Both men were infatuated with the famous and photographed them against blank backgrounds, isolating them as if they were timeless icons. And both were also fascinated by celebrity itself: Warhol, as Fran Leibowitz quipped, made fame more famous, while Nadar — to whom Charles Baudelaire dedicated one of the poems in Les Fleurs du Mal — was one of the first historic figures to understand the new alliance of photography and fame.
That said, it is ultimately the glaring dissimilarities in their approaches that make this an intriguing exhibition. The portraits by Nadar, which date from the 1850s and 1860s, aim to evoke the inner life of his subjects by highlighting their facial expressions. His sitters, for the most part, are swathed in dark clothing, with their hands generally kept out of view, so that their bodies basically function as pedestals for faces made gently luminous by diffused overhead lighting. Isolated against blank backdrops, their features appear as islands of telling incident and detail.
Nadar, who knew many of his subjects, reputedly relied on his rapport with them, as well as his insight, to capture their “fundamental” character on film. Essentially, he wielded his camera as a tool of psychological inquiry, striving to reveal the individual beneath the social mask. And his subjects, whether amused, sympathetic or scowling with distrust, typically appear to be regarding us from reservoirs of private thought and feeling, and, in more than one case, with ambivalent emotions about the act of being scrutinized by a mechanical eye.
By today's standards, most of these portraits also evince an air of formality — not yet used to posing for the camera, Nadar's sitters compose their features into well-organized and often somewhat solemn expressions. They also radiate a gravitas and self-possession rarely seen in contemporary celebrity portraits. The novelist George Sand, portrayed at age 60 with her wavy graying hair parted like a curtain over her face, conveys a worldly intelligence and weary tolerance with little more expression than a slightly arched eyebrow and an unblinkered gaze. Even Alexandre Dumas, who resembles a well-fed and jowly Harpo Marx, projects a venerable psychological solidity, a sense of a layered psychic life.
The famous, these portraits aim to convince us, are famous because of the weight and depth of their inner being; they are special because they possess special characteristics that photography can render visible. By contrast — and it's hard to imagine a greater disparity of approach — Warhol depicts his celebrity sitters as little more than packaged products or photogenic ciphers. His seemingly casual portraits are consistently, and disconcertingly, devoid of psychological tics, veering at times into the deadpan territory of mug shots and ID photos. Ultimately, however, they present the subject's face as an iconic mask, graphically striking and alluringly inaccessible.
In several photos at the Getty, some of which were preliminary studies for silk-screen portraits, Warhol achieved this effect by covering his subjects with white skin makeup, concealing expressive lines and wrinkles, and effectively reducing the face to a starkly stylized composition of mouth, eyes and carefully coifed hair. The most striking of these images is a 1977 Polaroid of Liza Minnelli posing in a red hood that circumscribes a masklike visage dominated by heavily mascaraed eyelashes, painted red lips, and black bangs descending over big, doelike eyes. Revealing absolutely nothing but surface, the portrait conjures the impersonal star power of a Byzantine Madonna.
For a 1986 self-portrait, Warhol portrays his head floating against a black background, his platinum fright wig splashing about his pale face like a dysfunctional halo. Staring directly into the lens with his own cameralike gaze, his eyes are a dead zone betraying no trace of an interior life. It's an uncanny look he managed to produce in many of his celebrity portraits, including Polaroids of a zoned-out and numb Mick Jagger, a steely-eyed Debbie Harry and a young, blank-faced Arnold Schwarzenegger. If Nadar's subjects appear arrayed in the wardrobe of their conspicuous “character,” Warhol's seem to be clothed only in their own celebrity, and they appear strangely naked, as only someone wearing a mask can look.
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