From furtive nude photos of Jackie Kennedy Onassis to the latest shot of Paris Hilton falling out of her dress, photographers have been chasing down stars at inopportune moments for over half a century. And our collective obsession with celebrity only feeds this madness. A compelling new exhibition in Metz scrutinizes, visually and conceptually, the ways in which Western society manufactures and devours paparazzi-produced pop culture. Paparazzi! Photographers, Stars and Artists opened Thursday at the Centre Pompidou-Metz contemporary art museum, and will remain on display through June 9. (The venue alone is worth seeing, with its astonishing undulating roof designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban.)
For the show, curator Clément Chéroux, head of the photography department at the Centre Pompidou in Paris (and who is also responsible for the current Henri Cartier-Bresson retrospective), examined not only the ties between the photographer and the photographed over the past half-century, but also framed that relationship in relation to the art world. The work was gathered over three years, and Chéroux, who partnered with Quentin Bajac, chief curator of photography at the MoMA, clarifies that it’s an impartial exhibition—there are no “sides.” Divided into three parts—photographers, stars, and artists—the show provides a dense but clear-eyed look at this inexorable, seething facet of pop culture.
The exhibition begins with an installation by Malachi Farrell that attempts to provide a sense of the pressure celebrities face. The viewer walks down a small stretch of red carpet with rotating microphones, flashing cameras, and automated voices that call out insistently, though it somehow feels more makeshift than abrasive. This introductory piece leads into a room displaying early photographs of paparazzi on the prowl, before they were known as such, with the oldest image dating as far back as 1914. Nearby are display cases of clandestine cameras that were used to snap covert images. There are lenses discretely built in watches, ties, cigarettes, lighters, and other forms of disguise.
Further on, a room dedicated to La Dolce Vita explains that Fellini not only coined the term “paparazzi” in 1960—it’s a contraction of "pappataci" (mosquitoes) and "ragazzi" (ruffians)—but he also pulled ideas directly from press headlines to fuel his rambling, hedonistic film. Paparazzo was, in fact, the name of a photographer in his film. Fellini had actual press photographers on set to leak tidbits to keep the sensationalism around the film alive. Four clips from La Dolce Vita are screened, notably the famous camera mob greeting Anita Ekberg as she sashays down from her Alitalia flight blowing kisses. In another clip, a handful of photographers run after Marcello’s car, calling out after him: “Tell me where you are going!!”
The tone of the exhibition changes when viewers reach a heptagonal room that branches off into seven famous female lairs: Brigitte Bardot, Paris Hilton, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Stéphanie de Monaco, Britney Spears, Diana Spencer, and Elizabeth Taylor. It’s a confrontational section in which the gendered nature of paparazzi photography is made hideously apparent. The paparazzi photographer is, almost without exception, male. Paparazzi targets, on the other hand, are almost always women. (There are works by women in the exhibition, but they are usually commenting on the nature of depictions of women, not actually paparazzi themselves. One example is American photographer Jessica Dimmock’s rather meta project in which she photographed paparazzi at work as they waited for and tracked their subjects.)
These rooms are an uncomfortable—but crucial—look at the way in which paparazzi photography endemically propagates problematic images of women and female sexuality. There’s the Life magazine cover featuring Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s paparazzi legal woes, deemed a “silly courtroom battle,” against “the Jackie-watcher” (paparazzo Ron Gallelo, who lost his case and legally had to stop photographing her). More disturbing are the 1972 images by Settimio Garritano of a naked 43-year-old Jackie, who was photographed without her knowledge on her private island. The images were bought for $50,000 and published by the Italian version of Playboy, Playmen. Looking at the stark image, the viewer feels violated just by proxy: the privacy of Jackie’s island and the privacy of her body are completely savaged thanks to the impropriety of the lens.
Brigitte Bardot had to build fences around her property because of the unrepentant invasion of the photographers swarming her on her own turf. The last image of Princess Diana, nothing but a blurred blonde bob ducking away, was shot by Jacques Langevin on August 31, 1997 moments before her fatal car crash. As the writing on one of the exhibition’s walls explains, “the same paparazzi who harass [these women] have helped to erect a temple for our hyper-mediatized society to worship at.” This stands even for the vulgar parade of Sébastien Valiela-shot Paris Hilton images (bleached hair, blinged-out neckline, pink terrycloth pants), neighboring the infamous Britney commando-car photos, which seem universes away from the almost elegant black-and-white paparazzi images taken only a few decades prior.
The exhibition goes on to dissect the recognizable aesthetic of paparazzi photos. The use of long lenses for distance shots and a flash for close-ups both have flattening effects on the resulting images. A variety of celebrity reactions are examined: the playful (Kate Moss sticking out her tongue; Jack Nicholson flashing his butt; Mick Jagger flipping off the camera while Jerry Hall laughs next to him), the angry (“FUCK OFF” written in the sand in front of Sean Penn and Madonna’s beach-side property; Daniel Angeli’s 1975 image of agitated Marlene Dietrich standing menacingly over a crouching photographer), and the now-clichéd, hand-in-front-of-the-face pose that celebrities use to shield themselves from media aggression. Common settings are also studied: cars are shown as the ultimate trap from which a celebrity can't escape. Even the celebrity deathbed becomes a habitual scene.
Pascal Rostain, who has been a paparazzi photographer for over 30 years, took the game to a new level when he began stealing celebrities’ garbage bags and then photographing the contents like an anthropologist. He rose through the ranks via what he deems the “école de la rue,” or “by learning on the street”—but he says the paparazzi métier is “dead” today, with the rise of selfies and digital photography eliminating the excitement of discovering the unknowns. His project, Autopsie, made with his long-time photographic cohort, Bruno Mouron, has been published in Paris Match, Vanity Fair, and The Sunday Times. In the exhibition, images of rubbish from Mel Gibson, Madonna, and Jeff Koons are on view, but Mouron and Rostain have also rifled through the remainders of Sharon Stone, Ronald Reagan, Serge Gainsbourg, and plenty of others. (“Your garbage is you,” Rostain said in an interview.) It’s stunning to realize how powerful celebrity is: in an image simply titled “Madonna,” an array of Cocoa Pebbles boxes and crushed Pepsi cans still instantly exude a mythology.
The nature of the paparazzi shot is, despite being in a museum, never contextualized as “art,” although the exhibition addresses forms of appropriation of these images within art. Photographers such as Richard Avedon and William Klein used pap-style shots in fashion photography spreads as far back as the 1960s. In Alison Jackson’s black-and-white images, the contemporary British photographer snaps celebrity look-alikes doing activities that their actual counterparts might ostensibly do (Diana and Marilyn go shopping, the Queen reads a magazine on the loo, George Bush labors over a Rubik’s cube), and thus blurs the lines of credulity.
Chéroux concludes the exhibition with a work by American artist Jonathan Horowitz. His piece, “The Daily Mirror,” is based on the U.K. tabloid that published images of Kate Moss snorting cocaine. Horowitz silk-screened the newspaper layout and Kate Moss headline onto an actual mirror, and, deleting the Kate Moss image, trenchantly makes the spectator address, head-on, his or her gluttony for sensationalism.