Photo by Gary Boas

FOR THE TRULY DIE-HARD FANS, A glossy 8-by-10 of their chosen icon is never enough. Nothing less than a physical confrontation will do, a sighting in the flesh. And this momentous event must be documented with tangible evidence, such as an autograph or, above all, a personal snapshot, that most vivid memento of a brush with the famous.

Over the course of four decades, Gary Lee Boas, a self-taught photographer and magnificently obsessed fan, has compiled an archive of more than 50,000 such mementos, chronicling his close encounters with a far-flung galaxy of “stars,” ranging from Greta Garbo and Richard Nixon to Marilyn Chambers, John Kennedy Jr. and Muhammad Ali. Starstruck: Photographs From a Fan, which will be published February 24 by L.A.'s Dilettante Press, presents some 500 of these haphazardly composed snapshots, reproduced in all the abject glory of their faded hues. Taken from 1966 to 1980, they conjure a Boogie Nights­style nostalgia with their '70s palette of beiges, browns and oranges. But they also constitute a fascinating portrait of an era seen through its celebrities, while scattering hints of the deeper undercurrents of desire that fuel our national obsession with fame.

It's probably no coincidence that Starstruck stops at 1980, the year Mark David Chapman assassinated John Lennon and gave fandom a bad name. Boas' photos, by contrast, document what seems like a more innocent time, when stars, undaunted by the specter of homicidal stalkers, were relatively accessible (at least by today's multiple-bodyguard standards). And Boas himself appears to have been the paparazzo equivalent of an idiot savant, an outsider and unpaid amateur whose monumental undertaking was motivated purely by his personal passion.

It would be a mistake, though, to assume that the artlessness of his pictures, or the fact that they were not officially sanctioned, is a guarantee of authenticity — that because they capture the famous in awkward poses and without the flattering illumination of the studio, these snapshots are somehow more “real” or revealing than the slick and seamlessly packaged portraits we find in glossy magazines. Surprisingly, Boas' out-of-focus images are just as surreal in their own way as any retouched head shot.

For one thing, the “homemade” appearance of these photographs seems to exaggerate our already-disorienting familiarity with the famous. Skimming through Starstruck ends up feeling a bit like perusing a high school scrapbook and remembering just how goofy old friends used to look (check out that bushy Afro on Michael Jackson). In other words, these pictures don't deflate our celebrity fantasies so much as they slyly reinforce our illusory intimacy, our uncanny sense that we know people whom we've never met.

But the weirdest photos in Starstruck are those in which Boas poses beside an Ingrid Bergman or a Julie Christie. You might think these double portraits would somehow bring the star down to earth, anchored by the humble gravity of the lowly fan. Instead, they seemingly replay Surrealism's pairing of clashing and incompatible realities: Despite their spatial proximity, the two figures clearly occupy separate universes, divided by an unbridgeable gulf of grooming, confidence and photogenic appeal. And strangely enough, it is the beaming celebrity, rather than the ordinary-looking fellow in street clothes, who seems to belong to our everyday world.

FOR ALL HIS DESIRE TO GET CLOSE TO such people — and each of his snapshots testifies to endless hours spent waiting outside backstage doors and in hotel lobbies — Boas doesn't seem remotely concerned with portraying them as individuals. With only a handful of exceptions, he is drawn not to specific people whom he admires, but to fame itself, and anyone even briefly exposed to the virus of media attention — such as transsexual tennis player Dr. Renee Richards — is fodder for his camera. It's not who they are that matters, but what they are.

Like pornography, Boas' impersonal images ultimately focus on the act rather than the person — in this case, the act of being famous. Instead of penetrating beneath the star's social mask, then, or insinuating an aura of psychological insight, these pictures do something far more concrete: They nakedly lay out the choreographed gestures with which the famous greet their adoring and intrusive public.

As in the animal world, the behavioral lexicon ranges from camouflage (dark sunglasses) to intimidation (icy glares), from flashes of dazzling glamour to a blank-faced surrender. But even when the stars show signs of distress — a fugitive Katharine Hepburn covers her face with her hands in a couple of classic shots — their poses suggest something learned in acting school, especially as we see, in photo after photo, other stars exhibiting almost identical mannerisms.

On another level, Boas' archive functions as an exercise in visual sociology. Bouncing around from Jim Nabors to Henry Kissinger to Yoko Ono, it maps the peculiar parameters of celebrity and captures its timely mutations, including the ambisexual heyday of Studio 54, when Boas' camera alights on Warhol, Candy Darling, Sylvia Miles, Divine and Peter Berlin.

All of which gives these pictures a vaguely conceptual edge. They may not be “art,” but they do some of the things we expect art to do, and in the gallery world these days that's evidently close enough: This week, Jeffrey Deitch, a fashionable Soho dealer, is opening a show of Boas' photographs. Thanks to the recent revival of a slackeresque aesthetic in both art and fashion photography, these blurry snapshots should look right at home on the gallery walls.

ART, OF COURSE, WAS THE FURTHEST thing from Boas' mind. For him the camera was simply an excuse for approaching the famous, and (hopefully) forging some sense of connection. In Starstruck, he describes how he “connected” with Julie Christie at a 1972 Democratic rally after she asked him what his astrological sign was, and how he and Nixon, whom he calls a “lost soul,” also “connected.” Just when you think it was all in his head, Boas goes on to recount how he was eventually invited to Nixon's funeral, to sit with an audience, as he ecstatically notes, that included five living U.S. presidents and their wives, and four secretaries of state. “To sit at that funeral as a guest was just a situation that was unbelievable to me, like frozen time,” he writes.

He could be describing his own photographs. For all their aesthetic banality, they seem curiously beyond belief. But then every fan's devotional enterprise is based on a fantastical premise: the otherworldliness of the star, and our corollary desire to touch the untouchable. The fan only wants to make contact with a dream — the dream of fame — which, precisely because it is a fantasy, is far more powerful than flesh-and-blood attractions. And in the end, the sole connection revealed in Boas' pictures is that between the famous and their closest confidant and accomplice: the lens of an admiring camera.

STARSTRUCK: PHOTOGRAPHS FROM A FAN | By GARY LEE BOAS Dilettante Press | 300 pages | $28

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