How celebrity photography has become the perfect commentary on modern life
It’s not every day that a very pregnant Melania Trump descends from a private jet in a metallic gold string bikini and body paint to match. Posing for a photo, she forgoes the classic maternity posture of a gently-rested palm on her baby bump in favour of a hand-on-hip ode to Victoria’s Secret models everywhere. To her left, Donald Trump prepares to speed off in a chrome Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren. He doesn’t bother to look back at his expectant, nearly naked wife.
This portrait, taken by Annie Leibovitz in 2006 – long before Donald Trump became President Trump – could be viewed as the height of superficiality. An obscenely wealthy reality television star poses alongside his model wife with some of his favourite status symbols.
Alternatively, it tells you more about the world’s most talked-about man and his spouse than a thousand words could. The couple seems estranged, facing opposite directions without any acknowledgement that the other appears in the portrait. The scene is meticulously staged to scream power, wealth and masculinity. There’s a conspicuous lack of humanity and emotion. Is Melania a golden goddess or another trophy for Donald to collect?
The same can be said for another Leibovitz portrait that appears in her recent tome, Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005-2016. In it, a topless 15-year-old Miley Cyrus clutches a white bedsheet to her chest. The image, taken for Vanity Fair, was highly controversial when it was first published in 2008 – a time when Cyrus was still seen as a wholesome child star who played Disney’s beloved Hannah Montana. The portrait not only speaks to Cyrus’s personal identity and evolution, but forces us to examine how we view and treat child stars and adolescents in general. It explores society’s anxiety regarding coming of age and sexuality. It raises the issue of exploitation in the entertainment industry.
But as indicative and introspective as they can be of a changing culture, celebrity portraits aren’t generally fawned over by art students or analyzed by critics. Their natural homes aren’t prestigious art fairs or museums, but rather glossy magazines and coffee table books. They are a product of pop culture – or, as some would derisively say, “low culture.” Nevertheless, Leibovitz is a master in extracting power and meaning from the superficial, and has been greatly recognized for it. Her decades-long list of iconic subjects includes Demi Moore, Caitlyn Jenner, Serena Williams, John Lennon and Whoopi Goldberg. Her legitimacy challenges the notion that a portrait of a famous face, whether it be an actor or an athlete, is only skin deep.
Before Leibovitz, Andy Warhol struggled with being perceived as shallow, unintelligent and commercialized. In fact, he was almost murdered by a radical feminist maddened that he treated women as sex objects and commodities. In actuality, his Polaroid and pop art portraits of celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Mick Jagger, Elizabeth Taylor, Debbie Harry and Yves Saint Laurent sought to elevate mass culture to the level of fine art. His work isn’t simply voyeuristic or celebrity-obsessed, it explores fame in America – its durability, its mythologies, its flaws and its power. His series of ever-changing self-portraits, predecessors to the Instagram selfie, examine self-image, ambition, objectification, mortality and vulnerability. As Warhol himself once knowingly said, “I am deeply superficial.”
While most people agree, decades later, that Warhol was a legitimate and insightful artist, we still struggle to embrace portraiture as an art form. Take, for example, Kim Kardashian West’s book, Selfish, in which the reality star compiles her favourite selfies over the years. To many, the 448-page opus is the epitome of vapidity and vanity. To others, it’s a feminist masterpiece, a poignant cultural commentary or an exploration of beauty standards and self-determination.
Portraiture first became important as a way of immortalizing nobility and the extremely wealthy, with evidence of the art form dating as far back as 26,000 years ago. The portrait flourished in Ancient Greece, where realism was emphasized as a trait above all others. Perhaps the world’s most famous painting is a portrait: the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci’s early 16th-century portrait of Lisa del Giocondo has been on permanent display at the Louvre Museum in Paris since 1797.
As painting materials became more affordable throughout the 19th century and Kodak began to manufacture inexpensive cameras in 1888, portraiture seemed to lose its allure. It essentially disappeared from the art scene from the turn of the 20th century until the 1960s, when the likes of Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein reinvigorated the genre.
Each time portraiture achieves an air of credibility and respectability, however, the increase in its accessibility limits its value. While high culture once snubbed Warhol’s attempt to democratize the art world by depicting everyday objects and pop idols, they eventually warmed up to his work, realizing portraiture still required access to an elusive and highly talented artist. The same can be said for Leibovitz’s portraits; with their reputability not only residing in the exclusivity of her subjects, but also in the calibre of photography she produces. Examining a single shot reveals no shortage of talent and technical expertise.
However, increasingly, technical knowledge is no longer a barrier to great portraits. Leibovitz herself had a credibility self-crisis of sorts when she began using digital cameras in 2006. In her book, she writes, “It is photography and no less ‘real’ than black and white photography. I was a little embarrassed by it at first, but I have come to embrace it.” Even though digital photography offers huge technological advances to photographers, its accessibility leads some to turn their noses up at it.
The next frontier and affront to technical expertise is the cell phone, which faces the same sort of disparagement digital cameras once did. While some professional photographers stubbornly insist no phone could ever rival their work, others, such as Canadian celebrity and society photographer Ryan Emberley, find new and creative ways to maintain scarcity. He specializes in artistic candids that can’t be easily replicated. A candid selfie is inherently absurd, better suited to a social media gallery like Instagram than, say, the Museum of Modern Art, despite how contemporary a style it may be. And it takes skill to capture spontaneous shots that don’t result in deranged facial expressions or someone stuffing their face in the background.
While basic camera phones have been around for a while, it’s only recently that they have been able to truly compete with portraits taken by digital cameras. The coveted and pricey iPhone X’s marketing revolves almost entirely around its selfie capabilities. Its front-facing true-depth camera enables Portrait mode for selfies with five lighting options that mimic the effects of studio lights. It also allows for one mode of expression no other camera can: Animojis.
Mario Testino’s 1997 portrait of Princess Diana; Testino’s 2010 portrait of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Jamie Long/Testino/Vanity Fair; Testino/Art Partner/Kensington Palace via AP
Anyone with an iPhone X can now map their expressions and voice onto a 3D unicorn, cat or pile of poop. The effect is the natural evolution of Snapchat filters. While Animojis may seem silly and inconsequential now, so did emojis before they went from fad to a studied form of communication. Combining the popularity of selfies with emojis may just birth a new style of portraiture, especially as virtual reality, artificial reality and holograms approach cultural ubiquity.
To the despair of elitists, Animojis and other avatars are even more accessible than regular selfies: you don’t have to dress up and it doesn’t matter where you are: lighting is inconsequential. Animojis simultaneously satisfy both our exhibitionist tendencies and desire for privacy. They will certainly evolve over the coming years to allow ever-more detailed and customizable self-expression.
Of course, not every selfie or Animoji is a work of art. Similarly, not every scribble or splash of paint is worthy of critical review. However, to overlook portraiture – celebrity, self or otherwise – when considering valid and culturally important art is a mistake. In a democratized Western world, it’s contradictory and perilous to ascribe substance only to the elite and inaccessible.
It’s no coincidence countless people are drawn to celebrity portraits and selfie culture. We recognize ideas, issues and themes relevant to our own lives in these representations. We use them to communicate and express ourselves regardless of wealth or intellect. For proponents of high culture to dismiss them as irrelevant is, at best, outdated, and, at worst, an attempt to stifle free expression and popular ideas that may threaten the establishment.When things are branded as guilty pleasures, narcissistic and vacuous, we’re less likely to discuss, participate and publicly consider them. Shame is historically one of the most effective ways of controlling people. As a result, few people talk seriously about how Leibovitz’s portrait of Rihanna makes them feel and many hesitate to share yet another selfie for fear of how others will react.
Although, slowly, that’s all changing.
As populism becomes a greater force across the world, it’s increasingly important to understand, analyze and discuss issues and ideas of the masses – not just those that trickle down artistic endeavours from the few. These days, high culture seems more out of touch than ever, frivolous and extraneous. Low culture moves the needle. Portraits, in their unique ability to connect with and express the feelings of everyday people, are the future – whatever form they may take.